when customers speak to each other in a foreign language

A reader writes:

I would like your feedback on a common occurrence in our store. Sometimes a couple of customers will walk in whose native language is other than English. However, these customers do speak English quite well but choose to speak in the other language while they are being directly waited on by our employees. If they are trying on merchandise while we are right beside them to check fit, etc., more often than not they will “consult” their friend/family first (in the other language) before they tell us what they think, even though they are perfectly capable of expressing themselves to me, and anyone else, in English.

I find this behavior quite rude and at times like this I am ready to walk away until they are ready to converse in English. Of course, I instead stand there, gently prodding the customer in English in an attempt to understand what else I need to do to serve them. Although I feel irritated regarding the seeming rudeness, I find myself mostly frustrated that I cannot help our customer to the best of my ability because I don’t understand their language.

What is the best course of action to do in these situations? If you can address this in your blog I would be much obliged.

Um, they’re your customers, not people who are there to socialize with you, right?  They’re considering patronizing your business? I suggest letting them speak to each other in whatever language they’re most comfortable in, and assuming that if they need something from you, they’ll let you know in English.

{ 45 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    Was this person serious? America consists of all kinds of people with different backgrounds. Like Alison Green said, if they need your help they will consult you in English. This is your customer, they help pay your pay check!

  2. Karen*

    I also think this is rude when you consider both variables – they are right in front of you and both are capable of speaking English. If one person had difficulty with English and the other needed to help explain things to them, that's different. I'd compare this to someone talking on a cell phone when you're trying to assist them.

    That said, there's not much you can do, aside from know that you're dealing with people with poor manners.

  3. Randall*

    I can't for the life of me understand why that would be an issue for anyone.
    I born and raised in the USA. I'm fluent in 3 European languages besides American – no, I don't speak English, I speak American.
    My wife is also mutilingual, Polish by birth.
    If my wife speaks to me in Polish in public, I respond in Polish.
    If I'm in a store and the salesperson is put off by that, then so be it. Let them chatter all they want. But I've never encountered a salesperson who was put off by it. If anything they ask too many personal questions – that's annoying.
    You want the sale, be polite and stay out of the conversation unless asked a question.
    Pretty simple.

  4. Evil HR Lady*

    I speak English Fluently. German–well I can carry on a basic conversation, but certainly not a detailed one. Since I live in the German speaking part of Switzerland, this is a problem.

    If a clerk didn't want to help me because my friend and i were conversing in English to each other and German to her, I'd probably take my business elsewhere.

    Yes, I am in this country and I am learning German, but for a conversation such as, "Do you think I should go with the purple or the red, and what about this hemline, and while we're at it, does my rear end look too big in this?" I don't know how to say that in German.

    (Well, I probably could figure it out, but I'm waaay too lazy.)

  5. Kathy*

    I wonder if this has something to do with the OP feeling self-conscious that the speakers are talking about him/her? Or maybe feeling left out?

    Either way – turn things around. If you were in another country where English wasn't the primary language and you were with some friends shopping, wouldn't you probably speak to your friends in your native tongue first? If I was in Germany and was with my family and wanted to speak to my family, I sure as hell wouldn't talk to my family in German just b/c I was in Germany! I would speak to them in our native language because it's easier and faster.

    Just be happy your customers are willing to speak to you in English rather than insisting on speaking to you in a language that may not be primary to you.

  6. Gayle*

    Poor manners? That's a hoot. It's no one's business if people converse in a foreign language, even if its in front of you.
    If you're put off by that, then it seems to me you have other issues beside manners.

  7. screaminscott*

    This must just be a personality thing. I hear this a lot, and I never understood why this was an issue. People who have a problem with this must just be paranoid.

  8. Charles*

    Perhaps, the OP is paranoid that they are speaking about her?

    Seriously, this is such a non-issue. If it were a SOCIAL situation then it would be somewhat rude (at least in the USA it would be considered rude – other countries, not necessarily so).

