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Making Friends - Excellent article
« on: November 20, 2002, 07:45:14 PM »
Why the Céad Míle Fáilte isn't always what it seems
 
The friendly Irish - it's almost a contradiction says HOWEI SIM. They'd almost cut off their arm if they thought you needed it. But at the same time they don't invest in you - wouldn't care if they never saw you again. Herein lies a cautionary tale about ourselves  
 
I brought my daughter Liadh to a play centre the other day. It was one of those with bouncing castles and rooms full of coloured balls you can bury yourself in. There I met L, a mother of two. Dark curly hair fell over her face attractively and she seemed to me to be happy and fulfilled. She had an air of unselfconsciousness that I have not come across very often in Irish women.  
 
Inevitably, we got talking about our children, and then the subject turned to where I am from and how I find life in Ireland. Of course, from my few years here I am now quite restrained in what I say (I used to actually try to answer the question). I mentioned the usual predictable nice things about Ireland and didn't go into any negative experiences. As a guest in this country, I feel I cannot frankly discuss anything other than rosy impressions with most Irish people. Besides, in the early days when I used to actually try to answer the question, it wasn't too long before their eyes would start to glaze over. Nowadays I say I love it (I think I actually do despite everything), make a few jokes about the Guinness and move on to the weather.  
 
What she said next came as a surprise. "Ireland is a really unfriendly place. And all that people say about the Irish being really friendly people it's a lie!"  
 
I was amazed. I'd never heard an Irish person say this before and indeed many Irish would be shocked if they heard this. Yet, time and time again, when I meet another foreigner like myself, I know it will not be long before they tell me, almost apologetically, that they have not found it at all easy to make friends here.  
 
It seemed we all travelled along the same trajectory. When we first arrived, everyone seemed delightfully friendly. We'd have lots of fun going to the pub, have many easy, even intimate, conversations with people whom we had just met. They would ask you all about your life, ask very personal questions about things you wouldn't even tell your mother. You'd feel you'd made a connection possibly even a great friend. And then all of a sudden it would stop.  
 
You meet the person another day and he or she would just pass you in the corridor without even a hello or a smile. Especially in the work place when people are under pressure, stripped of social niceties, you realise very quickly that what you thought was the beginning of friendship was only good conversation.  
 
A Frenchman who lived here for a number of years once said to me, and this was in the early months when I didn't believe him, that when you first meet an Irish person you quickly get to a certain level with him, and you are delighted. But then the next time you meet him, you find that you talk about the same things all over again. Your 'friendship' never gets beyond where it was at first. Whereas in France it is more difficult to get past the initial stage, once you are past that, you move on to the next stage and the next. Here, it's hard to get past the initial stage, and with most people, you never do.  
 
At that time I thought he sounded a little hysterical. But it wasn't long before I began to experience what he described.  
 
continued next post  


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Continued
« Reply #1 on: November 20, 2002, 07:46:07 PM »
They say the Irish are warm and welcoming and it's true. But it's a perceived warmth that can be misleading. You can have a long conversation with someone and presume that you've made a friend but for the Irish person it doesn't necessarily mean anything and this can be quite hurtful. Where I come from, once you have had that sort of interaction with a person, you know where you stand from then on.  

Slowly you learn to protect yourself by doing the same thing, Stick to small talk, don't tell anyone anything you wouldn't mind the whole world knowing about, talk about the weather, a lot. Be humorous. Answer a question with another question. Talk a lot but say nothing. Be entertaining. If you disagree, don't engage, keep your opinion to yourself, or just talk with the person as if you agree. If you really disagree, say nothing. Create a crashing silence. It always works. And whatever you do, don't say anything bad about anyone, ever. Because Ireland is so small.  

You simply learn to withdraw, to keep a distance, just like an Irish person would.  

At least now, five and a half years on, I know a little more about the way of life here so that I can stand apart from the disappointment and understand why it's like this.

First, I have to say nothing has happened which gives me the impression that Irish people are intentionally unfriendly. In fact, there have been countless incidences which only illustrate how kind and helpful people are. And most unselfishly so.  

I'm reminded of the time when I skidded off the road while driving back from work.. In a matter of minutes, the other drivers got out, a couple of passersby directed traffic, someone towed my car out of the ditch and everyone went on his way. I barely had time to thank them for their help. Perhaps that's only to be expected in such chance encounters. But sometimes I think it is always like that with Irish people. They'd almost cut off their arm if they thought you needed it. But at the same time they don't invest in you wouldn't care if they never saw you again.

