The author, a fellow blow-in, and I have often discussed the challenges of understanding and being understood – even though before my arrival from America and his from England via Israel – we’d thought of English as our first language.
Lest you think we exaggerate – I refer you to this “So You’ve Got an Irish Passport Because of Brexit…” article. My favourite observation by author, comic and playwright Mary Bourke is-
If you ask an Irish person to do something and they reply, “I will, yeah” with a downward inflection this is their polite way of saying “No”. Irish people never say what they mean because we always need a latex membrane of euphemism between us and the truth. This isn’t lying; it’s called being charming.
Many Irish people share a powerful belief that they are the world’s best communicators. While foreign visitors are encouraged to kiss the legendary Blarney Stone in Blarney Castle if they wish to become more eloquent, the Irish are reputed to have a natural way with words and a natural gift of the gab.
But do they?
As a veteran 20-year blow-in, I have noticed a distinct gap between what many Irish people say, what they really mean, and what the listener interprets.
- if you are told that you are “brutally efficient,” you are not being given a compliment. It is being intimated to you that your efficiency is putting others to shame.
- if you are told that you are very decisive, do not be tempted into believing that you have just been complimented. You are being told that you are too pushy.
- if you are told in a meeting that you should feel free to ask further questions, be careful. The real message is that you shouldn’t ask any annoying or embarrassing questions.
- if someone giving a presentation asks for honest feedback, your honest opinion is the last thing they want to hear. All they are asking is for you to go easy on them. And
- if someone describes your presentation as “desperate,” it does not mean that the presenter was in despair. It means that the presenter was rubbish.
- Be careful when someone tells you “I am a little disappointed.” What they mean is that they are mightily disappointed.
You have to learn to interpret what might sound like encouraging feedback.
“I’m interested in your idea,” “Could you please expand on your idea?” and “The jury is still out on this” all indicate that the other person thinks that your idea is rubbish.
When someone says to you, “I didn’t understand”, don’t make the mistake of believing that they did not understand. You are being told categorically that you don’t understand.
You might be tempted to interpret “Don’t get ahead of yourself” as advice to slow down. In truth, you are being told not to be such a big-head.
If someone is being described as “bold”, the intention is not to praise that person’s bravery. It is to indicate that the person is brazen and cheeky.
And do not be confused when someone asks you, “What’s the story?” or “Anything strange?” All they are asking is “How’s things?”
If you are told that something is grand, do not expect anything large to appear. It’s the Irish way of saying that “everything is fine”.
And do not expect a technician to come around to check your gas meter when you hear that someone is a “gas man”. It simply means he is funny.
“Oh, stop!” is not, as it sounds, a request to stop talking or to stop what you are doing. It simple means “Don’t go there”.
If a person is described as thick, it is not their physical girth but their (lack of) mental faculties that are being described.
And if you hear someone being described as giving out, do not wait around to receive a free lunch or a free anything else. It means that the person likes to complain.
A person who is described as being on the pig’s back is not participating in a strange race, and a person sucking diesel is not really indulging in this dangerous pastime. Both expressions mean that a person is doing very well.
My examples so far involve possible misunderstandings and misinterpretations.
But there are also plenty of Irish-isms where the visitor has no inkling of what the other person is saying.
It is quite a stretch of the imagination to realise that an eejit is an idiot, that the jacks means the bathroom, that banjaxed means ruined and that ‘a cute hoor‘ is ‘a chancer‘ or someone Americans would say was “unqualified” or “pushing his luck”
My favourite impenetrable Irishism has to do with compliments.
Most people in Ireland do not know how to take a compliment. It makes them uncomfortable. Often the body language that follows is to actually push it away.
If you compliment a woman on the dress she is wearing, the stock response you are likely to receive is, “I got it at Penny’s.”
Instead of simply saying thank you.
The wearer will ward off the compliment by claiming that the garment was purchased at discount clothes retailer Penny’s.
What follows is comical – if not sad: A newcomer to Ireland, and to English – anxious to sound like the locals, was told that her hair looked nice. She answered, proudly primping the new do and responded: “Penny’s”.
In addition to authoring business books and articles- Yanky is available for training – for both corporates and individuals new to Ireland in both our nuanced language and our comfort and facility with “Constructive Ambiguity”.
Yanky Fachler is a copywriter, author, corporate trainer. He has written literally millions of words for his clients, thousands of blog posts, ads and articles. He has authored and ghostwritten dozens of books; 200 business book reviews, speeches, articles and newsletters. His way with words also extends to the spoken word: he has made dozens of appearances on TV and radio; he gives motivational talks and keynote speeches; he delivers communications skills training, and he has given over 100 history talks. Yanky’s speaking engagements outside Ireland have taken him to the USA, UK, Poland, Canada, Israel and the Czech Republic. Yanky brings oodles of imagination and his own brand of infectious enthusiasm to everything he does.