THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE IRISH & AMERICANS

Bus Stop Culture
5/30/2009 8:52:31 AM

I have often said I love living in Dublin, which most Dubliners find amusing, if not shocking. Since I am a Californian, no one here can understand why I would leave behind all that sunshine for all this rain. (Although, the California sunshine is beaming down all over Ireland today.)

The thing I love most about the Irish is the sound of their voices – not just the lilt and the brogue – not just the colorful language, the inherent Joycian phraseology or the rich vocabulary, but the fact that they engage in conversation at the slightest provocation and sometimes even without it.

The Irish love to talk and debate. They are passionate and opinionated in all of the best ways – and they are generous of spirit, knowledge and delight. The worst that I can say about their gift of gab is that they tend to gossip a lot, but I’ve come to realize that this is a means to an end – the end being a robust conversation.

I’ve never been able to put my finger on the differences between Americans and the Irish when it comes to ‘friendliness,’ but yesterday I had an experience that revealed this to me quite clearly.

As I was walking to my bus stop on my way to work the shortcut I usually take through the churchyard was blocked by a gate that isn’t usually locked. When I turned around to walk back, I came across a man who was also walking across the church grounds. I wondered whether or not I should warn him about the gate, and decided it would be the right thing to do.

“If you’re going to the bus stop, the gate is closed,” I said.

“Even the gate to the parking lot?’ he asked.

“Yes,” I said. When I heard his voice, he didn’t sound Irish. “That’s not an Irish accent I hear," I said. Since I still sound 100% American, I knew this would not be pejorative and figured it was a nice way to lob a ball into his court.

“No,” was all he said. If he had been Irish, he would have seen this opening and jumped in with both feet telling me where he was from, the history of his family and how he came to be where he was. Since we were both walking to the same bus stop, not talking would have actually been discourteous, not to mention awkward. I needed a follow up to try and get the conversation going, but didn’t want to make the mistake of asking him if he were American when he could be Canadian (a mistake to which many Canadians in Ireland rightfully take offence). So I just asked him where he was from.

At this point, he looked at me. He seemed to be assessing either my motives or me. “I’m American.” Again, no further information. “Me, too,” I said, “what part?” Again, another look. “Hawaii,” he said with some reluctance, though he didn’t look Hawaiian in the least. He looked more like an Aussie who had just walked out of the outback, complete with a Stetson like hat. At this point, I decided not to force a conversation and to live with the awkward silence. Being a theatre director, I actually like it when strange tensions exist in real life because I like to create them so much on the stage.

“Do you live in the blocks?” he finally asked when he realized I wasn't going to bombard him with inane questions about his life. We were passing back onto the grounds of the building complex. It is a commercial and apartment complex of 5 buildings of glass and steel that look like something you would find in silicon valley rather than in Booterstown.

“Yes,” I said.

“I never see anyone from here,” he said.

“I know,” I said. “It’s very strange. No one is ever around here. I call it my Gattica Experience.” This time he looked at me in surprise and jumped in – “Me, too! That’s exactly what I call it. I tell my friends back home that I live in a hermetically sealed cyber building.” And then, he introduced himself, but only gave his first name.

You see, until we had something in common, until he felt comfortable that there was some synergy between us, there was no spark or reason to engage with me. The Irish don’t have this reluctance to engage. They don’t have any reason to question the motives of an innocent conversation, and their first instinct isn’t to protect themselves, it is rather to open up. There is no need to find common ground and no desire for synergy, which might lend credence to the Irish saying: ‘Is this a private fight or can anyone join in?’

At this point on our common journey, Mr. X started to engage me. Asking me where I was from, how long I had been in Ireland, and why I came here. As our chatting became more easy, he did feel it necessary to tell me that he had a partner. Since this information came out of nowhere, and seemed forced, I concluded that he was squelching any romantic or sexual notions I may have had - just in case - even though I wasn't interested in the least. 

In any conversation I have ever had with an Irish stranger, I have never felt that there were ulterior motives, nor have I ever felt that they are worried that I have ulterior motives. Yet I am always leery of my American counterparts just like Mr. X was of me. In Ireland, that kind of scrutiny is reserved for people who have proven they need to be held at arms length. Innocent until proven guilty, not the reverse, and surprisingly those with ulterior motives tend to be very upfront about needing money, drink, directions, cigarettes or a light.

As Americans it seems that we need to be guarded with everyone. There are so many stories about people being taken advantage of, especially children. And teaching children not to talk to strangers is a terrible necessity born out of the true horrors of our modern American society. But at some point, as adults, we have the ability to rightfully assess that there are certain circumstances where we are not in danger of anything. So I have to wonder if the world wouldn’t be a better place if we were all a bit more Irish and a little less American.

I certainly believe that the risk of leaving myself open to ulterior motives is far less important than missing out on the rare opportunity of making a human connection – even if that connection is a fleeting moment on a detour to a bus stop with a person I may never see again.

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