Working in my native language requires empathy

A couple of weeks ago, I was talking with a coworker and mentioned I’m working from Brazil, and how sometimes it’s frustrating communicating things in English. They replied “I cannot imagine how it is working in a second language”. This was when, for the first time, I understood that my work experience is not the same as everyone else’s.

I haven’t thought about it this way. I’ve always seen myself doing the exact same thing as my coworkers. But that comment made me realize that on top of the “normal” work we do, non-native speakers also have this “always running background process” of communicating in a second language.

I remembered how sometimes I felt insecure about my speaking skills, mainly when I was the only non-native speaker in a meeting. I remembered not being able to say exactly what I wanted, but what I could say that was close enough.

A woman saying 'Do you know how frustrating it is to have to translate everything in my head before I say it? Do you even know how smart I am in Spanish?'

This is not to say that we shouldn’t work in English — although having other Brazilians here sure made me feel more at home — nor that non-native English speakers are better somehow. I’m saying to others in a similar situation that it’s okay to be tired after a whole day of work in a foreign language. It’s okay to make mistakes. It’s okay to forget words. It’s okay not to understand some things. It’s okay to be a human being!

As a native speaker or a company, you can be helpful too! Being aware of how others feel is the first step towards a healthier work environment, but using simpler language and having a more diverse team also helps. Relying more on written communication is also less stressful because people have time to think, reword sentences at will, and use tools like translators and Grammarly.

Working fully remote enabled thoughtbot to hire people worldwide, and I cannot stress how culturally enriching this has been for the team! But it does require kindness. Not only to others but, in particular, be kind to yourself!