I had just finished guest-lecturing for an introductory psychology class at a small local college, when I found myself grabbing a quick bite to eat in front of the school's humanities building. Though the campus was gorgeous, the food at the small cafe was inadequate and I found myself stewing over a half-eaten sandwich and a handful of chips.
Having given up on eating, I went to throw away the rest of the meal when I heard two girls giggling amongst themselves and pointing in my general direction. They were smiling and laughing, one was even mimicking me discreetly. However, even though I could easily hear them talking, since they were speaking only in French, it was impossible for me figue out exactly what they were saying.
Not having much to do and perhaps feeling a bit braver than usual, I decided not to leave immediately and rather took a table near them. I took a book out of my bag and began reading idly, glancing up from the pages to look up at the two girls.
The girls, for their part, just kept on talking like I wasn't even there. They laughed, harassed and even pointed at me, apparently finding something about my demeanor humorous. They were obviously French students as every once in a while they'd have to look in a book to find the right word, but they were still carrying on the entire conversation in French.
I continued to observe them and let them continue their talking for a full ten minutes or so when I finally decided I had had enough.
When the time was right, I got up from my table, walked the ten paced over to them and said, "Je parle Français, vous savez," which roughly translates to "I speak French, you know."
Though my accent was rusty, the point was made clear. The two girls clammed up instantly and looks of total shock came across their faces. Seeing as how they weren't going to say anything, I continued, "Now, you know it's rude to talk about someone like that. So why don't you be honorable ladies and tell me, to my face, in plain English, what it is you were saying."
The two girls continued to stammer, one of them finally mutterd, "I am so, so sorry about… If we had known we never…"
"So it's OK to make fun of someone if you think they can't understand you?" I interjected, "That's beyond cowardly."
They rocked back in their chairs with the insult and continued to stutter, each looking to the other to speak up. "We were just having a little fun, making a few jokes you know?"
I let the comment site a few minutes before I continued, "I came over here to give you ladies a chance to redeem yourselves to see if you had the courage to tell me the full truth. However, I see that you don't have it in you after all. Seeing as how I have somewhere else to be, I'm going to bid you two adieu and hope that you learn from this experience."
With that, I tipped an imaginary hat and walked off.
I got no more than twelve steps away when another French student, this one a male, walked up to me and said, "Hey, I heard you speak French, can you help me with something real quick?"
I looked at him and smiled, "Sorry, you just heard all of the French I know."
He looked at me puzzled for a second, "But you understood them… You told them that…"
I raised a hand to silence him, "Body language is the only truly universal language. I know exactly what they said, just don't bother telling them the truth about how."
He nodded his understanding, "Got it."
I smiled at him softly, shook his hand and went about my way.