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I recently joined a company where the majority of my coworkers are from a neighboring country in a full remote position.

I learned their language a long time ago just by watching TV, since in my country we had only propaganda, but I don't have it in my CV since I can only speak, not write it and I have no formal training.

My teammates like to have a private zoom meeting before our daily meeting where they speak in their native tongue. I joined in by mistake a while back and got to hear a gross joke about my possible sexual orientation and nationality and other gossip. I kept joining early, mostly because the tool we are using is flaky and sometimes it takes some time get in, and the Scrum master is vocal about being late and I usually catch 1-2 minutes of their conversation.

It's usually gossip, but sometimes I catch technical discussions (which I can't really follow due to my limited vocabulary).

Should I let them know I can understand them, and risk embarrassing them or worse, and ask that technical discussions are kept in English?

Or should I trust that they will communicate relevant technical decisions?

Note: I realize that informing them first time would have been best, but it would have been very awkward

My goal is to make sure that the technical discussions are kept in English, so I can easily follow. I've asked for that and they told me that everything is in English. If I insist, I would have to reveal that I caught some technical discussions in their mother tongue! I haven't properly expressed myself, I'm not really concerned with the jokes and gossip, I'm more concerned with the fact that I risk alienating them further by putting them into a sensitive situation. I already fill that they don't think I'm really part of the team and the team lead has raised that issue. I'm afraid that revealing I understand their language would put them in a defensive mode if they remember that they talked trash about me and I could understand that. But as @Sidney suggested, if enough time passes, it might not be an issue.

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    Whether or not you should do something depends on the outcome you expect. Can you describe that? Your CV probably is not relevant in this case, I doubt your coworkers were told what it includes.
    – puck
    Jun 4 at 9:44
  • @puck - edited to add the expected outcome Jun 4 at 21:31
  • @puck In my experience it's not unusual for some of the more senior members of a development team to have been given for review the CV of a prospective hire, even if those members are not expected to participate in an interview. Generally the feedback I've been asked for is just my opinion of how their technical skills would fit in to the team.
    – cjs
    Jun 5 at 5:17
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    I can't answer your question, but it's worth noting that if it's been more than a few days your colleagues have probably forgotten whatever unprofessional behavior they may have committed. It's quite probable that regardless of when/if you inform them you understand their language they'll immediately think of everything they offensive they may have said unless you remind them.
    – Sidney
    Jun 6 at 9:29
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    Uh, something that no one seems to be picking up on. These people obviously do not respect you. Their behavior is egregious, and their demeaning comments made thinking you didn't understand are completely out of line. This is a form of bullying that needs to be reported if your company has access to a proper HR department or hotline of some form. Jun 7 at 14:23

11 Answers 11

18

If it bothers you to occasionally hear gossip about yourself right in your face, by all means speak up about it. However if you think it's amusing, interesting and/or useful to hear what is said about you (and possible others), there is no obligation of you to inform them that you can understand them in my opinion.

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It depends if you care or not. I'm fluent in the language here and hear nasty stuff all the time but couldn't care less usually unless they're talking about my wife or kids or positioning themselves to attempt a mugging. There is an advantage to people not knowing, you can get some interesting insights and information. It's much better to know who dislikes you than not.

Do be aware that people may even know you understand and still say stuff thinking they can get away with it. Which quite possibly could be the case here. It's not uncommon for people to know a bit of the language of the next door country especially the bad language.

I realize that informing them first time would have been best, but it would have been very awkward

That would have been the best time. Or HR or your manager. But you can still do that any time, only now you don't have an immediate grievance, so it may come across as petty.

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    Adding to your second point, OP mentioned that they kept joining the meetings early - their coworkers would probably assume from this that they're at least somewhat familiar with the language spoken pre-meeting.
    – jla
    Jun 5 at 2:46
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You are not being treated like a team member.

I would question whether it's appropriate that your team mates have a private meeting without you at all, let alone one where they make insulting jokes about you.

My team mates like to have a private zoom meeting before our daily meeting where they speak in their native tongue

This seems inappropriate. If you're part of the team you should not be excluded from a meeting. What's the point of having a meeting that excludes one team member ?

I joined in by mistake a while back and got to hear a gross joke about my possible sexual orientation and nationality and other gossip.

An odd way for your team mates to use a private meeting that excludes you. I would again say this suggests you are not being brought into the team at all and making such a joke at a meeting is quite wrong.

In no meeting should remarks of this sort be made about a work colleague. It's disgusting behavior.

I kept joining early, mostly because the tool we are using is flaky and sometimes it takes some time get in, and the Scrum master is vocal about being late and I usually catch 1-2 minutes of their conversation.

This makes it sound like the scrum master is actually letting them make insulting jokes about you. That's quite appalling if it's the case.

