Foreign languages have always been a problem for Americans. It is not just that we are thought to have a particularly hard time learning them, but that we are thought to have a particularly hard time understanding why foreigners speak them.
Miss Manners receives a great many letters on this subject, and invariably the complainant diagnoses the habit of speaking languages he or she does not understand as being deliberately rude. It is done, they claim, to make the person who does not speak the language feel left out, or to say something insulting about that person to his face without getting caught.
Miss Manners can think of other reasons people speak foreign languages in front of those who do not understand:
* It is their country and their language, and they are very sorry (or not) that the visitor can't speak it; repeating himself, shouting, making funny gestures and getting exasperated is not going to help.
* It is not the language of the country they are in, but it is the only language they know well enough to get across what they want to say.
* It is a language they are learning and they want to practice it, even if they have to resort to doing so in a restaurant where the food is of the country whose language it is, but the waiter to whom they are speaking is not.
* They want their children to learn the language, so they are deliberately tantalizing them.
* They are speaking to others who know the language, and don't feel responsible for making themselves understood to people who are not party to the immediate conversation.
Miss Manners is well aware that all such situations refer to deep emotional issues. The responsibility to welcome strangers is opposed to the responsibility of the visitor or immigrant to learn the language of the country he or she is in. The responsibility not to exclude people who are present is opposed to the responsibility not to eavesdrop on private conversations. The need to practice must be posited against the need to avoid either showing off or trying others' patience. The inestimable value and charm of diverse cultures must be weighed against the likelihood of dangerous misunderstandings.
So we look into motivation to determine whether these situations are rude.
If the newcomer is making an effort, however rudimentary, to speak the local language, the locals are supposed to make an effort, however rudimentary, to help. To snub such efforts, or not to make them, is rude.
To carry on conversations when someone who should be part of them cannot understand is rude. In the case of those who marry into families where a foreign language is spoken, the rules apply about trying and helping. However, to object to others' speaking another language among themselves is rude, and to assume that they must be talking about oneself is arrogant, unless they are also pointing and giggling.
It should be noted, however, that parents are excused from speaking a foreign language in front of their own minor children if they make it clear to the child that they are talking either about him or about something scandalous. That is called education, and has inspired many a child to learn a foreign language.
Dear Miss Manners:
Help. A male acquaintance of mine is dating a lovely lady and he has invited her to a ball that is the major social event of the season. He wants to know if he should offer to pay for her new gown and accessories, or if it is mannerly to offer to pay 50 percent of the cost. He really seems to think that there is a proper etiquette for this, and I've been trying to help him find out.
Your friend is either rich and cunning or naive and on his way to penury. He may mean well, but any lady would be insulted at the suggestion that he clothe her when taking her out.
Notice that Miss Manners said "any lady." She is well aware that many would not only accept but suggest that he include a fur wrap in case it turns chilly. It may be that he got the idea from someone who claimed she could not afford to go out with him without his giving her a clothing allowance.
Nevertheless, the fact remains that it is an indignity that should be neither offered nor accepted. Not to mention, buying wardrobes is a financially ruinous way to date.
Feeling incorrect? E-mail your etiquette questions to Miss Manners (who is distraught that she cannot reply personally) at MissManners@unitedmedia.com or mail to United Media, 200 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016.
(c) 2004, Judith Martin