I picked up the phone and dialed the next number. This was my eleventh call for the day. At this point, I was weary of hearing the same story repeatedly. As luck turned out, this was no different.
“I moved to the city straight out of college. I was extremely excited and eager to make a difference in my first job. However, it was not as easy as I thought it would be. A lot of design discussions and offhand conversations between colleagues often switched to the local language making me feel like an outsider. Language was a big differentiator, so much so that the team organized movie outings that were sometimes in the local language. I learnt a few words to help me understand the basic context but eventually it was not worth it. I transferred out to a more familiar place as soon as I could. I understand if the locals in the city prefer to speak in their mother tongue, however, the least I expected was for the workplace to be more accepting of outsiders.”
Over the course of the next few days, I discussed the conversation with a variety of people both within and outside the organization. I discovered that everyone had heard of language being a problem but never paid much thought to it. One friend went as far as to say, ‘This is normal. People will switch to the language they are most comfortable in speaking. Get used to it.’ Thankfully, not many said that. For most, including me, the series of transfer interviews I had conducted were a revelation to a problem that we were witnessing on an everyday basis.
In a day and age where inclusiveness has never been more important, the topic of language is rarely addressed. Living in a nation that has a multitude of languages and people moving across the country for work, this scenario is not uncommon. I am equally guilty of indulging in this crime. I often switch to Hindi during informal conversations around the lunch table even though I am well aware that there are team members who do not understand the language. I was not aware, until the day I was surrounded by people who speak a language I not understand, how alienating this can be.
Awareness and education to counter alienation
So, what can one do about it? The first obvious step that comes to mind is awareness and education. I have browsed a number of PowerPoint presentations and training material on unconscious bias, inclusivity and the like. Very few, close to none, mention the impact of language. Employees need to be aware of the impact and consequences that an alienating language can have on their team members. Testimonials from those who have experienced this is an effective wake-up call.
Some teams and managers actively encourage the use of English/ alternate common language in team meeting and gatherings. Some even arrive at creative solutions that involve a penalty when people switch to a non-inclusive language. Other more creative solutions include instituting optional language classes at work.
The likelihood of language being a threat to inclusiveness also decreases in multi-cultural teams. Individuals are naturally demotivated to converse in a language that few other in the team understand. Perhaps, this is yet another factor, outside of gender, we could consider as we think about team constitution.
Do I have the perfect solution for tackling language inclusiveness? Not yet. I am, hopefully, on the path to discovery. If you have ever faced this at work and have a suggestion, I would love to hear in the comments below.