Dear Miss Manners: I have noticed that many bright, educated people use a knife only to cut their food and use their fingers to nudge food onto their fork. They do it during the entire meal, not only to finish the last morsel on their plate. Is that ever proper? I realize that there are more important things to be concerned about, but it has been a concern of mine for a while.

Gentle Reader: What has puzzled Miss Manners for a good while is why anyone is astonished when bright, educated people don't eat properly. Have you never been in a college dining hall?

Dear Miss Manners: In the family in which I was raised (my grandparents were immigrants to the United States), we were taught that it is impolite to speak in a foreign language in the presence of nonspeakers who are unable to understand what you are saying.

In recent years, it has become commonplace for sales clerks, wait staff, bank tellers and other employees in service industries to converse in foreign languages in the presence of customers and other employees who do not understand what is being said. Similarly, one often hears customers speaking in foreign languages in front of sales clerks or other workers who are nonspeakers, as well as friends holding conversations with one another or family members in a foreign language in front of other nonspeakers.

Is my understanding of this rule of etiquette incorrect? Would you please be so kind as to suggest a polite response that one could make when bewildered by, and left out of, a conversation in a foreign language taking place in one's presence?

Gentle Reader: The etiquette in this situation should not be foreign to anyone. Pointedly excluding someone who belongs in the conversation has always been recognized as rude and so has pointedly intruding into conversations in which one doesn't belong. These are more commonly known as snubbing and nosiness.

So Miss Manners agrees that relatives or friends should avoid speaking a foreign language in front of nonspeakers if they can, and if they cannot, they should at least apologize and get someone to translate what they are saying. The recourse for someone who is left out is to say pleasantly, "I'm sorry, I don't understand, and I would very much like to. Could someone help me, please?" (And if she is a new daughter-in-law, against whom this technique is not uncommon, she should take secret language lessons and suddenly shock them into worrying what they might have been saying that she had quietly understood.)

But you are lumping this sort of thing with nonsocial situations among people who seem to be minding their own business. What difference is it what language they are speaking when they are not addressing you?

© Judith Martin, Dist. by United Feature Syndicate Inc.