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Background

Recently, I have been having some issues with a product. To sort this out, I sent an email from my company account (I live and work in an English-speaking country) to the manufacturer's customer support (the manufacturers is also based in an English-speaking country, as far as I am aware) explaining what the problem is.

Issue

To my surprise, the reply was in a different language than my original email in English: the other person saw my name, assumed what my native language would be and replied to my email in Italian (Funnily enough, they even have a "preferred language" field in their contact form, and I selected English there, too).

Now, the assumption was correct, I am Italian and Italian is of course my native language, but I think this is wrong on several levels. First of all, I might not be a speaker of that language, for all they know, I might be a person from any country who just happens to have an Italian name. Second, and probably most importantly, I might have to share that information to my colleagues who have the same issue, and they definitely don't speak Italian.

Am I wrong in thinking this is rather unprofessional and even impolite? Should I make it clear to them?

EDIT: as pointed out in the comment section, by "making it clear to them" I do not mean "calling them out on their unprofessionality", I meant something more in the form of a constructive criticism, so that they won't do it to other people. I know it is not my place to do so, and the focus of this question is more "is it unprofessional?", but I'd like to have different views on this.

EDIT 2: I am asking this mainly out of curiosity, I obviously do not mean to escalate things for such a minor non-issue. Also the "unprofessional" and "impolite" should be regarded as "minor" and "funny", not as something that would make me say "I would never work with them"

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    "the other person saw my name, assumed what my native language would be" - are you sure about that, or could it be an honest mistake from a customer support person that works in multiple languages? – Laconic Droid Oct 12 at 14:31
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    @LaconicDroid you mean that they somehow "forgot" the original email was in English? I hadn't thought about that, but it seems to me like a bit of a stretch? – Enzo Oct 12 at 14:33
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    I'm still not clear what exactly do you want to gain from mentioning it. Are you that bored that you want to provide honest feedback to people whether they ask for it or not, in order to improve their services? – Tymoteusz Paul Oct 12 at 14:37
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    @TymoteuszPaul certainly not bored. In any case, that was not really the focus of the question, but I don't plan to gain anything. This was more of a curiosity – Enzo Oct 12 at 14:40
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    @TymoteuszPaul When you run into a bug and work around it, do you report it to the vendor anyway, to prevent the same problem from happening to other people? – DaveG Oct 12 at 18:57
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Am I wrong in thinking this is rather unprofessional and even impolite?

I don't think it's either unprofessional or impolite. I had people speak polish to me out of nowhere, even though our entire conversation was handled in English. I never made much of it and simply replied back in English mentioning that while I speak polish, I want to preserve the business record in English. And most of those people then switched back and explained that they thought that may be doing a nice thing by including a common tongue, or that they wanted to gain a bit of sympathy/comradery, whatever.

Either way, not something I would ever be bothered about, whether I speak the language or not - just politely nudge them back into the languge you want to have the conversation in.

Should I make it clear to them?

Who is the "them"? If you mean past the conversation chain you certainly could fill a complaint, or "feedback" (which will amount to the same thing - you think that their employee could've behaved better than they did) but that will, as far as I can tell, gain you nothing, and may hurt your business relations. Seems like there is very little gain, so why bother?

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  • Very good point. It is indeed not worth mentioning it, and I certainly do not mean to escalate the situation, I should probably make it clearer that I'm only asking out of curiosity – Enzo Oct 12 at 14:44
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    I kinda disagree with regard to professionalism. If you provide a "preferred language" field to your customers, and your customer specifies language X, and you are perfectly capable of providing said language X, it seems unprofessional to me to then disregard that explicit preference, and instead reply in language Y. The way I see it, professionalism includes giving customers the benefit of the doubt that when they request foo, they actually want foo. – Will Oct 13 at 1:14
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    @Will Indeed. As someone who speaks or is learning to speak multiple languages, I'm always on the lookout for practice. But subjecting people to my need for practice when they've indicated they prefer English is rude. In this answer's example, the case is quite different. There's no preferred language field for an in-person conversation and you can ask them to switch immediately, as opposed to committing to translating if you want anyone else in the loop. – Luke Sawczak Oct 13 at 2:58
  • @Will Sounds like you should provide your own answer then, as so far we don't have one that says it's not professional to vote on. – Tymoteusz Paul Oct 13 at 7:23
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Honestly, this would seem to be making a fuss for the sake of it. Something is professional if it gets the job done, and unprofessional if it does not. Customer support were able to assist you, so move on.