    But it is not social, it is business. Therefore, there is most likely nothing rude going on. Even if their English is better than the other language they are speaking, unless they are speaking about you, they are not being rude.

    If they are speaking about you it would be polite to drop a hint that you understand them without acknowledging their faux pas; something along the lines of asking them where did they learn language X.

    Now if they are not speaking about the OP and she responds to this imaginary slight in a less than professional manner then there would be rudeness going on; and it would be intentional – that's a big no-no.

  9. Mary Sue*

    I speak Japanese. I speak it well enough to go into a store in Japan and complete a commercial transaction. I know this because, well, I've been to Japan.

    However, I do not speak Japanese well enough to discuss various features and choices. If I was in a store with, say, my cousin who speaks a small amount of Japanese but doesn't understand it when it's spoken quickly or if it's written, she and I would discuss in English, a language we're both more comfortable in. Or Spanish, because we're both licensed by the state of California to teach in that language (note: not to TEACH the language, but to teach other subjects while speaking Spanish).

    And if the clerk got pissy and stormed off while we discussed in English or Spanish? We'd get pissy and storm off somewhere that wants our business.

  10. Mary Sue*

    Oh, and if I was a manager supervising someone in a customer service role who was harrassing customers (this is how I'm reading the statement "I instead stand there, gently prodding the customer in English in an attempt to understand what else I need to do to serve them.") I would counsel them to be more patient and let them know that's their verbal warning, next step is a write up.

    And if I supervised someone in a customer service role who stormed off because a customer was conversing in a language other than English? Write-up with serious consideration to termination. You are there to serve all the customers, not just the ones who are what you deem 'polite'.

  11. jmkenrick*


    I have to disagree with you there. Do you speak any other languages? Even if someone speaks another language just fine – well enough to converse with a store clerk with minimal effort – it can be a chore to speak in a foreign language all day.

    I speak Swedish, and I love visiting Sweden, but I can't participate in a Swedish conversation with the ease that I have in an English one – I often have to stop what I'm doing and really listen, especially if people are speaking rapidly or with an accent I'm not familiar with.

    Similarly, when my grandparents visit the US, they have a lot of trouble understanding waiters and clerks. They speak English fluently, but they're older, and their hearing isn't so great. So if clerk speaks fast or uses slang, they have trouble.

    Lastly, consider that if you live in the US but speak an usual foreign language it can be a treat to spend time with someone who speaks it too. When my cousin visited, we spoke in Swedish the whole time because I rarely get opportunities to practice.

  12. Anna/The Edible HR*

    It sounds as though the OP is just feeling self-conscious. Certainly if you're trying on clothes with a friend/family member, you're going to discuss what you're wearing with him/her. Whether that conversation takes place in English, French, etc. is irrelevant. Just relax – I'm sure when/if the customer needs some help, they'll let you know!

  13. Anonymous*

    The OP needs to take a chill pill. I'm a native Russian speaker and so is my husband but we speak English 100%.

    We usually speak Russian to each other in stores because salespeople are annoying and try to get us to buy stuff and if we say in English that we like or don't like something, they'll swarm in.

    If I have a question for the salesperson, I'll ask it in English. Otherwise it's none of his/her business.

  14. Anonymous*

    "I find myself mostly frustrated that I cannot help our customer to the best of my ability because I don�t understand their language"

    The most effective solution is to tell your boss what your frustration is. If she/he agrees, she/he can either sponsor you to learn some new languages or put up a sign forbidding people to speak foreign languages in your store.

  15. Rebecca*

    "What is the best course of action to do in these situations?"

    Provide good customer service! It's that simple, and it's the same course you'd take with any other customer, I hope.

  16. Anonymous*

    What I wonder is how the OP even knows they're discussing the product. They could just as well be remarking that they decided to make chicken rather than steak for dinner later. Which is no business of the OP's at all.

  17. Katrina*

    It isn't being self conscious, it's being controlling.

    You don't like that you don't know every single thing that's being said.

