Monday, January 23, 2006

Ah Gowan

One of my favourite TV shows of all time is Father Ted, a comedy featuring three priests and their housekeeper going about their daily lives on a remote Irish island. When the show first aired, I lived over here and looked forward to it every week. Part of what made the show so funny was how it exaggerated Irish and Catholic traits. I got the Catholic stuff, but it took me a bit of time to really appreciate the Irish stuff.

One of the most maddening traits of the Irish is something the Father Ted writers got a lot of mileage out of – the tendency to not say what you mean and, as a result, to believe that others are not saying what they mean. Mrs. Doyle, the housekeeper, is a great example of this. She can never believe that someone doesn’t want a cup of tea. They must want tea, but must be too polite to admit to wanting it. So she stands there saying things like “Go on, go on, go on” or “You will! You will. You will.”

To some extent, I think the Celtic Tiger generation will make this custom a dim memory. The cultural impetus to make false offers and false refusals has its roots in the deprivation. You didn’t have a lot, but you always offered to share, just to be polite. If you were offered something, you refused, just to be polite. The two parties can then enter into some sort of offer-refusal negotiation until everyone’s true intentions are made clear.

The system only works if you understand it. If, you grew up in an environment where, for the most part, you mean what say and say what you mean, this false-offer and false-refusal stuff is completely bewildering. If someone offers me a cup of tea, I figure it’s because they want to offer me a cup of tea. I don’t think that they’re just being polite. If I offer to help someone out with something and that person says no, I figure my help is not needed. It doesn’t occur to me that my help is needed but the other person feels obligated to turn me down, at least the first time I ask.

Two of our friends have tried to coach me on this custom. The tutoring always breaks down at the point that I say “But, wouldn’t it just be easier to not make the offer unless you really mean it?” They always say something like “Well, yeah, but that wouldn’t really be polite.” I’m not sure what’s polite about making an offer and then requiring the other person to gauge your sincerity. I also fail to see what’s polite about ultimately forcing your tea or assistance on someone who claims (sometimes more than once) to not want it.

Keeping this custom in mind when interacting with people helps me to some extent. We have one friend who doesn’t drive. He lives quite near to us and it’s no bother to pick him up or drop him off after parties or gatherings. I noticed that whenever I’d ask him if he wanted a lift, he’d say “Maybe.” Being a naturally paranoid person, I became concerned that he found me annoying and didn’t want to spend one second longer in my company than absolutely necessary. Then I realised he was just being Irish about it – that he wanted a lift but felt like he was putting us out. Having me (or Peter) offer a second time made him feel more secure about the offer.

So, I’d start appending my offer with something like “I’m not being polite” and I found that such directness usually allowed for a bypass of the refusal-offer dance. We were able to come to an understanding about it and make it into a bit of a joke. It’s much harder when dealing with someone like my father-in-law. I’ve told him a couple of times that I’m American and congenitally incapable of making an offer that I don’t mean but he’s been Irish way longer than I’ve been American and this false-refusal is a reflex.

Maybe I just need to take a leaf from Mrs. Doyle’s book and never take “no” for an answer.


At 23 January 2006 at 14:59, Blogger Fence said...

Its also a bit of a ritual. They offer, you refuse. They offer again, you refuse again. But if they offer a thrid time you have to accept. Well, with tea and similar things. It'd be rude to refuse three times in a row.

DOn't know why, its just the way things are :)

At 25 January 2006 at 02:02, Blogger Career Guy said...

Thanks for the cultural orientation. I'll have to take that into account the next time we're there. What happens if a person really really doesn't need a cup of tea?


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