The Not-Quite-Secret Language

In the Sunday Times column Social Qs, an inquirer asked,

My adult family and I went to dinner at an Italian trattoria. When the owner led us to a table near a family with bouncy children, I asked, in Italian, if he could seat us someplace quieter. He did. After we were seated, the woman from the table with children came up to me and said: “Don’t worry. We’ll be leaving soon.” She had clearly heard and understood me. I think she crossed a social boundary. You?”

SHE crossed a boundary? The questioner says something within earshot of another party who might be offended by it, and doesn’t have the guts to be open and honest ,  or, in the alternative, to discuss the matter with the restaurant staff privately. Maybe the woman would have crossed a social boundary if she said,  ‘Guess what, dickwad, you’re not the only one who speaks Italian!” But she didn’t; she just behaved as if the request had been in English, and the Italian-as-secret-code user was embarrassed.


If someone assumes that a long conversation isn’t being heard or understood, and it is, the listener is ethically obligated to reveal that he or she hears and understands what is being said. Otherwise it is eavesdropping. That’s not what happened in the restaurant, though.

This reminded me of an anecdote related to me long ago by my late law school roomie Leo, an ex-Marine. Leo spoke Vietnamese, and while on the bus, he heard a Vietnamese couple mocking a black veteran—in their language—who was sitting nearby, with various racial epithets and other insulting comments. When the bus stopped and the veteran got up to leave, he turned around, walked up to the couple, and said, in Vietnamese, “Fuck you.”

Leo said he stood up and applauded.

32 thoughts on “The Not-Quite-Secret Language

  1. Very related story: during law school, studied a semester in Sweden. Went to Russia with a couple of classmates for a week-ish (a little longer, but that is my story as an illegal alien). One classmate spoke Spanish well and Russia poorly (but both better than me and the other guy). Standing in line to get into the Hermitage (or somewhere), my classmate turned and to a man and his kid and muttered something. She told us that the man told his son that we did not look like students (law students paying with their student IDs); she set them straight!

    The man was taken aback.

    Granted, I was older than the average student and sufficiently bearded and disheveled.

    But, picture it: an American pushing back on a Spaniard in Russia (in Spanish).


  2. My wife had a similar experience. She and a friend were at a restaurant at the mall. Her friend is Muslim and wears a hijab. My, though Mexican, looks Western European.

    While selecting their food, the servers (Hispanics) said to each other: “Mira a estas mujeres. Las dos son terroristas y te apuesto que van a tirar una bomba.”

    Hearing this, my wife unloaded on them in Spanish, demanding to talk to the manager. She didn’t make a scene but she put them in their places. The manager was horrified and bent over backwards to accommodate them, after sending the two offenders on their way.


  3. The only two eavesdroppers we need to be worrying about are Alexa and Siri. Those two hens need to be dealt with post haste. I think we should have a federal law fining companies $500K for every recording made without obtaining an explicit approval of each recording at the time each recording is made. That would put a quick and final end to those chatty Cathy’s. No more corporate bugging of American homes.

    • There are valid uses, like mobility limited or someone not able to use a standard keyboard, so there is no shoving that genie back into the bottle. However, the AI should only have local/home network access, not the data harvesting feedback loop with its masters. The AI and its database are probably too big to fit in personal tablets and netbooks, and too reliant on outside helpers. I’m planning to wait until there is a personal ‘Alexa’ servant who has no loyalty to any big corporation… It may be a while.

      • Kind of to your point we have a half dozen Alexa devices, 8 if you count the two fire TVs devices. They are fantastic devices and there are easy ways to stay secure with them. Back to your point my kids don’t have cell phones and I have a decent amount of property and buildings so if they need me instead of having a PA or bell like a lot of farms around me my kids can just ask Alexa to contact me, or call an ambulance, ask how long to warm something up, shut down the idiot box after a specified time, stop certain internet enabled devices or a million other things. I try to let my kids have a lot of freedom but I don’t want them to have the same risk I had as a kid. How I survived childhood is a mystery, I know it was good for me and my life experience but this allows me to not be a helicopter parent but also gives my kids a tool to minimize some risk, give themselves more control than I had and to manage excesses. Oh and by using more technology, Samsung smart things, the Alexas get power cut a certain times and on command. I am still an old paranoid Marine.

        • All well and good, Steve, as long as you realize that Alexa IS eavesdropping despite your precautions.

          All security is a balancing act between totally secure and totally open. If you don’t mind this feature of the device, then use it for the benefits.

