The Problem With English-Only

I was grocery shopping last Friday when I saw a sign that made my stomach turn.

It was at the manager's stand behind the checkout lanes, hastily scribbled and taped up and probably not meant for customer's eyes, but the words were bold and big and cruel and in my face:

ENGLISH ONLY!!!! ENFORCE THIS.

I was so stunned when I saw the sign that I just stood there. I stood there, and my jaw dropped. I stood there, reading and rereading the words, allowing myself to feel and understand what I was feeling. 

Anger. Confusion. Hurt.

At some point the cashier got my attention, handed me my receipt, and I considered asking for a manager right then and there. But I didn't. Instead I drove home.

In less than five minutes I was home, unloading groceries. But I couldn't shake that sign out of my consciousness. 

Now, I'm a big girl. It usually takes a lot more than a sign on a grocery store to get me upset. So my gut reaction was confusing.

But I decided that if it bothered me that much I had to complain, so I called the corporate office. 

The receptionist was a little surprised to have a customer with a complaint on the line, so I explained that I saw an offensive sign at one of their stores.

"In that case, I will transfer you to one of our directors. Is that OK, Ma'am?"

"Yes."

When he came on the line, I introduced myself as one of their customers. I explained to him that I that I speak three languages, and my husband speaks five, and I told him about the sign I saw at their store. I told him about my three children, and how one of them could have read that sign. And then what?

And then I told him that I know that the reason that sign was up is that they probably had customers complain about employees speaking in foreign languages with each other in front of customers. And I told him how disappointed I was that they gave in to such bigotry. Because the problem isn't that employees are speaking to each other in a language other than English -- the problem is that employees are having private conversations in front of customers. 

Look, I get it. It drives me insane when I'm trying to pay for my groceries and the employees ignore me so they can talk to their buddies. It is absolutely unprofessional and bad for business. BUT, it is unprofessional no matter what language it's happening in. And I shop at that store -- I know that this is also an issue among english-speaking employees.

So why are they only picking on bad behavior that happens in foreign languages? 

When he told me that the reason was that some customer's feeling were "hurt" because they thought employees were making fun of them...That is when my BULLSHIT-O-METER when off the roof.

I said it. I told him to stop patronizing me and to face the truth. I requested that they work on the real problem, which is employees having conversations with each other when they should be taking care of customers.

Yes, I requested that they work on the actual problem, instead of on the way the problem looks to people who don't like the way "other" people sound. And I asked them to stop bowing down to bigotry. It's wrong.

After all, what message are we sending to the employees that are ignoring customers while speaking English? That their behavior is OK? That they can get away with things that other (lesser?) people can't? I don't think that's the ultimate goal, of course, but that is what is happening. 

It's wrong.

This is a little drop in a big, big problem. But it has got me thinking -- perhaps I should speak more Spanish? Perhaps I have to show that the "others" are just like them, except that we do also do everything they do backwards and in tacones.*

I can't change the world by example, but I sure won't let it change me.

*that's Spanish for high heels