    Relax, take a deep breath, and use your intuition to provide the service. If they're regular customers, you should know by know what they most often need.

  18. Anonymous*

    While the OP is sort of a dumb question, your response was a little snarky. Here I was thinking you were professional and someone I could look up to.

  19. Anonymous*

    This person must be insecure to worry that the customers don't have enough self knowledge to ASK when they need help. When the customers are speaking in their own language that is their business. If they want to criticize the product in their own language that is their choice. As an English only speaker I might have to leave the store to criticize a product to my friend before possibly coming back in to buy it. These patrons can stay in the store and are possibly more likely to complete a sale because of it.

  20. Anonymous*

    We are operating in global village were all languages must be tolerated. When this behaviour is exhibited in a work team, then it is wrong because it could undermine teamwork. However when a customer does it in front of a sales person, I personally do not see anything wrong. Take a quick read at Workplace Multilingualism that provides a comprehensive review on how to respond to these scenarios http://EzineArticles.com/?id=4900988
    The customer is �king� at any point of a sale transaction and the sales person must just look on for their decision and may participate through non �verbal welcoming signs.

  21. Anonymous*

    I'm guilty of speaking English with a friend in stores in foreign countries. I didn't know a word (except maybe a few small polite sayings like "please," "thank you," and "do you speak English"). I was oblivious to the store clerks reactions, but at the same time, I think they more than likely understood me. English, being universal, was spoken to me by a few people when approached so I didn't have to ask "Do you speak English?" You know how others act when you are put in their shoes.

    In this country, we are not used to foreign languages despite our nation's history. We speak English and expect others to follow suit. While I think English should be declared the national language of the U.S.A., I don't think it should discourage us from studying and becoming fluent in another language or two. We should have an appreciation for other languages instead of jumping down others' throats because we think they are talking about us.

    And OP, you don't understand other languages and neither your own. People have a way with their first language that they can rarely ever develop with their second. So while you may be offended that the woman turns to her friend to speak in a different language, just remember that maybe she just knows how to phrase it better in that language; more than likely, they aren't talking about you. Instead grow an interest in other languages and you'll appreciate hearing them a little more.

    Meanwhile, work on doing great customer service.

  22. Anonymous*

    I speak a foreign language and I do that with my family members sometimes when I'm our shopping not to be rude, but because it is easier to converse like that. I wouldn't take it offensively if someone is doing that in front of you. They are customers. I would probably agree with the OP if it was your employees who do that but that is not the case.

  23. Karen*


    Thanks for your comment…I understand where you are coming from completely. I think what I take the most issue with is that the OP seems to have to keep standing there while a conversation goes on that she/he can neither contribute to nor use to improve the way she/he assists the customer (I'm not sure what the service expectation is at their place of work, but I'm going to try and assume here).

    Again, it would be very similar to being expected to stand there while someone talks on their cell phone. Whatever the person is discussing with the person on the other line isn't helping the salesperson assist them, so basically they have to stand there and awkwardly do nothing.

    This would be different if, at relatively frequent intervals during the conversation, the stronger English speaker tried to include the salesperson in the dialogue, or at least pass along the other person's concerns or questions. To carry on a several minute conversation and get irritated when the salesperson moves along to a customer that he can be more of use to isn't acceptable.

    I also get the comments made by many of you regarding paranoia about being "talked about." I agree that that is silly and wouldn't be a valid concern on the part of the salesperson.

  24. Anonymous*

    Imagine if YOU were in, say, Italy with a group of your friends buying shoes in a shop. If you were to ask your friend if the shoes looked nice, wouldn't your instinct be to ask your friend in your native language and not your second one? It's what feels more comfortable to you and is simpler for you to communicate to eachother.

  25. Sue*

    The well being of your feelings is NOT your customers' priority. Quite the opposite, their ability to speak to each other in whatever language that makes them feel comfortable without feeling being judged or unwelcomed IS your priority. (From what you wrote, I find it hard to believe that you never let your irritation show.)