          I won’t even use social media, much less allow a webcam or microphone in my presence. YMMV

          • I will say this: I am more trusting of Amazon and Alexa than I am of Google. Fundamentally, it’s because when it comes to social media and search engine providers, you are not their customer. The customer is the advertiser and/or anyone ponying up the money to buy the data that they collect.

            Selling that data is their primary business.

            With Amazon, on the other hand, I am the customer. Amazon’s primary business is the selling of things to ME where I am choosing to send them MY money. Presuming that they want me to continue buying products from them, they have a strong financial incentive to try not to piss me off.


  4. I’ll admit that, when I’m preparing a tax return, it is somewhat annoying when the couple is chattering away in Spanish, Chinese, French, or whatever. Even at my advanced age, it almost makes me want to learn Spanish……

    • It’s the opposite with me. When I knew I was retiring to a home in Chinatown, I thought it would be nice to be where I didn’t know the language. I already had three other languages and a smattering of four or five more and at my age, language-learning is practically impossible — one layers over another, such as thinking in Japanese but it’s coming out in French, the previous language learned. The Cantonese and Mandarin in various dialects flow around me as white noise. I have rarely had more privacy and in a very real sense, quiet. I took on just enough to be civil and operational: greetings, happy new year, lovely/awful weather, thanks, a ten count, a food vocabulary and “sorry, that’s all I know”. My neighbors are happy too. They don’t have to get into awkward conversations every time we meet. So it turns out I was right (for me. No one else seems to agree, though, but that’s okay – they’re young yet.).

      • No, I can understand your feelings, I think. When I am in other situations it doesn’t make any difference to me, as a rule. It’s simply when a couple is seated in front of me and asking me to perform a service for them…..
        And no, I’m not talking about the other sort of situation where someone brings — typically their child — another person in to interpret for them. That’s a whole different can of worms.

  5. Did your friend Leo have any ethical obligation to step in and say anything to the offending couple denigrating his compatriot?

  6. I didn’t check the source article but the lady may have just assumed she was overheard in Italian when it may have just been her gestures and bearing that communicated the message.

    • To say nothing of her having been seated and then quickly moved. It would be difficult for the mother to imagine anything other than the other customer didn’t want to be seated by her and her kids.

      I’m just surprised we don’t see an article out there titled, “To the Customer Who Kid-Shamed Me at a Restaurant” yet.

  7. As a graduate of the Defense Language Institute* back several decades or so ago, I was exposed to a great many languages over the course of my studies. I came away with a rudimentary understanding of quite a few languages, and how they interact.

    (Many rural Texans can understand basic tex-mex, which gives you a corrupted view into Spanish, which informs one about many romance languages through Latin cognates. So I had a foundation already established.)

    For instance, I understood Farsi (back then) well enough to follow certain words and phrases, especially the less reputable ones.** On a trip back home for the holidays, I stopped at a gas station in the Houston area that was staffed by Farsi speakers. They were making derogatory comments about customers, as evidenced by the words I understood, gestures, and body language. When it was my turn to pay, I made sure to make eye contact, and thanked them in Farsi. They were shocked, and one of them seemed embarrassed.

    But an even more revealing incident occurred after I was back in Texas, in college. I spoke (speak) German, and my girlfriend (now the wonderful Mrs. Slickwilly) was from a German speaking area of Texas. On a visit I had occasion to go grocery shopping in San Antonio with her father, who grew up speaking tex-deutch, a lingo descended from 1850’s German. As we stood in line to check out, there were two hispanic women in front of us who were criticizing the gringa (‘white,’ for you no habla yankees) check-out lady in Spanish… or tex-mex, if you prefer. They were being quite nasty, describing her personal habits and general appearance with colorful language, all the while quite secure that no one could understand them.

    I turned to my future father-in-law and began discussing the weather… in German. Now you may know that in Spanish, even curse words sound like poetry to the American ear. Likewise, terms of endearment in German sound like curse words to that same listener. Needless to say, our conversation stood out without having to raise our voices.

    The latinas were shocked, and then were very angry. How dare we speak in a language they did not know! They were quite sure we were speaking about them. After all, that was what they were using their ‘secret code’ to do. They acted offended, while we simply ignored them the entire time. After all, we were not speaking about them, were we?

    *This is not giving my identity away: The NSA already know who I am, and that list of graduates is classified… and hard to access anyway, for obvious reasons

    **I kept (and still have) a journal of how to curse in several dozen languages… this being an area most students researched despite it being off the official curriculum. To this day I can curse in, of all things, Polish, Chinese, Russian, and Welsh.

