There was a French phrase that my parents used fairly often when I was a child: pas devant. Depending on context, this is shorthand for either pas devant les enfants (not in front of the children—or as Timon told Pumba in Disney’s The Lion King—“not in front of the kids”) or pas devant les domestiques (not in front of the servants). My parents generally used the first meaning. Now that I think of it, I’m not sure that either of them actually spoke French beyond a few useful phrases, and they stopped using it to exclude me the day I looked up from where I was playing on the floor and said “Twenty-five what?” I believe I was eight at the time; my school started foreign languages in third grade, and French was my favorite class.
I learned the second meaning as well, mostly from the books I read. Emerson used it in TheMummy Case, by Elizabeth Peters, which is a bit of a joke, because Emerson didn’t worry about what he said in front of his servants. His wife’s reaction was “Naturally I paid no attention to this remark, which was only meant to annoy me.” Unlike many of his contemporaries (the book is set in 1894-1895) Emerson talked to his servants, even in the middle of dinner. He didn’t regard them as the walking equivalent of furniture.
This attitude still exists in some places today. I have a friend who plays the harp and is a truly gifted musician, but I have heard her describe her job at some of her gigs as “musical wallpaper.” Of course, when she is hired to provide background music for a party, she expects this. A lot of people are ignored at a large party, particularly one that includes dinner.
There were two things the girls at my boarding school were all required to take turns at: waiting tables at dinner, and running the switchboard. This meant that we all graduated with at least two usable job skills (I spent the summer I turned eighteen working as a long distance operator for the local phone company) and also taught us what it felt like to stand silently near a table until it was time for the next course or somebody wanted a refill on her drink. I hope that it also taught us never to be rude to a telephone operator, receptionist, or waitress. I personally feel it’s unfair to be rude to people who are not in a position to be rude back. Just because you can snap at a waiter who mixes up your order doesn’t mean that you should. I was a camp counselor one summer, and I had the most polite table of campers in the entire dining room. The staff loved us.
There are still people today who ignore the “servants,” even to the point of forgetting that they are in the room. They have forgotten what pas devant means and why it’s a useful phrase. There are some things you don’t want to say in front of the servants—especially the servants with camera phones. “There are 47 percent of the people who...” is probably the best recent example.