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We shouldn't have to work in English

It's not unusual for an employee at our company to spend a whole day speaking only French, but writing only English. It's one of the quirks of working at a remote, async-first company.

Adopting English as a lingua franca for work is nothing new. Long a practice of software developers and huge corporations, you'll see it even at small and midsize startups nowadays. Take Whereby (Norway), Hotjar (Malta), Piktochart (Malaysia), or Huli (Costa Rica). And it makes sense; after all 60% of the internet is written in English.

But defaulting English in an international team is like talking about sports at a party: just because you have it in common doesn't make the conversation better. In fact, there's a high cost to this approach.

(And yes, we're aware of the irony of writing this in English.) 

The downsides of working in English

Language is not just words; it's culture, and changing a company's language means changing its culture.

A 2013 study of a "French high-tech company" (not ours, we swear!) showed that a switch to an English-first policy led to "perceived loss of status" by non-native speakers at that company. Interviewees felt increased job insecurity, and high stress around meetings.

One employee reported:

"I become red and I sweat, and I think to myself, wow, everybody is looking at me, so I should not make any mistakes."

It also broke down relations between non-native and native English speakers. Study subjects, all native French speakers, expressed distrust and resentment towards their English-native counterparts. Another interviewee said that "Arrogant natives who know only one language do not understand difficulties of non-natives."

The perception of an unequal power dynamic erodes trust. It's frustrating to work in another language– harder to express one's ideas fully, with subtlety and detail. Communication is reduced to what can be understood. Projects may slow down, leading to lost revenue.

Cyn, a Slite product designer from Argentina, put it this way:

I consider I had a decent English level and, even so, I remember looking up words many times a day when I joined,  just to feel confident about how I was saying something.

On the other side, English speakers can use their superior language skills to display mastery or expertise. It can even lead to promotions, as our People Operations Specialist, Keysa, pointed out. She added that an English-first policy "naturally sets some people up for success."

Some being the operative word here.

What we can do about it

There have always been injustices and power imbalances at work. We all have status markers and identities that confer advantages and disadvantages. For instance, technical and non-technical, white and nonwhite, man and woman. Ignoring these differences is the same as being complacent with the status quo- rather, we should look at these imbalances together as well as individually.

While some studies of organizations show that linguistic diversity leads to decreased performance, others have shown that it can improve performance, “if adequate communication mechanisms are established."

The most obvious solution to make the English rule suck less, is to require bilinguality from everyone in the team, not just non-native English speakers. That way everyone can understand the pains and joy of learning another language, of messing up, of not quite understanding cultural and linguistic nuances, of finally getting it, and building stronger relationships as a result.

That's the dream at least. In the meantime, here are ways to ease the pains of non-native English speakers working remotely:

  • Let employees choose their communication medium. Working async = writing most of the time. Writing can take a while in a second language - native speakers of English should be flexible about willingness to receive messages in voice memo or video form.
  • Relax the English-first rule in social settings, as long as it doesn't foster exclusivity. For example, in our Slack, we have a #sehablaespañol channel, which is open to everyone at the company, from native Spanish speakers, to those who are interested in learning. And when someone shares a family photo, people sometimes comment in French - these well-wishes are often easy to understand from context (with lots of emojis)
  • Having a 1:1? Do whatever you want. Say the CMO and the CEO are both native speakers of Japanese. During their weekly 1:1, they can (and should!) meet in Japanese, and take notes in Japanese. But as soon as they develop a new initiative involving others, they should document it in English.
  • Make language learning a feature, not a bug. Ani, another product designer here at Slite, shared an anecdote from a previous job at Brazilian finance firm, Nubank: "[I]t was really common to start meetings trying to speak the language of other people just to break the ice and feel closer to colleagues, then the work-related talks continue[d] in English as the official way to do it." Turning language difficulties into a conversation starter, as opposed to a source of shame, is one way to make native English speakers more aware of and curious about their colleagues' experiences.

Having multiple languages at your team's disposal can only be an advantage - make use of this richness in your communication, and your writing will only become stronger because of it.

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Written by

Melanie Broder is on the Marketing team at Slite, where she works on all things content. She helps Slite users gain new skills through guides, templates, and videos. She lives in New York City, where she likes to write fiction and run loops around Central Park.

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