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.