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Often when I attend conferences and meetings, there are some social activities sometimes specifically for graduate students to mix with each other and get to know other students and build possible future collaborations and contacts. Once in a while I end up with a group of let's say all Chinese foreign students. I am not Chinese and I don't know any Mandarin/Cantonese. But it is a little frustrating and in my opinion quite rude when everyone carries on their conversation in Mandarin sometimes bypassing me directly and I have no clue what's going on and I stand there looking like a complete idiot.

If the gathering is something like a cocktail party, I would move on pretty quickly. But if it happens to be a formal dinner then I am stuck at that table and the entire evening might go by with me hardly talking to anyone. My question is, what can I do or say which will make them realize this and to consider other people around who may not know Mandarin?

Just to clarify, this is in the USA and the students I am talking about are all foreign students attending American universities so it isn't a question of them not knowing English. Sometimes I know a friend or two and I would jokingly tell them only English which works for a couple of minutes and then everyone reverts to Mandarin again.

Any ideas?

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And so Fixed Point was bypassed again... :P –  Trylks Jan 5 at 4:25
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What I usually do is: if I have something to say, I say it, if I have something to ask, I ask it, if I want to start or engage in a conversation, I do so, (always in English, of course), and if none of the previous is the case I mind my own businesses. I'm not the most extroverted person of the world, though. –  Trylks Jan 5 at 4:33
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@Trylks We are trying to come up with a reasonable solution for the OP. If it offends, I apologize. –  scaaahu Jan 5 at 5:13
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You could, of course, try learning e.g. Mandarin yourself. –  imallett Nov 8 at 0:45
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Maybe you perceive it as rude that they exclude you. If English is your native language, on the other hand, one might perceive it as equally rude that you assume they have to speak in your language so you do not have to learn and speak in theirs. –  O. R. Mapper Dec 4 at 15:13

5 Answers 5

up vote 25 down vote accepted

This is a very relevant and interesting question. I agree with all answers so far that the problem can only be solved by being (pro)active, perhaps more than many young PhD students are comfortable with.

Anyway, what I can add to the discussion is a bit of insight from the "other" side. See, I am Austrian (mother tongue is german), and in my line of research Germany is pretty well-established. Hence, when there is a conference in Europe, german speakers (Germans, Austrians, Swiss) often form about a third or so of all participants. In these conferences, random chatter (not so much technical discussion, which people are used to doing in english anyway) often starts in english when a non-german speaker is present, but usually changes to german when the non-german speaker moves away or seems to be not interested in the conversation (e.g., he/she is turning away, or does not contribute at all to the conversation). Of course this means that it is hard for a non-german speaker to join in on a conversation after it started. Usually, if a non-german approaches the group, chatter will turn to english again, but this usually does not happen unless this person is already good friends with one of the people in the group (or would you approach a group of strangers talking in an unknown language?).

However, I don't think there is much to be done about this - it is just natural that a group of people converses in their joint language that they are all most comfortable with. People are not actively trying to be rude - but, sometimes, what comes naturally is not what is appreciated by the largest group of people in the conference.

Some concret suggestions:

  • When at a formal dinner, and you don't know anybody, try to not be seated surrounded by larger groups of people who are clearly friends or come from the same university / country. This can make for awkward dinners, even independently of language issues, but it is easy to spot already when sitting down. For networking, it is much easier to get into conversation with other people in your situation (more or less alone currently).

  • At receptions or conference breaks, as you say yourself, I would usually just move away from people who are excluding me by speaking a different language. If you are actually interested in what they are saying, but can't contribute for language issues, rocinante's suggestion is best - just tell them.

