It can be tough to talk about serious
issues in Ireland.
IrishCentral's "Why can't we ask for help?" week
, focusing on mental health awareness
, has gotten me thinking about something that I’ve struggled with as an American trying to fit into Irish culture and habits this year. It’s something that I’ve started describing as “existing in the emotional middle ground.”
As a mass generalization, I think Americans tend to share more of their personal lives with their larger social group than Irish people do. I think we wear our hearts on our sleeves a bit more, and we celebrate the good things more loudly and lament the bad things more dramatically. For better or for worse.
In my experience, many Irish people are put off or made uncomfortable by either of those extremes. If something really fabulous is happening to someone, you’ll typically hear people making [good natured] jokes about so-and-so getting too big for him or herself. You wouldn’t congratulate yourself or be openly proud about something you’ve succeeded in to your larger social circle. If you did, you’d receive a warning shot in the way of a jokey comment that’s aimed to take you down a notch, back to the status quo. “I cooked the most delicious dinner last night!” “Ah, so we think we’re Nigella Lawson now do we?”
People are most comfortable when we’re all on the same plane; no one wants to hear you celebrate yourself.
At the other end of the spectrum, no one is coming to your pity party. If I was having a really sad day and one of my co-workers casually asked me “How’s it going?”
my instinct would be to actually tell them how it was going (in couched and appropriate language for the workplace obviously).
Well, in my experience, doing so really stressed people out. They didn’t know how to react, what to say, and obviously wanted the conversation to end immediately. Again, you’d get that “warning shot” trying to bring the conversational tone back up to the status quo. “I’m feeling really homesick and lonely.” “Yeah. Well it’s best not to think about it much, isn’t it?” No one wants to hear your sob story.
So where does this leave you if you’re trying to interact socially with groups of Irish people? In the emotional middle ground.
Which, arguably, has a lot going for it. It means that people are always
up for a laugh, they always
want a chat, they’re always
keen to tell a story, they’re all always
working to have a good and comfortable time. It’s all about the banter and the craic.
But what if something really fabulous or really terrible is happening to you? And you can only mention it briefly, in an “I-don’t-really-care” tone to the people whom spend your days with? Incredibly frustrated by this, I once asked one of the other young people I work with, “Who do Irish people talk to about serious things, good or bad, since it’s not something people seem to feel comfortable with talking about in general?” He screwed up his face and thought about it. “Well…I suppose my bestfriend. Or maybe just to your girlfriend. But yeah, not everyone.”
As someone coming from a wear-your-heart-on-your-sleeve culture, this has been hard for me. My whole life, the way I have turned acquaintances into close friends is by, slowly but surely, sharing more intimate information about my life with them. In a culture where doing this nine times out of ten makes the other person uncomfortable, it means I didn’t get far making close friends this year, and it really makes me wonder how close most Irish friendships are. When so much of what’s said is for the banter and for the craic, it’s hard to know what people’s true opinions are, or what’s really going on in their lives.
There have been lots of radio and TV campaigns about mental health
in Ireland this year, with so many of them focused on simply talking and listening. As basic (and vital) as those pieces of advice are, I now understand a bit better how high that hurdle really is if you’ve been taught your whole life to exist in the emotional middle.
American over-sharing can be terrifically annoying, and in any social model there’s a happy medium. And of course there are plenty of Irish people who are more than happy to sit down and talk to you about your personal life and won’t get scared off – I just wasn’t lucky enough to find very many of them. This could all be a radical misjudgment that only applies to me because I’m NOT Irish and can't read Irish social cues as skillfully. Like I said, there are some really great outcomes to this middle-ground societal attitude, and I genuinely believe it comes out of a desire for everyone to feel equal and to have a good time, but I fear that there are some sad and lonely outcomes as well.