RANDY COHEN: The language of tolerance
Harold F. Schiffman
haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Tue Aug 1 14:06:47 UTC 2006
Posted on Sun, Jul. 30, 2006
RANDY COHEN: THE ETHICIST
The language of tolerance
Q: I work for a federal agency where many of us are of different
ethnicities. My background is Filipino, and recently many more Filipinos
have been hired. Many are comfortable speaking our language in the
workplace. Often they speak Tagalog to me. Without comment, I respond in
English, but they do not get the hint. I find their conduct unprofessional
and rude. How can I respond in a professional manner?
A: Your solution, simply to reply in English, is a good way to indicate
your language preference, but as you know, you can't compel your
interlocutor to follow suit, so perhaps a better response is tolerance.
When I'm in a government office, I'm just grateful that a staff member
speaks anything other than bureaucratese. And is not auditing my tax
If officials are talking among themselves and do not inconvenience the
public they're meant to serve, I see no abuse of office. Who's harmed?
Indeed, by speaking a language in which they feel comfortable, they may
work better, to everyone's benefit.
There are situations when it is important that all present understand one
another, when a common language should be used. And it can be bad for
morale if some co-workers feel alienated or excluded. Your supervisor
should be mindful of such circumstances -- a matter of savvy management
more than ethics. But except in such cases, the best policy is no policy.
Here in the United States, much fulminating about the putative obligation
to speak English is misplaced, an expression of political beliefs rather
than a concern for efficiency or assimilation. Some sociologists have
observed that nearly every immigrant group becomes entirely fluent in
English in three generations. The wisest language policy is simply to let
matters take their course, to live and let live.
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