    Plenty of people, myself included, who work in international markets learn other languages so we can do our jobs better. If your issue is really you cannot help your customers at the best of your ability, time to learn some new languages!

  26. Anonymous*

    " I find myself mostly frustrated that I cannot help our customer to the best of my ability because I don�t understand their language."

    So basically, OP wants to eavesdrop on customer conversations so they can upsell the customer. Well, that's not a good sales approach. Truthfully a good salesperson could tell by their body language whether or not they like something or are looking for something or need help in some way.

    Common etiquette says you should not speak in a language another person doesn't understand. But that applies to people in your group, not to eavesdroppers or sales staff.

  27. jmkenrick*


    I agree with you there: it's absolutely rude to simply ignore a person that is clearly trying to assist you. And if the clerk has to stand there, it seems appropriate that the customers would either let him/her know if they need help or that they're going to browse by themselves.

    As you implied, this must depend on the shop. Some stores are more for browsing independently, and some fancier stores seem to require that clerks keep a close eye on consumers. In the case of the latter, I would agree that it's polite to keep the clerk in the conversational loop, so to speak.

    I guess I just felt the need to defend my grandparents, who can sound like they're fluent in English, but who I know struggle a lot with understanding it.

  28. Lola*

    My parents can speak, write and read English (well enough that they have government jobs) but when they talk to each other or to me or my sister, it's in Mandarin Chinese or Taiwanese. It takes them time to think of how to say something grammatically correct and it's not worth the hassle for them (if we're just shopping or something).

    We've been in stores where my mom will say something to us in Mandarin or Chinese and the cashier or clerk will say "excuse me?". Usually my mom is just asking if we have an extra dollar or a penny. I think some clerks/cashiers think that we are talking about them, but we're not. If we wanted to make snide comments about you, we could wait until we left the store, we wouldn't have to do it in front of you!

    That's the general feeling I get from people who complain about others speaking a different language in front of them. They (the offended) think that the others are talking about them. Well, guess what? They might be, they might not be! Life is too short to care what other people are saying about you. I grew up in a multilingual family, most of the people I see at work are non-native English speakers, and I don't even bat an eye when people start talking in a different language in front of me. I try to guess what they are discussing!

    The only thing that I can think of is if the OP is required to stand there and service the customer. I know some people are offended if the store clerks don't personally assist them (they feel snubbed). Maybe this is one of those stores/situations? If that were the case, though, I would imagine the customer is king and therefore can speak in whatever language they want.

  29. Class factotum*

    Slightly off topic but good to know: A friend was conducting a training session in Florida. My friend, who looks as gringo as they come, speaks Spanish fluently. During a break, two of the trainees remained in the room with my friend. They started speaking Spanish to each other, trashing their boss.

    My friend, after a few minutes, said to them in Spanish, "You need to be careful. You never know who might speak Spanish."

    The blood drained from the trainees' faces. They begged my friend not to say anything to their boss. She didn't, of course, but those women are probably a lot more careful now.

  30. Anonymous*

    I think most of the comments are pretty on point here.

    Good customer service (and sales!)involves giving your customers the appropriate amount of space to consider their purchase, look around, get comfortable, try it on, think about how they'll use it at home, whatever it is that applies to what you sell. It sounds like the OP isn't being sensitive to thier client's comfort.

    Think about all those stores you walk into where the sales people are on top of you from the moment you walk in, listening to your conversation with your friend about how your husband might like this dress. Its really uncomfortable, I don't stay in those places long. I would LOVE to be able to have a semi-private conversation by switching to another language with my shopping companion, would create a nice barrier and hinder the eavesdropping salespeople.

  31. Anonymous*

    The politically correct answer: With paying customers the only language is green.

    Unfortunately, I've seen many people use another language not to be coy or respectful to their guests, but to talk trash.

    The not so PC answer: You'll have to learn a language to get this done properly. When they switch languages, if you feel invited to join in, follow suit.