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  • Just to clarify, I do not intend to make a fuss. It was mere curiosity to understand what is acceptable in a similar scenario. – Enzo Oct 12 at 14:43
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    "Should I make it clear to them?" That would definitely be making a fuss. – Philip Kendall Oct 12 at 14:44
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    @PhilipKendall : Not necessarily. Saying "I specified one language and I'm offended you used a different one!" is definitively making a fuss, but that's not the only way of making it clear to them. One could write politely, thank them for the answer, and kindly ask that next time they reply in English because the answer will be shared with English-speaking colleagues. – Val Oct 13 at 5:26
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    @PhilipKendall : What? I didn't claim that! On the contrary, you mentioned that it looked like the OP was making a fuss, and this is why I described what "making a fuss" would look like. – Val Oct 13 at 8:05
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    "Something is professional if it gets the job done" That's absurd. Dangerous actions often "get the job done", but they're far from professional. – TheRubberDuck Oct 13 at 14:13
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I wouldn't say it's unprofessional, but it might be problematic. I happen to have an Italian colleague, and he might ask some customer support some question, and then share the reply with multiple people who are interested in the answer. If the answer is in Italian, there is the extra step for him of translating the answer into English, because that's the only language here that everyone speaks. So quite inconvenient.

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    I would be reluctant to translate the email into English; if there is a miscommunication, I don't want "They translated it wrong" to be on the table as a possible excuse. – Acccumulation Oct 15 at 2:05
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On the one hand, replying in your native language likely rendered your communication more smooth. On the other hand, the assumption that you are a native Italian speaker might have been wrong, and makes it impossible for you to relay messages to a colleague. So whether the behavior was unprofessional or not is partly a matter of opinion.

Instead, let me propose what would be professional: Ask.

By the way, I noted that your name seems to be Italian. Would it be convenient for you to continue our conversation in Italian?

I would add this to the English message I am about to send, so as to not interrupt the conversation.

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Yes, definitely.

There is a large Italian-American population in America who might maintain Italian names but who are otherwise fully assimilated into White American culture, as a result of certain policies that were implemented in order to fragment Italian-American communities.

As a result, there would have been a significant risk that you wouldn’t have been able to speak Italian and you would have been forced to ask them to repeat themselves in English.

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    Further, it's viewed by some as racist. Recently an interviewer was called out for using the Chinese 'Ni hao?" greeting with a woman with Asian features. – mcalex Oct 13 at 5:05
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    @mcalex Everything is considered racist by someone in America. The idea that greeting someone with what you think is their native language is racist is absolutely ridiculous to anyone who isn't going around looking for lawsuits. I have a Serbian name and surname but as I was raised in Italy, I only speak Italian and English. If someone greets me in Serbian I just greet them back (I know a couple words) and then tell them I don't speak the language, maybe make some small talk about the fact my mom's Italian and I was born here, then move on. There is absolutely nothing offensive about it. – Demonblack Oct 13 at 9:05
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    @Demonblack. Just because you are not offended doesn't mean others wont be. If you can avoid offence with a small step its probably best, especially in a professional setting. – DavidB Oct 13 at 9:36
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    @DavidB: Just because someone was offended does not mean that the exchange was offensive. I've been greeted regularly in Hebrew, English, Russian, and even Arabic sometimes, with no offense taken. Everybody thinks that I belong to some "group". Should I get upset when some American tells me Merry Christmas in late December, because he assumed my religion? – dotancohen Oct 13 at 11:41
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    @dotancohen I wouldn't be offended either. Point is in a professional setting you need to be more careful of causing offence (real or perceived). And as it can be both real or perceived depending on who you ask it's better to be safe. – DavidB Oct 13 at 15:28
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As an Italian myself, now working abroad, I do understand your concerns.

In your position, I would reply in English, politely saying that you prefer the exchange to take place in that language for the benefit of non-Italian interested parties, and summarize the previous email.

