The Language of Kindness
(Ruth) If there is one thing that links the 14 countries we’ve cycled across it's kindness. The kindness of our friends and families supporting us back home and the kindness of strangers we’ve met on the road, it is what is fuelling this adventure in so many ways.
But, speaking about kindness isn’t always easy. Defining it in a shared language is hard enough. Our discussions with people who speak English have revealed nuances that aren’t apparent on first mention. Is it innate within all of us? Is it a skill that can be learned and practiced? Is it a form of empathy? Sympathy? Of shared responsibility? If being kind makes you feel good could it even be described as a form of selfishness?
Try adding language barriers into the mix and the conversation takes even more unexpected turns. In Switzerland, we learnt that the direct translation of kindness in French is ‘gentil’ and isn’t normally used in the same way as in English. As I understood it, you’re more likely to use this term when speaking about a child and it can be dismissive to call an adult ‘gentil.’ Melanie, our host in Fribourg told us a story to try and explain this. She said her classmate had to introduce everyone in the room to a new student. When they got to Melanie, they described her as ‘gentil’ or ‘kind’. Melanie said she felt disappointed, she said they could have chosen anything interesting about her and this description made he seem boring . Gilbert, a French speaking Swiss, suggested that using sympathique might be appropriate. It’s more akin to compassion and suggests someone is actively doing kind things. Similarly in Turkey, our friend Okan said that the first translation that came to mind in Turkish was ‘kiber.’ He said it meant kind but also polite and civilised.
Whilst these are definitions are all under a similar umbrella, I wouldn’t describe all of the kind acts we’ve experienced as ‘polite’ and I certainly don’t think that any of the people we’ve met have been boring. More often than not they sway towards the radical side. They’re the people who aren’t afraid to open their doors to foreigners. They’re often the people at protests, volunteering within their community or feeding the stray cats. They’ve been excited by life, learning Chinese ‘because it seemed interesting’ or cycling across their own country ‘to fall in love with it again.’ They’ve challenged stereotypes, disagreed with authority and never once felt ‘too nice’ or ‘boring.'
As we've fumbled around the limitations of words and circled around definitions, the most common landing place is that kindness is something you ‘just do.’ You do it without expectation of reward or reciprocation and often without really thinking about it. Anything more considered seems to fall into another category, perhaps charity, hospitality, empathy or friendship.
I couldn’t list all the acts of kindness that we’ve received on this journey so far. But I agree that it seems to come from a natural place within people and there is an element of ‘just doing.’ It usually takes the form of ‘you’re doing something I recognise as challenging so I would like to help make things a little easier’. The why and how seemingly coming as a secondary thought. The acts are in many ways simple: a room for the night, a pair of slippers, a cup of tea or some encouraging words. But they have such big impact on us.
We’re working on how to make language more conducive with kindness. Not that people don’t understand what kindness is, because like love, hate it’s a human staple. It’s global and universal. But, we’re learning to avoid certain words when we talk about ‘defining’ kindness and not getting too tied up in linguistics.
In many ways, we’re learning to be less British about it all. We have a tendency to be rather round-about when speaking and when you don’t share English as a first language it’s much better to talk in a straight line. There have been many instances when our British reserve and politeness has ended up confusing people. For example, in Bulgaria we were sharing a huge homemade meal with a family. Sonya, the mother, offered me some more lutenitsa when I was completely full. Instead of saying no, I said something along the lines of ‘No, I really couldn’t, honestly... I’m ok thanks.’ For someone who isn’t a native English speaker, that answer is full of contradictions. There’s a no but also an apparent yes - ‘ok, thanks.’ It leaves an awkward pause, slight confusion and in this instance, another huge dollop of delicious lutenitsa that I had to force myself to eat.
Being direct is, it seems, often the kindness thing. Telling people out right what you want and need means that they can help you, which is what they want to do. I remember admiring this quality in our first host in Holland. Karin was straight talking, very well travelled and very to the point. When we told her about our interest in exploring kindness around the world, she almost brushed it off. She said ‘what’s to explore, it’s just normal.’ Which brings us back to the idea that kindness is something you ‘just do.’ I agree to an extent. But we can certainly learn to do more of it and to express the impact it has on us. We can dismiss any notion that it’s boring or always polite. It’s empowering us to continue on this journey and has unlimited potential to fuel so much more.