    If you don't get the included vibe and you sense the customer is looking for a little privacy, you do the same thing you normally would – give them space.

    I'd give no clue you understand what's being said until they say something hideous, destructive, terribly rude or ignorant. Then I'd ask in their language if that will be cash or credit. The shame alone results in 1 purchase so you better decide upfront if you can live without them coming back.

  32. Anonymous*

    @Sue and Anonymous 9:56: Learning languages isn't free. Even a community college is going to charge about $300 for ONE course, and if you want to become fluent in any reasonable length of time (which is highly unlikely to happen in less than a year at the quickest), s/he's going to need to pay for private tutoring/conversation classes. Tutors are usually around $20/hr. That's probably more than the OP makes.

    Are you really suggesting that a salesperson (who might be at Macy's for all we know and making $9 an hour) should pay to learn a language they don't have any other use for than to cater to the occasional conversation in the store? And which language is s/he supposed to take? Spanish? French? Swahili? All of them?

    The customer isn't being any less rude than the ones who chat on their phones but then get pissy when the salesperson steps away to help someone else who's signaling that they actually need assistance. Sometimes people like to go online and ask things anonymously because their manager is an ass or they're afraid to bring it up.

    Meanwhile, now that AAM has enlightened the OP as to how rude s/he's being to the people who pay his/her salary…let's all pick up a copy of the new ebook.

  33. Anonymous*

    From reading the responses, it's very easy to tell who has never worked in sales or a retail job for an extended period of time. Thanks to the few people who gave the OP the benefit of the doubt vs rushing to label him/her insensitive or paranoid.

    Hardly any sales training out there allows you to ignore the customer and leave them to their own devices for longer than a few minutes. I can't tell you how many managers, supervisors, corporate training guides etc specifically instruct you to not only ask questions, but to listen for feedback in order to help the customer (not necessarily upselling, but generally sizing, color, or availability issues) make the best choice for them.

    If you truly care about service, yes it's annoying when the customer excludes you repeatedly – because first of all it's keeping you from doing parts of your job, and secondly even if you're okay with giving them some space, your management chain may not be – and *they're* the ones that control whether you have a job , how many hours you get, and whether you get that raise. I won't even get into how demeaning and dismissive it can feel over and over and over again.

    And no, not all people are able or comfortable asking for help if they need it. Some people are shy or have social anxiety, some are inexperienced and unsure exactly what to ask or how they need help. Further, my job as a sales rep is to communication information they may not realize they need. Such as "that skirt tends to stretch/shrink over time. You'll want a smaller/larger size" – but I can't offer that information if I don't understand that they're discussing size in the first place.

    When the customer has a bad experience later because you couldn't interject with relevant information – it becomes an overall level of service issue. It can be very tough to strike that miracle balance with each and every customer.

  34. Ask a Manager*

    Anonymous 12:33, I think those are certainly reasonable points, but the OP was saying she thought the customers were rude and clearly sounded exasperated with them, which is a different issue than the ones you're raising.

    I think a lot of people were responding to what came across in her letter as a sense of entitlement to be comfortable at the expense of her customers, who were doing a perfectly reasonable thing.

  35. Anonymous*

    AAM: Exactly – my explanation above includes perfectly legitimate reasons to feel exasperated by a repeated behavior from a customer. I didn't see it as a sense of entitlement, but of being genuinely frustrated and not sure how to actually solve or address the issue in a productive way.

  36. Anonymous*

    Perhaps you should take the time to learn to speak some words in "their" language – like Good Morning/Afternoon, Hello, How can I help you, etc.

  37. Anonymous*

    I guess I just don't see why this specific problem is really different from any other customer service issue — if a customer were ignoring you, on the phone, letting children run amuck, or simply being an outright jerk (in English or any other language).

    Or, if the customer is being nice and polite but doesn't speak much English, or they have a disability that makes it difficult for them to speak at all, etc.