As for the professionality or politeness, I do not consider it unpolite (as long as there were no other people in CCs or involved in the conversation in general), and it might look unprofessional, but considering the Italian culture and population, one possible explanation is that they might be struggling with the language and feel more comfortable in their own, so they jumped on the occasion to make the discussion easier and less prone to misunderstandings.

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This question is probably opinion based, or at least highly context sensitive, but I will attempt an answer.

At the end of the day, the issue of whether or not it is "professional" (according to whatever objective standard might exist) for them to respond in Italian is tangential to the question of how you should address this situation, which I assume is what you really want to know.

The professional response in a situation like this is to politely ask the manufacturer to answer you in English. Avoid making assumptions about their reason for writing you in Italian; it is not your place to act as their supervisor or educate them on professional etiquette.

I would write simply,

Hello ____,

Could you please translate your message into English for me?

Thank you,

Enzo

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  • Actually it was indeed more about professionalism than about my reaction to it, although I can see how that can be opinion-based and context-dependent – Enzo Oct 13 at 9:25
  • In that case, you may want to clarify why it is that you are asking this question. It's either unprofessional or it isn't; how does knowing this information improve your situation? – Max Oct 13 at 9:59
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    It does not improve anything. It's pure curiosity, as specified in the question. Something that happened that I found interesting enough to ask people about it. I guess my situation improves in the sense that my curiosity has been satisfied? – Enzo Oct 13 at 10:04
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Yes, it is unprofessional.

I'm really astonished that nobody else is saying that, given the number of times in my career that I've been called out for lack of professionalism for far less...

It's unprofessional on two grounds. The more important, because they have asked your language of preference. The professional thing to do then is respect that choice. Secondly, it's always professional to respond in the language in which you're addressed, if you can. However, you get major bonus points if you say "Your name looks Italian, would you be more comfortable in that language?"

I don't consider this a minor issue, and would always provide feedback. Unfortunately for the person who did this, there's rarely a way I can provide private feedback, so it's likely to be on the record.

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  • ...because they have asked your language of preference... - Exactly. I can think of a couple of ways this could have happened by accident but if it was intentional then of course it's unprofessional to purposefully give a customer the wrong thing. I wonder if the responses would be different if instead of the wrong language being in an email it was on a cake or some t-shirts. – BSMP Oct 13 at 18:34
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Ok, so you want to know if someone else behaved unprofessionally. No. They took a risk and it sorta paid off, you understood them, but you don’t want to communicate in that language. No harm, no foul.

It would be unprofessional to reply in a language they knew you did not understand or want to use (so if they persist in not using English that would be unprofessional). But to simply attempt to communicate in a language they suspect (on whatever grounds) that you know, is not unprofessional.

I would suggest that you reply to the email that was written in Italian, using English, saying “Can you please restate this in English?” And nothing more.

I would not recommend giving constructive criticism either to the individual or the organization. Think of it as the equivalent of using the wrong name, it doesn’t matter whether the person using the wrong name is using a variation or the name of a different name entirely, Lorenzo, Vincenzo, Innocenzo, or Susan it’s a minor mistake and you deal with it by correcting it. As long as you do correct them, that is enough criticism for such a minor infraction, as long as they do better next time.

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  • "sorta paid off"? They explicitly ignored a request to communicate in English. – Auspex Oct 14 at 11:15
  • @Auspex : it was a checkbox on a form, possibly not even forwarded to the person replying. And the OP understood it, so it wasn’t a complete miss. – jmoreno Oct 14 at 12:35
  • How does that make it less unprofessional? If we accept your premise, the individual is not entirely to blame (he still should have responded in the language in which he was contacted) but then both the individual and the corporation are being unprofessional. – Auspex Oct 14 at 20:58
  • @Auspex: Give the individual the benefit of the doubt and assume good intentions. This is the first communication between the email writer and the OP, and it was bit of a stumble, but there’s no reason to escalate it to unprofessional or rude. – jmoreno Oct 14 at 22:41
  • I'm certain he had good intentions. That doesn't make it any less unprofessional. And it's very rude. – Auspex Oct 15 at 14:19

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