    • A buddy’s family hosted a Swedish exchange student for a year while he was in high school, during which time they restored a Corvette and shipped it to Sweden. While working in the shop, the Swedish student taught my buddy lots of Swedish. A few years later, my buddy went to Sweden to visit the exchange student’s family and the Corvette. Upon being introduced to the family’s beautiful (Swedish) daughter, my buddy took the opportunity to not only compliment the daughter’s good looks but honor his hosts by demonstrating his mastery of their native tongue. So, he said he thought the daughter was very beautiful in the Swedish he’d learned, in an auto shop. The parents were horrified and all the boys in the family collapsed in laughter, my buddy having announced, literally, “The bitch is tits up!”

    • DLI: My military career never afforded that opportunity for me. I had to learn languages “the hard way” – on my own (still am). Seriously, I know those DLI courses were tough. I did make to the Naval PG School, though, a couple of times. I love that part of California.

      Anyway, one of my “whitey dreams” is to be able to walk into, and linger with, a crowd of either Vietnamese, or Chinese, or Japanese speakers, and just watch them assume I don’t understand them. Ideally, to fulfill my dream, I would eventually speak up in their language, about baseball, and say something about the Houston Astros being criticized unfairly for stealing the signs from their opponents.

  8. Restaurant ethics: We’ve befriended Dave McNally’s former sister-in-law recently. A wonderful lady. She told us of her husband having dinner at a Baltimore restaurant back in the ’60s with his brother Dave, Brooks Robinson and Jim Palmer. A guy sees them at the table, identifies the three Orioles and insists Dave’s brother is also a famous ballplayer he can’t put a name to. Everyone denies his claim. The three ball players all give the guy their autograph but he insists car dealer Jim McNally give him his autograph. The guy won’t leave without the fourth mystery autograph. Finally, the three ball players decide they’ve had enough. Dave McNally says to the guy, “You’re right. That’s Whitey Ford! Go ahead Whitey, give him your autograph.” Which Jim McNally did, signing as Whitey Ford.

    • Kinda of like when a celeb is approached and the fan say you’re? you’re?

      The celeb says his name

      Fan says no – you’re?

      • Hah. Well, there is that.

        My favorite part of the story is they picked Whitey Ford, the most dominant Yankee pitcher of the era.

  9. This seems like a common movie/TV gag. You figure enough people have seen something like this to know better.

    But I’ll share my experiences. Living in China I had a number of people to something like this. They would speak about me in Chinese assuming I had no clue what they were talking about. Come on people, I’m in your country, I’m not in a tourist area, assume I know something about your language. My favorite occurred when I was back home. I was having lunch with a friend in a small Chinese restaurant (we were the only customers in there). We could hear what I assumed to be two sisters talking about us and one of them commented on how handsome one us was (wasn’t sure which one she was talking about). She kept teasing her sister to get a number because she needed to get laid.

    After we were done. I told the sisters in Chinese that while the food was ok, I wish I could show my friend some traditional Chinese dishes. The sister that was doing the teasing turned red and left. The other sister laughed and said, maybe she would cook something for us some time.

    While I lived in that city I would go in there occasionally, but it seemed like anytime the embarrassed sister saw me, she always went the other way. Perhaps she learned a lesson.

    • JP, upon reading Jack’s post, my first thought was “Why would someone assume they and the hostess or owners were the only people in an ITALIAN restaurant who could speak Italian?” Isn’t this more a brains or rudimentary common sense issue than a manners issue? Being aware of your surroundings is fairly essential, non?

  10. Yeah….. nah. The core of your argument is that talking about someone within ear shot is somehow disrespectful. I dont see how. If I walk around town in a clown outfit people are going to talk about me as I pass them. If I over hear them or not is irrelevant to whether or not it’s disrespectful – my behavior invites comment and there’s no ethical failure in people reacting to the intentional or unintentional invitation.

    To bring it to restaurant ethics specifically: If you’re at a table and your table is making a ruckus (loud children, drunken adults, etc.) in an otherwise calm restaurant you have made yourself a topic of the local public conversation. Absolutely nothing wrong with people discussing their current environment. If you over hear it too bad – you dont get to skyline yourself and complain when your draw people’s attention.

    More over not wanting the other table to hear your request to be moved is no way cowardly. Youre out of your mind on that call. If they were denigrating the other table then sure maybe you’d have a case for cowardice – fighting words absent the willingness to actually fight. But dear god, they asked to be moved. My mind is literally blown that you find that cowardly. What was the guy/gal supposed to do? Let look at the evidence.

    1) The parents had signaled some level of disregard for the people around them by allowing their children to bounce all over the place.
    2) The restaurant had signaled some willingness to accept this level of ruckus by not having the staff enforce some polite noise boundary on the table.