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This also depends culturally a lot on which country the non-English speakers are from. I am Spanish but live in Finland and use English during 90% of my everyday life, including at home, so actually have direct access to observe a lot of this dynamics. Finnish people speak very good English and are very considerate towards non-Finnish speakers, so they will use English if someone does not understand Finnish. Spanish will quickly turn to Spanish even if there are only a few of us: I often need to ask other Spanish speakers to switch back to English because Finns will be embarrassed to do so. –  Miguel Dec 3 at 16:43
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Also, I think that given the number of native English speakers on this site, especially from America, this answer provides a very valuable perspective "from the other side". English being the international predominant language (especially true in science) makes some native English speakers have trouble understanding why someone would choose not to speak in English. –  Miguel Dec 3 at 16:48

I understand your frustration. I am in a similar, though different, situation. I do find it frustrating as well, when the situation turns as you described. However, as Zhou Fang pointed out, when a group of people share a common native language, it is very difficult for them to choose a common second language, though it is clearly an option for them.

As far as what to do, the key is for you to start driving the conversation. You should have some interesting stories or intriguing questions to bring up. When you are the center of the conversation, people will naturally want to involve you and, therefore, they will change their conversational language into English.

This is easily said but difficult in practice. To drive a conversation takes a lot of energy and a lot of preparation (unless you have the 'gift of gab'). However, this is the only way I see to accomplish what you want.

Of course you must be prepared for someone else to take the lead and then people start to move back to their native language but you should be able to add something to bring the attention back to you.

All this said, you must be careful not to come off as someone who craves attention. You can accomplish this by sharing attention in a meaningful way. However, it does take a constant effort to keep yourself involved enough that others want to keep you involved by choosing English.

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I don't think it's a question of "difficulty" but rather rudeness. –  user10433 Jan 5 at 5:31
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@rocinante You can see it as rude but they do not. This is an issue of culture and different cultures see things differently. You can either call them rude and end communications or you can see how to find common ground. –  earthling Jan 5 at 5:37
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It takes two parties to communicate. If one party informs the other that the behavior is rude and the other party continues to do it anyway, nothing much can be done to breach that divide. (If the situation was reversed with a group of foreigners in China, the Mandarin/Cantonese speaking colleagues would view the foreigners as rude, too.) And I say this as a person who learned English as my third language and now live in an English/French speaking country. –  user10433 Jan 5 at 5:45

Actually, this problem does not only happen in a conference: I think there is two slightly distinct situations in which you can be surrounded by people speaking in a language that is foreign for you. The first is as you described: conferences and other short-term events. The second is (if studying abroad) coming to a language-homogeneous (working/research) group.

In both, unfortunately, the only way "out" is to be at least slightly assertive. It is not the most pleasant, but it's natural for the (larger) groups that speak the same (mother) language to revert to it naturally in their conversations unless they are reminded to speak in English.

For the conferences, I would say, it might even be easier of the two:

  • in my experience, the first social event is some kind of a "mixer" where there is no fixed seating arrangements for the whole evening, so it's easier to identify the people open for conversations
  • also, approaching small groups of 1-2-3 people on poster sessions and lunch breaks can be a way to meet people who want to communicate in English
  • the "seating" dinner is usually a few days into the conference, so by then I just try and locate the people I talked to during the last few days

For the more "permanent" group, e.g. your team, it is a bit harder. They are an established group already most likely, and you want to get in as well as make them change their standard communication language. For that, you have to get noticed.

  • there's always a problem of finding a balance between being present, noticed, and too aggressive
  • establishing your presence in the group by attending team coffees, greeting people in their offices as you come to work, and similar small gestures should get you well started
  • on the longer "group outings" (my team used to do that - going out together a few times a month), it's usually easier to start a conversation with just one person, and hopefully other people will join in.
  • finally, it's okay to sometimes gently remind them that you'd like to participate in general conversation as well, as long as you don't come across as rude or judgmental. Nobody likes to be shamed in public.

But, the bottom line is, staying politely quiet won't get you far. You have to get noticed, you have to be interesting to others, and you need to make them want to speak to you.

I know that some people are not as socially comfortable as others, and I know that all that can be hard, demanding, sometimes exhausting, and you don't always feel like it. Unfortunately, I don't know or see any other solution.

