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.)
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.
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:
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.
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 read novels and run loops around Central Park.