Sunday, April 22, 2012

Mustn't Grumble

I spent the weekend working with a group of people from the south of England. I must mention that it's the south of England, because my boss - who is from Hull, in the north of England, - says that the northerners are different. Different to the southerners, that is, who are also different to the Irish. Now, despite our centuries of political, um, disagreement, I - like most sane Irish people - quite like the English. I don't have anything against the Queen; on the contrary, I tend to think that she's a remarkable old dame and I must admit that I admire her greatly. I sincerely hope I'm as full of beans at 85 as she is. However, in a group of southern English, I notice how ... unEnglish I am, despite the fact that we island folk are often lumped together as one vaguely Britishy entity.

For starters, I simply have not mastered the delicate art of understatement. I actually find it quite difficult at times to figure out the degree of seriousness or severity being relayed to me by a stiff-upper-lipped person of gentle English persuasion: "Indeed, it was jolly inconvenient to have to call an ambulance at 4 o'clock in the morning but I dare say that my husband's chest pain was rather discomforting, given the fact that his lips had turned slightly blue and he was a tad comatose. But, after seven weeks intensive care, he pulled through, so mustn't grumble!" More alarmingly, information like this is often delivered with a bright smile and the cheerfully rallying voice employed by Mary Poppins during her nursery-cleaning extravaganzas. It takes me a couple of minutes to figure out that we are, in fact, discussing a near death experience with this person's nearest and dearest, and not the likelihood of MacVities discontinuing their range of chocolate Hobnob biscuits.

Irish people, on the other hand, tend to relish the drama. While some groups of English people prefer the curt, mustn't-grumble approach to life, Irish people often welcome the opportunity to embellish the circumstances and spin the story. While the English people of the stiff-upper-lip variety would sooner wrestle a komodo dragon than succumb to emotion, Irish people slather it on top, like butter on toast. Plus, we invoke our deity and a variety of minor religious figures for good measure - and if you are not keen on the Lord's name being taken in vain, I would ask you to (a) look away now and (b) never visit Ireland. For example,
"Jesus, Mary and holy Saint Joseph! I nearly ended up in the emergency room yesterday - the foot nearly fell off me with the pain! I very nearly took a hack-saw to it and amputated my own appendage! God above! I nearly died in agony!"
(In this case, the speaker probably stepped on a Lego brick by mistake and endured a sharp, short shot of pain, but with no lasting effects on foot or ability to walk.)

As you can imagine, putting people of these two very different persuasions in the same room results in some very interesting exchanges, probably because we expect to have so much in common: our history is so interlinked, we share so much culturally that the differences are all the more shocking. George Bernard Shaw, a fellow Irishperson, once said that Britain and the US were "two countries separated by a common language." I wonder, to what extent, this also applies to England and Ireland - if not language, then the way the language is used?

8 comments:

Katie K said...

Well done! But can't it be said that it is the English who are over the top with their qualifying adverbs and adjectives?

The Gingerbread Lady said...

That's true, Katie! One of the things that German speakers say they find hard to manage with English English-speakers is how to weed out the true message amidst all the hedging and softeners. Of course, if an English person says, "I think that's rather unpleasant, I'm not sure I like it," it's generally understood by other English people - and, more broadly, by other English speakers - that the person HATES it :-)) But non-English speakers take it at face value: the speaker isn't sure whether s/he likes it or not, and even so, their attitude is kind of wishy-washy and undecided. It's odd how certain conventions have become so common in a language, isn't it?

MissMary said...

I'd say a similar dichotomy exists between Southerners and Northerners in the States--for those of us born 'n' bred, that is. For example, one of my coworkers (okay, so I only worked with him a dozen times out of the month, but still) didn't greet me with a kind word--not even a hello--for three. months. My smiles and kindness were to no avail! But then, all of a sudden, Grampa Grumps began speaking to me, conversing as if we'd been friends all this time. Befuddled, and somewhat amused, I mentioned this to yet another coworker--and fellow Southerner. Apparently Grampa Grumps had given HIM similar treatment--and HE is GG's superior! "He's from Philly," was the conclusion. "People from the North are like that." Oh. My mistake! Meanwhile, a few chocolate stout cupcakes later, Grampa Grumps is much more amenable to my presence, and I have learned to laugh at his crankiness. It's not his fault he was raised in a snow-infested city whereas I had all the benefit of daffodils in February!

Tecrin said...

Ah, I knew it! I must be Irish at heart, your example sounds much more like how the Dutch do it! I mean, despite the fact that I have a university degree in English language and culture and a master's degree in translation, meaning 7+ years of intensive study and training in the English language (and before that, 8 years of learning English in secondary school), it's precisely this that will always distinguish me from the real Island-folk, no matter how hard I try. The accent, I can deal with. (apparently better when drunk, but hey, if that's the sacrifice I have to make...) But for the life of me I cannot master the speech patterns, and it's mostly the understatement that gets me. That, and the fact that most people from the UK, but the English in particular, have also made the polite insult into an artform of its own.

I see a bit of this in Holland, as well, though not as much. The Northerners are much more down-to-earth than us Westerners, I guess, more matter-of-factly. We like to dress up our stories more.

Donna Lee said...

I agree with the north/south thing here in the US. Most southerners I've met are friendly from the get-go while the northerners are mush more reserved and can take a long time to acknowledge you. Once they do, however, you are friends for life.

I smile and say good morning to everyone I see on my way down the street to work. Some folks make eye contact and others look away. But hardly anyone responds verbally. Maybe it's an "too early and I haven't had any caffeine" thing.

Beth said...

It's not just the difference between South and North here in the U.S. Take a New Englander, someone from Louisiana, Texas, the Midwest and California and put them in a room. It's a wonder any of us can communicate with each other. The disagreements over the "proper" term for something as simple as a soft drink is only the tip of the iceberg. (Pop, soda, Coke regardless of the actual manufacturer, etc.)

Annie @ knitsofacto said...

You had me in stitches reading this! I have similar problems with my Polish relatives who are very Irish in their approach to life's little inconveniences. Imagine me dripping blood all over her kitchen as I calmly look for a sticking plaster, and my mother-in-law hyperventilating because, you know, you cut your finger and you could die!

jane said...

This is sooo..funny! I lived in London, England many years ago and styed with my Irish mother-in-law!
the English can and do speak in metaphors with a thousand different interpretations...it's in their intonations...
The irish always speak in metaphors, very lyrical...one morning my mother-in-law called through the bedroom door.."the froggies are all hoppin for across the road today, be sure and leave prepared!!
i turned to my husband and asked;"What did your Mum just say?'
He said; 'Oh it's raining outside, take an umbrella with you!'

i love these memories, especially being the Canadian thrown into the mix!!
Take Care & all best Wishes to You!
Jane