    Yes, all these situations make your job harder and more annoying, and yes, people ought to behave themselves, but you can't tell the customer what to do or treat them differently from any other customer just because they're being annoying. You follow your store's customer service protocol. If things get out of hand, you call your manager. If things get threatening or illegal, you call security or the cops.

    I spent 14 years in retail.

  38. DanRuiz*

    I agree with Karen, the customers are being a bit rude. If I'm in a group and will be using a language that not all members of the group understand, I will utter some version of "Exuse me" to ease their discomfort. It's just good manners.

    On the other hand, the customer is always right, so one has to live with their rudeness as long as it's not over the top.


  39. Anonymous*

    @Class Factotum,

    I was in South America with someone who is utterly British in every respect, except she grew up in Buenos Aires and speaks perfect Spanish. Same thing happened, except it was two girls talking about stealing our purses. Boy did they run fast.

    I'd just like to remark one thing though. My grandparents all emigrated to the USA. All of them, once they hit Ellis Island stopped speaking their native language and only spoke English. I asked them about it once. They said that they felt they had a new country and a new language and that was it. (Although my one grandfather swore long in German when a bird pooped on his Sunday suit but I guess that is another story.)

  40. Anonymous*

    @12:33–You are wrong. What the comments here clearly demonstrate is that people can have the same work experience and yet still have different ideas.

    It's childish to simply discard other people's opinions simply because you don't like what they have to say.

  41. Anonymous*

    I'm a manager in a medium-sized architectural business and a foreigner in an English speaking country. My partner and many friends are my fellow countrymen/women and although I can speak good English and use it everyday at work there are some exceptions like e.g. when my husband calls me on my cell (yes, I do leave the room but that's just a natural thing to do when on any call anyway), when we're discussing personal issues or when shopping in the company of purely non-English mates. In such situations I don't feel obliged to speak English, even if there are English people present and immediately switch to my native language.

    Of course the situation is different when a) our English friends are involved in the conversation, b) business matters are being covered or c) when the subject of the conversation involves in any way the English-speakers present.

    In my opinion, although we all speak English, it still is more natural to communicate in our native language when we are in our own company – and with all due respect, a shopping assistant is rarely considered part of the company…

  42. pumpkin*

    it’s understandable to feel annoyed, I work in retail in an area where there are many foreign people, many of whom don’t even know how to speak english. contrary to what many people said, this is not like “visiting italy” and being a tourist. These people LIVE here, and many use food stamps and other public services. Often when I say hello they may not respond. I feel a little uncomfortable standing there while they’re talking in their language, but whatever. I think it’s rude for anyone whos paying to talk to who they’re with and ignore the cashier, personally. I have a line, i DON’T have all day for you to ignore me while I give you directions which you don’t follow, and I don’t appreciate being ignored.

    it’s also very frustrating to deal with people who live here permanently who can’t understand a lick of what you’re saying. I’m learning another language myself, and I’m not even moving to another country. But if I do move one day, I would want to be able to converse easily w people of that culture because it shows I have an actual interest/respect in the place I’m moving to

    all in all, speaking in another language is always a bit exclusive, but I wouldn’t take it personally (though it’s uncomfortable), Just ignore it and be helpful when they ask you for something

  43. Arthur Siew*

    I am a Hispanic Asian American who can speak five language, if I meet another Chinese, my conversation will be in Cantonese or Mandarin !!!!! If I meet another Hispanic, the language will be Portuguese and Spanish !!!!!! If someone want to practice their language skill with me, the conversation will be in that language i am fluent in !!!! If I meet a monolingual English speaker, it will be in English of course !!!! I speak other language so that I can maintain my fluency in it. I speak with my Ukrainian spouse in
    Russian or Ukrainian , I tried to speak in that language more often, so that I can show appreciation of my spouse culture as well as being able to communicate with her relative !!!! It is not RUDE !!!! The world do revolve around English, so please get a grip !!!!! The reason for this is because, there very little understand from the English speaker side about another language and culture !!!!


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