Spare some change?

For the purposes of this post I’m going to posit that there are three types of people: those who never give to beggars, those who always do when they can, and those who don’t do it automatically, but can be persuaded from time to time. Assuming that you belong to the third category, and I think a lot of people do, what is it that persuades you in a given situation to reach into your pocket for some spare change?  I ask because I’ve noticed certain distinct national variations in begging techniques.

In the UK there seem to be two basic types – the typically British, reserved, polite, “Excuse me, would you mind terribly…”, and the more aggressive “Give me a cigarette you stingy bastard!” approach.

In Italy the technique is usually silent but much more visually striking, as stylised poses of supplication and down-troddenness are struck, so that you often think someone’s left a statue of the pietà laying in the street.

During travels in both India and Morocco I noticed that display of physical impairments were the preferred method,  often accompanied by rocking back and forth, rolling of eyes and moaning. I think that this kind of thing would probably be frowned upon as excessively immodest and vulgar in England.

But the one that puzzles me is the one that seems to be favoured by beggars in the Brussels metro system. They’ll get on at your stop and, as the train starts to pull away, launch into their life story, inlcuding many of their ups and (mostly) downs. This routine has obviously been recited countless times and has therefore solidified into a set speech invariably delivered in a flat, monotonous drone. It’s invariably in a certain style of verbose, formal French which means that by the time the introduction (“Good evening ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce myself, my name is X and I find myself in the unfortunate situation of being homeless…”)  is over, the highlights of their life story have been related, and the closing remarks and salutation have been delivered (“I thank you for listening, ladies and gentlemen, and wish you a pleasant evening”) you’ve already travelled several stops, or maybe you’ve even already reached your destination.

I realise that it would be unfair to deny help to someone deserving of it simply because of their way of asking for it, but are Belgians really more likely to give a person delivering this kind of monologue a few coins, or would a simple “Excuse me, could you spare the price of a waffle” not suffice?


4 thoughts on “Spare some change?

  1. gwen February 6, 2009 / 3:39 pm

    Well, I’d guess that there’s a sort of Darwinian selection at work here, no? It seems people adapt techniques that work in their cultural environment. You need a good Belgian sociologist.

    And I find the physical supplication approach deeply unsettling. I can’t even remember exactly where I’ve encountered that, but it definitely left an impression.

    Maybe it’s disingenuous of me, but I prefer giving to charity than to individuals. I guess it’s all those years of living in San Francisco, where half the people begging are teenagers with rich parents from Marin County. It made me cynical.


  2. J February 10, 2009 / 6:49 am

    I’m much more likely to give to someone brief and who seems as though they need it. But the main thing that dictates whether I give or not is, is my wallet handy? Is there a small bill or change in it? If I have to dig, I’m sorry, it’s not happening. Though I did walk an elderly man over to McDonalds once and buy him some food. He seemed very hungry, and I only had a $20 on me, which I couldn’t spare.

    We don’t have many people asking in my neighborhood, but when I lived in San Francisco, we got a lot.


  3. Minor Heretic March 30, 2009 / 3:57 am

    There are categories. I tend not to give to hoboes, that is, people who seem to have chosen the life of the road. They made their choice. I’m with Gwen on the down-dressed suburban kids. Some people seem more just down on their luck. I almost always give to street musicians – they are providing a valuable social service. Beggars with an amusing pitch, however feeble, have a chance with me. I remember a guy in New York City with a picture frame around his neck. He was asking for legal fees because he was framed. It got a snort out of me, and some change.


  4. simonlitton March 30, 2009 / 9:30 am

    Hah! The “framed” guy would definitely have got a few quid from me.


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