The problem I see here is that you are not being treated as an equal team member, not that they don't speak in English while they're making crude "jokes" about you or you cannot follow a technical discussion they've deliberately excluded you from (and why exclude you at all ?).

In response to the question edit :

Not knowing your region or country it's very hard to give more than general advice. So this advice is what I'd recommend in my part of the world (I'm in the EU). To be clear in many places making public insults about people's sexual orientation would get the "joker" fired and in others they'd be disciplined (typically a warning). These are serious matters. Unfortunately in other places this is considered "normal" behavior for some people (notably men insulting women but not just that).

I'm not really concerned with the jokes and gossip, I'm more concerned with the fact that I risk alienating them further by putting them into a sensitive situation. I already fill that they don't think I'm really part of the team and the team lead has raised that issue.

This is the attitude that many people who are picked on and bullied at work take. Letting them insult you won't make it better, it will make it worse. They won't "bring you into the team" (which you're supposed to be already) because you let them get away with keeping you out.

This is really a matter to bring to the attention of HR or your immediate line manager (if they're not involved in this already). It's not going to improve if you do nothing.

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  • See my latest edit, the fact that I'm on the sidelines is my main concern, and I want to avoid alienating them further by putting them in a sensitive position knowing that I understood their jokes. Jun 7 at 10:29
  • @mostafawornout That attitude is precisely the problem with workplace abuse. To me (and I can only go by what you said) the team (at a minimum) does not treat or think of you as an equal. If you don't complain this will keep doing it (and if they make insults about you in a meeting who knows what they're saying behind your back). You're basically asking to be a passive victim and I cannot in all conscience suggest a course of action supporting that approach. As we still don't know the nationalities involved we cannot take into account cultural attitudes on either side. Jun 9 at 10:27
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I speak two languages and so do many of my friends. We get situations like this all the time. People make assumptions which they should not.

You can tell them when it is convenient for you and then watch the realization dawn - perhaps they will learn a lesson from that. Sadly, likely not in my experience...

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In this case it may be the most effective, to comment the gossip with a snarky comment in their own language (preferably something that makes them laugh at first and only grasp later, who pulled the joke). Alike this you can demonstrate that you understand them and they'll take better care on their own. It's not offensive, it's not complaining - and it still would teach them respect.

Currently they may take you for an outsider, due to the false impression that their language would provide them with privacy - this kind of segregation isn't too uncommon. That's in-group vs. out-group... and when they don't have the impression of privacy anymore, there's only one group left.

However, trying to make them speak in English might not work out - because no matter how well they'll speak it, when it's more than one, they'll most likely default to their native language again. Unless you'd first became part of their group, they might see no reason not to exclude you ...

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  • This (in my opinion) is the best approach and should be done as soon as possible. It may be tempting to keep it secret to spy on them, but they'll almost certainly find out eventually and be angry. Another good approach is to ask for English but do it in their language. The reddest face I ever saw was when I asked a couple in a restaurant where they were from in the language they had been chattering in.
    – WGroleau
    Jun 6 at 22:28
  • By the way, I had to do some hunting to find out that there was a movie called 13th Warrior. And I still don't know for sure what @Erbureth meant by verging the title. Though I can guess it means saying something in their language.
    – WGroleau
    Jun 6 at 22:30
  • @WGroleau There is a whole scene related to the suggested approach.
    – Erbureth
    Jun 7 at 7:16
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Being morally objective: yes, you definitely should!

Just put yourself in their shoes and think about how you'd feel if you'd shared something perhaps personal with a coworker without knowing that another person understood it.

Now addressing the comments you heard about yourself: if you want to keep a pleasant atmosphere I advise you to take it humorously as we're in the year 2022 and it's mostly embarrassing for any group to be having this kind of discussion, honestly. You've got the high ground.

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  • Looking morally the colleagues should not say jokes about anyone absent or not understanding the language. They should instantly switch to the common language once someone from other country joins a meeting. Also, it is pretty stupid to assume someone, especially from neighbouring country, does not understand your language. I assume they are not that different if it was possible to learn a lot just from TV, and even if they are plenty of words are international or similar so it's often possible to guess a lot.
    – Ola M
    Jun 6 at 14:41
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    Out of interest, why do you think someone has a moral duty to tell others that they speak a language? If someone shares something personal on a public call that's their issue. If you want things to remain private, don't discuss them in public. Jun 6 at 16:43
  • @LioElbammalf, it's the "right thing to do" for two reasons: (1) it saves them further embarrassment with OP; and (2) it helps them avoid making the same stupid assumption in the future.
    – WGroleau
    Jun 6 at 22:32
  • No reason to tell them at all. You keep what you heard to yourself. If they say things that can be used against them, then they deserve it. Don't say things behind people's back that you wouldn't say to their face.
    – gnasher729
    Jun 7 at 20:14
  • @LioElbammalf if the goal is to maintain a functioning working environment, then two wrongs don't make a right. He should tell them he can understand. He should feel morally compelled to do it.
    – unamednada
    Jun 8 at 14:06
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It might be a bit opinable, but I think you should tell your coworkers. Otherwise, it is always a possibility that some time in the future it is discovered (you hear someone speaking about something and want to give some advice, or you hear some gossip about you that makes you reply...).