    Now for some reasonable suppositions based on the evidence and personal experience.

    A) Casual disregard for the people around you is inversely related to social agreeableness. So for example, if you’re the kind of person who will talk during a movie at a movie theater you’re also probably the kind of person that will see any kind of criticism as a conflict. Not guaranteed for sure, but certainly correlated.

    B) I go to the movies a lot in a dense city metro and I often have people talk during the movies. I nearly always say something to them after a few minutes of distraction – my go to phrase is ‘Hey, can you not talk during the movie’ delivered with an emotionless stating-an-accepted-fact tone. Greater than 50% of the time they take it poorly and tell me something to the effect of ‘fuck off’ while ultimately shutting up (like 5% of times they dont and I get the manager). Each and every time I get that fuck you response, I spend the next 10 minutes seething in impotence because my options are to respond and escalate (like I want) and make a larger distraction for everyone in the movie, go get the manager (missing some of the film) and ask him to kick someone out who will will almost certainly be quiet by the time I get back, or wait and see if they shut up. It’s a shitty 10min that ruins a good portion of the movie if not the entirety of the movie. Don’t ask why I keep going – I have a reason but it’s irrelevant to the argument.

    C) This style or restaurant (trattoria), while not haute cuisine, is also not chuckee cheese. Diners can reasonably expect the hum and occasional pop of dinner conversation. In this style of restaurant they cannot reasonably be expected to tolerate kids bouncing all over the place. If they choose to tolerate it, great but expecting and wanting a meal without children bouncing around is perfectly reasonable.

    D) The people around the table had signaled willingness to tolerate the kids. That island of noise was therefore unlikely to support a social pressure bid to quiet the children.

    So basically, our erstwhile diner had the choice between saying something and probably getting an unsupported social conflict out of it OR asking to be moved to one of the quite zones. Sophie’s choice this is not. The diner chose the win-win option of not dealing with the loud table and not risk a social conflict that could have soured an otherwise relaxing dinner. They also pursued it in way that was reasonably likely to cause the least inconvenience to the wait staff and the offending table – asking in a foreign language before they’d been seated. Sucks that they other table knew Italian but *shurg* see my previous comments about what reasonable expectations are when you’re standing out in public.

    This choice was proven especially prudent when the woman was so socially agreeable and graceful that she sought them out to make a snitty comment. What are the odds that someone with that kind of gall would have taken “Hey can you not make a ruckus next to me table” well? I wouldn’t bet the relaxation of my dinner on it.

    No sir, asking to me moved, regardless of how, is a perfectly valid and ethical move given the balance of likely outcomes and the fact that you can’t make a spectacle of yourself and complain when people talk about it.

    Soon, Alamo theater will be opening up the next city over from me. I will literally only ever go to the movies there – they have a noise reporting system that allows you to flag the offending area and a member of the staff will hover and remove anyone making noise during the movie. Jack, am I coward for wanting a reasonable noise standard without having to play the complex and delicate game of enforcing social standards during what should be a relaxing time? I doubt very much that you’d think I was. This diner is in the same boat my dude.

    This very much reminds of the last time we had this argument at the beginning of the culture war’s upturn a few years ago. Where there was a special needs kids making noise at a table and someone made an off hand comment about it and the waiter no shit kicked them out. I think you might have an ethical blind spot when it comes to kids and their behavior in public. In my opinion you are far too quick to forgive the parents derelictions and expect everyone else to kinda just take it on the chin.

    P.S. I’ll pop in every now and again but the commenting kills me. Lately I’ve spent a couple hours per comment and that usually leaves me with a decent argument and some not so decent sentence structure and formatting. It takes something like 4 hours per post to get the arg and the editing done. I don’t have the kind of free time that it takes to keep up anymore. Youre the Stephen King of Ethics and I’ll read you as fast as you can write – I just wont be able to comment very often.

      • Greater than 50% of the time they take it poorly and tell me something to the effect of ‘fuck off’ while ultimately shutting up (like 5% of times they dont and I get the manager). Each and every time I get that fuck you response, I spend the next 10 minutes seething in impotence because my options are to respond and escalate (like I want) ….

        What helps me with that is the knowledge that at some point, the asshole you’re dealing with is going to run into another asshole, and they will annihilate one or both. Some people lament road rage – I love it. When someone gets all ragey, I separate myself from them. Other assholes will bristle and bingo, shooting happens. One of the biggest lies ever is “I was minding my own business and bam, this guy shot me.” Nope, you were an asshole who crossed paths with a bigger asshole.

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