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posted: 2/26/2012 7:03 AM

Handling culture, language clash in the office

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Q: How should I handle a situation in a government office where the supervisor (a Latino) will speak to Spanish-speaking contractors in Spanish in the office? None of the staff is Hispanic or speaks Spanish. It makes us very uncomfortable. Going up the chain of command doesn't seem to be a viable option.

A: Believe it or not, I empathize with you. I feel the same way during March Madness. But I empathize with the contractors, too. If you've spent any time trying to get by in another language, you know how draining and ripe for miscommunication it can be.

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I'm not even sure what you could say they're doing wrong, or what raising the issue would accomplish, besides making you a prime topic of conversation.

I suspect your discomfort comes from not knowing whether they're talking about work, sports or you. This may help: People who are talking about you in any language usually give off nonverbal clues: furtive glances at you, silence when you walk by. If you're not detecting these, odds are there's no reason to worry.

If you hear them mention your name, you can look up and say, "Did you call me?" Eventually, the supervisor will likely get tired of translating and start holding his conversaciones out of earshot. Then, you can really start worrying.

Q: Need help working with a nightmare colleague who continues to attempt to minimize, downgrade and undermine my work. We are both hospital employees working on a professional level. She has tried unsuccessfully to solicit negative feedback from physicians and staff. She is of Asian descent, and I am not. Our team has been a revolving door of professionals who refuse to tolerate her behavior. She has embraced only one other staff member, who is also of Asian descent. Our manager has gone as far as saying she recognizes our work-style differences; I am organized and procedural, and the colleague is "all over the place." Apparently the hospital has a higher tolerance for this work style when a minority is involved. I refuse to succumb to this behavior and leave the job but cannot help being paranoid.

A: I want to believe your claim that she's making things up -- except your three references to her race somewhat color your complaints.

Perhaps your hospital tolerates a variety of work styles when its employees' strengths outweigh their weaknesses. In any case, it sounds like management (1) doesn't see a problem, (2) sees a problem but can't fire her for whatever reason, or (3) doesn't see her as the problem.

Besides, her campaign against you doesn't seem to have damaged you professionally. What's the problem, exactly? If you really can't put up with her, you might have to move on. The idea of "letting her win" probably galls you, but no one gives out prizes for tolerating the intolerable.

• Miller has written for and edited tax publications for 16 years, most recently for the accounting firm KPMG's Washington National Tax office.

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