Now, telling them that you have been always able to understand them can be kind of embarassing (it might appear that you were spying on them, and those who badmouthed you will not take it kindly). But you can just inform your coworkers that you are taking language classes, that you will be able to understand them better each day. That way they will be warned.

In regards to the technical discussions, all of the above changes nothing. You are still not proficient enough at the language to use it and, above and everything, what counts are the instructions by management. Even if all of you would understand each other in a different language, if the company language is English, then all the work related conversations should be in English.

Do not be afraid to request the other people to switch to English if the issue they are talking is work-related and affects you.

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    So, it's the OP's fault that they bad-mouthed the OP? Just curious.
    – Solar Mike
    Jun 5 at 14:34
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    @SolarMike No, but let's face it, people sometimes bad-mouth coworkers at their backs, and those who bad-mouthed him felt that they were doing it in a private way. Yet it is those people's fault. But people being people, if they are confronted with the knowledge that their insult is known, it is quite likely that instead of taking the blame and apologizing they would want to frame the issue as one of the OP spying on them. If the OP does not want to escalate the situation (as it seems from his post), a little bit of strategic ignorance might be the way to go.
    – SJuan76
    Jun 5 at 15:33
  • @SJuan76: strategic ignorance is very risky. It's almost certain they will eventually find out and the longer that takes, the angrier they will be. And if they are from a culture where embarrassment is treated more seriously than in most English-speaking cultures, the consequences could be really unpleasant.
    – WGroleau
    Jun 6 at 22:36
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I would just drop a couple of hints in text chat 1-1 with the colleague you get on with best. Codeswitch a bit, use slang in that language, etc. If you know them well enough you can outright say to them ("btw I understand x, just to let you know")

If you're not in a position to do that (don't know your colleagues very well, etc), give it more time (say nothing) until you are in the position where you can have a casual conversation in chat with someone.

They'll tell everyone else, (should) feel embarrassed, you avoid an awkward conversation.

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A positive approach:

got to hear a gross joke about my possible sexual orientation and nationality and other gossip

People doing things like this will perceive you as much better person if they know you have something (culturally) in common.

If they know you understand their language, they will not make jokes like this not only because you will understand the jokes, but mainly because they will feel you are "someone like us".

Go on and tell them that you are someone like them. You will make friends.

(Otherwise, they will probably find out anyway. If they find out themselves, they will treat you as a "spy" and will behave accordingly.)

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I feel like you should do a cheeky thing, and tell them that you are feeling missed out on this pre-talk, and now are planning to learn their language. If you don't know or it is not apparent what their language is, ask them, and then after two weeks, start speaking in broken version of their language.

This is assuming that you are with them for a decent amount of time. If they are your teammates for max one month more, this won't work. But this is a more creative approach to this. And based on your speed of learning, they might just think and doubt whether you already knew the language or not. Just say that it's such a beautiful language that you picked it up in a couple of weeks, having done 2 hour lectures each day for 2 weeks.

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I totally understand that as they've not known you understand them, it's now awkward, but that's on them, not you. They should have operated on the assumption that whatever they said could or would be understood. Frankly, from the moment you join the session, it's bad manners for them to continue in a language you don't understand.

If I understand you correctly, you are just turning up early in the channel used for your daily meeting. That's a public place where any team member should be expected to hear anything that's said. And as they appear to have been making inappropriate jokes about a colleague, that's absolutely on them. If they've assumed you didn't understand, or perhaps that you hadn't heard, well they should have been more careful.

Should you tell them now? The first thing is that you're not obliged to. If you think they don't realise you heard the offensive comments, and you aren't intending to take that further as an HR issue, then you might just mention that you understand a bit of their language. Perhaps start with "good morning" in their language, and if they respond well, say you'd like to learn a few more phrases. That way you aren't letting on quite how much you know, but that you know a bit. If you succeed at that, they will know enough to be more careful in future.

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    You're suggesting to pretend that they don't know the language as well as they actually do? It sounds from the question that they can speak and understand the basics, enough to watch TV, so learning a few more phrases beyond "good morning" would be well below their actual ability. That's an approach you could take, but being deceptive about it seems like a risky choice, and not the obvious one to me. After saying "good morning" in their language, the other approach is to explain that you have some knowledge of it from watching TV and stuff; you can still say you want to learn more from there Jun 5 at 21:22
  • I'm suggesting that the amount they reveal is up to them. Admitting to knowing even a small amount of the language ought to be enough to indicate that it's not zero, and the colleagues should be careful. Jun 6 at 12:55

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