Cultural distancing

Coffee Pod, Donegal, July 2020.

By Francine Cunningham

Ask the average foreign visitor how they would describe the Irish and the typical response is ‘friendly’. Not exactly an original thought. Yet now that I’m spending time back on Irish soil I can’t help asking myself when does that pervasive friendliness cross the line? When does it start to make me feel uncomfortable?

Below are some casual interactions I’ve experienced in Dublin (some during pre-Covid times).

Scene 1: At the nail bar, the manicurist asks me if I’m going out that evening. When I say ‘yes’ the questions come thick and fast:  ‘Is it a special occaison?’ Who are you going with?’ ‘What restaurant are we going to?’  ‘What kind of food does it have?’ ‘What are you going to wear?’ ‘How are you getting home again?’ After three questions I become twitchy and slightly uneasy.

Scene 2: I’m absorbed reading a newspaper in a Dublin city centre coffee bar, when the person at the next table starts talking to me. I’ve never met him before. There was no particular reason and no particular motivation for this conversation. Just banter. After years in Brussels, where starting up a conversation usually only takes place after a more or less formal introduction, I’m taken by surprise.

Scene 3: I’m browsing in the ‘Brown Thomas’ store in Grafton Street, looking at things I can’t afford, when another shopper comes up to me and asks if I would do her a favour. Would I kindly try on this jacket that’s on sale since she thinking of buying it for her daughter and I’m just the same size. This would never happen in Brussels, I think to myself, as I put down my bag and obediently try on the jacket. 

I mention the brief encounters above, not because they memorable, but exactly because they of their sheer ordinariness. They are the sort of friendly, trivial interactions of the kind that you can have in Ireland every day. Yet during my years of living and working abroad, a certain cultural distancing has set in.  Now when I am approached in a public place, or questioned by a complete stranger, my first instinct is to recoil in surprise, even slight alarm. Then I remember where I am; all of this is perfectly normal in a culture where friendliness has replaced godliness.

There are moments, too, when it all seems to make sense. Travelling back from Brussels (pre-lockdown) I took a taxi from Dublin airport to the suburb of Rathgar. I don’t even remember how the subject came up, but the taxi driver told me that his sister was terminally ill, and he was obviously deeply affected by this. We ended up having a warm and serious conversation, full of respect and mutual understanding. Thirty minutes later I had arrived at my door and never saw him again. It is in moments like that I realise that openness to strangers can lead to exchanges with fellow human beings that can be every bit as affecting as conversations with people you have known all your life.

Published by irelandbyaccident

An incoming foreigner and a returning expat share their notes on Ireland

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