“The smallest human acts of kindness…”

I recently re-listened to a great episode of This American Life, a program called “Americans in Paris,” which begins with Ira Glass following David Sedaris on an extremely esoteric tour of Paris not so long after David had relocated there. (He seems to have moved on to West Sussex, England since, as revealed by this humorous bit of recent news.)

Much like the France-related essays in his book Me Talk Pretty One Day, this radio segment deals a lot with David’s struggles to learn and speak French. I think about these pieces a lot, actually, because they are tragic and embarrassing and funny and triumphant in a way that one only recognizes if one has spent a lot of time really fighting with a language in a foreign country. And they probably resonate with me all the more because although he is clearly adventurous enough to have picked up and moved to another country where he knew no one (except his boyfriend) at a high point in his own career, he doesn’t have the kind of personality which necessarily facilitates such adventure. For instance, Ira Glass asks him, “Is your experience here more of a feeling of adventure or more a feeling of humiliation?” And David’s reply is:

It’s more a feeling of humiliation. It would be a feeling of adventure if I were a different type of person, if I were a more adventurous person. But for me to get on a train and go to Switzerland, I don’t think, oh good, I get to have an adventure. I think, oh great, I get to make an ass out of myself in two different languages.


Anyway, I thought of this program again this afternoon, after an exchange I had with someone in a bakery, trying to buy a baguette. Now, I don’t know the word for baguette in Icelandic (maybe it’s just “baguette”), so I improvised a bit, after—I must add—one tourist and one Icelandic family cut in front of me to place their orders and I was getting a bit miffed.

Me (in Icelandic, pointing to baguette behind the counter): Can I have a French bread, please?

Bakery guy (in English): No. It’s sourdough.

Me (Icelandic): Yes. That one there.

Bakery guy (in English): No. It’s sourdough.

Me (Icelandic): Yes, that is fine.

Bakery guy (ENGLISH): That’s 490 krónur.

Me: (Grrrrummmble.)

Now, just before this, I had gone into the Apótek completely unprepared and bought some medicine for motion sickness in Icelandic. It wasn’t beautiful (it never is), but I got what I came for and it didn’t really cost her that much to have the conversation. This guy in the bakery had just spoken to the women who cut in front of me in Icelandic and she was, very clearly, not a native Icelandic speaker. She had turned around to one of her kids, mid-order, and asked what they wanted in English. So I really couldn’t see why he couldn’t trouble through with me, just because I misidentified the kind of bread I was pointing at. (And anyway, isn’t a baguette French? I was close enough.)

And it shouldn’t matter, because I know I can have that conversation, and I know that my accent wasn’t terrible in this moment, and I know that I basically said what I needed to say correctly. But this far along it is frustrating, and a bit demeaning to have someone switch like that in a conversation that should be so basic. So I got on the bus mad, I came home mad, and then I reread part of the transcript for the “Americans in Paris” episode and felt a bit better. Here’s the bit:

Ira Glass

We go into a chocolate shop, and a bookstore, and a cafe. And each place we go, if there’s a little conversation, just normal small talk, and it goes OK, he’s really delighted and can recite it all for me afterwards, line by line. When he first moved here– when his French class wasn’t going so well. And he was constantly being scolded by people for not understanding the simplest things, directions, prices, for the proper change. People here are crazy about exact change, he swears to me– He realized at some point that he could make it all feel better if he transformed himself from the inept foreigner to the inept foreigner with a charge card.

David Sedaris

People will be really nice to you if you spend a lot of money. So then I just started going out and buying things. I could have a bad day in school, and I’d go out after school and buy a desk or pricey lamps, because people were unfailingly nice while I was writing out that check. And I would say the most screwed up thing, and they would say, oh, you speak so well. And they would compliment me. And I would just feel so good. And then I would leave, and I would think, wait a minute. And it took a while to get that under control.

Ira Glass

See, I feel like just observing your day as an outsider, I feel like you’ve put yourself into this position where the smallest human acts of kindness have turned out to mean so much.

David Sedaris

They have, whereas before, they were things that I didn’t really think about. It doesn’t take much to make me happy now, whereas before, I feel like it took quite a bit.

Now, I don’t have the means (or, actually, the inclination) to become the “inept foreigner with a charge card”—and honestly, I’m not sure it would even work that well here, because I think shopkeepers would more often than not speak English to the inept foreigner with a charge card. But it’s that sense of how much it matters when you can get through a little no-nothing conversation, when people compliment your speaking, even when you aren’t speaking well at all. That sense that yes, “the smallest human acts of kindness have turned out to mean so much.”

If you have the time, it’s a great full episode and you can listen to it here (or just the David Sedaris bits which are the  intro and the first act) or read the full transcript here.

11 thoughts on ““The smallest human acts of kindness…”

  1. I love This American Life, to the extent that on occasion my own inner monologue sounds like Ira Glass…

    Out of curiosity I did a google translate. Apparently baguette is baguette.

    You keep talking the good talk, and remember French bread can also be used to knock people over the head. Just sayin.

  2. I wonder what people’s experiences are in other Scandinavian countries where English is also widely spoken as a second language. Do people learning Norwegian or Swedish or Danish or Finnish run into this switching problem? The Icelanders sure do seem to make you work for it if you want to speak their language 🙂

    • Sometimes they do, Mark, although I think this was frustrating particularly because it is less common these days for me than maybe it used to be. From my memory of trying to learn Danish, I feel like Icelanders are more willing, on average, to let you muddle up Icelandic—provided it looks like you can manage at least a little.

  3. I think it depends on who has the “upper hand.” Spanish speakers new to the US are often at the mercy of the existing situation, especially if they are poor. In my experience, anyone willing to communicate in their language, however unskillfully, will get a delighted, overjoyed response.
    On the other hand, when an English speaker is the “supplicant”, as in a business situation, the tables are turned. It takes courage to risk being humiliated but people do it because the rewards outweigh the pain.

    • I think you’re right that the dynamics can vary, Pete. I remember growing up in Arizona that I often had the sense that people would speak Spanish (often pretty bad Spanish) to people they didn’t think spoke English. If those people did speak English, it ended up being pretty offensive to them that it was assumed that they couldn’t communicate in English, or that the English-speaker could somehow communicate better in Spanish. But as a rule, yes, people were/are pretty friendly in the US when you try and speak Spanish, I think, particularly if it’s clear that you’re trying to learn yourself.

  4. I’ve been living in English-speaking countries for 18 years… and I still have those fears and those moments of humiliation and frustration! And after 18 years, it hurts even more 😉 And in 2 days, I will be arriving in Iceland and feeling like a complete idiot because I am a linguist and won’t be able to pronounce the simplest Icelandic word and people will have to speak English to me and they will think “those darn Americans who can never make an effort!” and English is not even my first language and I am not even American 😦 With a bit of luck, a volcano will erupt and I’ll be stuck in Iceland a few months, just long enough to start learning the language 🙂

    • It looks like you might just get your eruption, Doctor! I’m sure that any effort you make at Icelandic will be appreciated, but don’t beat yourself up if it’s rough going. Linguist or not, this language is rough! Have a nice time on your visit!

    • Hey, thanks, Fríða! Good to know that my guess word was actually a real word. Weenie for sure.

      I’ll need to develop a thick skin about these sorts of flub ups, though—I just started working in an after-school program for kids and so far I’ve had at least a dozen small children tell me, in one way or another, that I “speak weird” or ask each other in hushed voices “What is she saying?”

  5. Haha! From the mouths of babes – trust me, they are the quickest to correct my mistakes, too. Which, when you think about it, is preferable to constantly saying the wrong thing and adults being too “polite” to correct you.

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