So, the best "tactic" I came up with is: when you know you will be in those kind of situations, actively mentally prepare. It's easier if you know you have to do it, and it gets a bit easier every time. You take a deep breath, you dive in, and try your best to be a social butterfly. When you know you are attending a conference or coming to a new working environment, be prepared to put more effort in getting noticed for the duration of the conference/next few weeks.

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+1 for using earlier oportunities to get to know people so you already have a group to talk to during conference dinner. As for the work group language, I think if there is a non-English predominant language, it should be the language of the place where you work. In that case I think it is worth learning. But I have experienced (and seen) the opposite: when I was working abroad, people were happy to have someone to excercise their English... back "home" now, it is the same: we're polite and/or need to excercise our English. Thus, the foreign colleagues don't have a chance to learn German... –  cbeleites Jan 6 at 18:32
    
@cbeleites Just to say for the work group language: while it is worth learning, it's not something you can do overnight (or, at least, I can't). A PhD is demanding work, and learning a language as well. The fastest I heard of somebody learn a foreign language enough to chat was 6 months, but that was an intensive course (8 hrs/week) which I could not attend with my PhD work. So, waiting 1+ years to learn the language and then socialize is not really a plausible answer. –  penelope Jan 7 at 9:37
    
No, that's true. However, in my experience the work part (things that need to get done) will usually still be in English. I just wanted to point out that in this situation the short-term easiest way for everyone (particularly if you have "natives" who are fluent in English after stays abroad) is to switch to English. But with that the ability to chat in the local language may be postponed to infinity... Anyways, that's getting off-topic. –  cbeleites Jan 7 at 10:57

Here's the politically incorrect truth:

The Chinese in particular are infamous for doing this. For other groups if you politely request that they speak in English, you should be good. But for the Chinese, there is NOTHING you can do about it.

They are simply not aware or not taught that it might somehow be rude to entirely exclude someone in the group from the conversation.

(Source: My anecdotal experience. I am ethnically Chinese and have hung out a lot with Chinese people while in the US, including when other non-Chinese people are present. The non-Chinese people frequently report being annoyed about this, but nothing ever changes.)

Addendum: One answer remarks here that 'anyone who wasn't raised in a barn' knows that this is rude behavior. But notions of courtesy and etiquette are not universal. In some cultures it'd be extremely rude for you to hand a person any object with your left hand, or point your feet at a person (even inadvertently). They would not accuse you of having been raised in a barn simply because you violated their notions of courtesy.

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I can attest to this; and this is not an academic question really, it's a cultural "problem". In fact, in my experience this is less so in academia in even less so in academia in the US. –  Szabolcs Dec 3 at 15:04
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You are correct. I see this now that you point this out. I have never had a single problem with Europeans, Russians, or Hispanics. In fact, I don't think I had to ask them even once. They see me and switch to English if necessary. –  Fixed Point Dec 4 at 0:39

My question is, what can I do or say which will make them realize this and to consider other people around who may not know Mandarin?

There is no way to broach this without having them think negatively of you. Anybody who wasn't raised in a barn knows that this kind of exclusionary behavior is rude. It's no different than carrying on a conversation with inside jokes that not everyone knows or talking in depth about a topic that makes other people feel stupid (e.g. the Cantor's Completeness Hypothesis in math)

The most polite thing you can do is to interrupt their conversation with something like, "Excuse me, but what are you talking about? May I join in?"

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"Anybody who wasn't raised in a barn": This is a rather demeaning way to phrase things, and overlooks the fact that there are some people (for instance, sufferers of Asperger syndrome) who actually can't understand that it's rude. –  aeismail Jan 5 at 12:32
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If I heard someone talking in depth about "Cantor's Completeness Hypothesis", I'd wonder whether they actually meant to be talking about "Cantor's Continuum Hypothesis". But hearing people talk in depth about a topic I don't know doesn't make me feel stupid. If it's a cocktail party then sooner or later I would wander away in favor of a conversation, but at a formal academic event academics are allowed to talk about their academic interests...whether I know about them or not. That is part of the reason they're there...and part of the reason that hanging out with academics is not always fun. –  Pete L. Clark Mar 17 at 23:24

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