There is a comfort level beyond which people do not go. Life is very much centred on the family and friends from a long time ago. It's pretty insular that way. But that's not to say that it's wrong. After all, in life, as we get older, we simplify, we need less, we acquire less, we ruthlessly prune the unworn denim jackets and so too the friendships. This just seems to happen pretty early on here.

Social life here centres on the pub. But you can hardly have a decent conversation when you are in the middle of a dense crowd, where you end up shouting into the other person's ear. Anyway, you're not meant to be saying anything meaningful: it's just to pass the time, just the craic to sing, to laugh, to tell stories, to have a good time.  

I don't drink and that doesn't help. I used to go the pub but gave up after a while. Being the only sober one in the group, it isn't long before I realise that the conversation has gone to a different level, actually, a different planet altogether. I think a lot of Irish people need alcohol in order to let go of their reserve, to loosen the tongue, to speak more frankly. Otherwise, people are too careful what they say. This is when as a newcomer, you think you've made a friend but it is very different when that person is sober the next morning. I think he literally forgets that he told you his whole life story and that he actually cried on your shoulder. There's always the excuse, it was the drink talking.

In this country, Irish people and foreigners alike are simply not allowed to be direct or honest. This comes from being used to living in small communities there is an intrinsic fear of offending. Ireland can be a lonely place when a lot of conversation is just small talk and people don't say what they actually think. I think a lot of Irish people are reserved and intensely private people, with a huge respect for the privacy of others too. That's part of why we have the likes of Lisa Stansfied (I once fought over a bar stool with her in Neary's before I realised who she was) and other pop-stars living here they can walk down the street and be left alone.  

There's a lighter side to all this of course. It does make life a lot more pleasant, when every point of human contact is smoothed through with some harmless banter and fun.  

When I first arrived, I might meet someone and she might say: "Oh, we must have lunch." Innocently, I would ring the person up and be met with this awful feeling that she never expected to see me again. I've heard stories about people hiding when someone they've met on vacation takes their invitations seriously and turns up at the door. It's quite funny actually, but again there lies the myth of the friendly Irish.  

Well, I realise now it's not that people here are unfriendly, it's just there is a level of reserve that has evolved and it's one of these things I've had to get used to. So while at first you think you can make friends quickly, like everywhere else these things take time.  

continued next post  



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Conclusion
« Reply #2 on: November 20, 2002, 07:46:48 PM »
Would all this be any different in Malaysia or Singapore? For one thing, instead of being centred on drink, social life is centred on food. The equivalent of a pub might be the neighbourhood Indian mamak stall and accompanying group of hawkers selling all kinds of noodles and delectables. My friends and I would sit there under the angsana tree, chatting into the early hours, the cool breeze fanning the steam off our char koay teow. Or the local coffeeshop, for an ice cold Milo Ping the yuppie equivalent now being the nearest Starbucks for a mochachino and carrot cake. Believe it or not, it's possible to have fun (and proper conversation) without going blind drunk.

There's also a level of informality and spontaneity too. There's nothing wrong with dropping in unexpectedly maybe the communal way of eating makes it easier. You always cook extra rice, perhaps a subconscious contingency plan in case someone drops in unexpectedly. If that happens, we just draw up another chair and the guest has all the rice he wants and can share in the dishes like everyone else. On festival days in Malaysia, very often we have an 'open' house literally anyone (regardless of race) is welcome and you can help yourself with all the delicious food. There always seems to be plenty more.

Because there is such a hotchpotch of the different Malay, Indian and Chinese cultures, people tend to be quite open to cultural differences. Small differences, such as whether you are Catholic or Protestant, are not even registered. Of course, that is not to say there is no racism; there is inevitably a degree of racial stereotyping but, in a country made up mainly of immigrants, there is an intrinsic need to reach out whereas, in Ireland, there is no such need and life revolves around the familiar.

Back to the lovely woman at the play centre, we chatted for a long time about our children and how Santa had come to Goff's. It is the first time I am bringing Liadh to see Santa and I'm pretty excited. She tells me all about her few years in the US and related how when she first arrived her neighbours dropped in and made her feel very welcome. Her husband arrives and her two children fly into his arms. Her youngest boy demands to know why they can't bring my baby daughter, Ciara, home with them.

They get up to go and I know we were both thinking the same thing that in another place, we might have exchanged phone numbers and tried to keep in touch. We had so much in common and we had made a connection. But not in Ireland. Not in Ireland.

Malaysian Ho Wei Sim is a corporate lawyer with one of the leading firms in Ireland. She lives in Summerhill, County Meath, with her husband, Donal and her two daughters, Ciara and Liadh. She has written a short film which was recently shown at the Galway Film Festival and on TG4 (in Irish)


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