We all know that we don’t pat the back of a colleague in Korea to thank them for a “job well done”. Or eat with your left hand in India, or sip vodka in Russia. In many countries, these actions are harmless. But in others, they can give a wrong impression or cause offense.
In fact, whatever culture you’re from, it’s likely that you routinely do something that could cause offense somewhere else in the world. So here is:
A primer on how to avoid mistakes in Ireland
Visitors to Ireland are likely to find the Irish to be among the most courteous nationalities in the world. It is not uncommon for locals to approach confused looking visitors and offer to help. Often, in smaller towns and villages (especially on rural roads), if you pass somebody unknown to you, it is customary to say hello. They may instead simply greet you by asking “how are you?”, or another similar variation. It is polite to respond to this greeting, but it is not expected that you would give any significant detail on how you really are! If the person is a stranger – a simple hello and/or “how are you?” or a simple comment on the weather will suffice! In this regard, try something like “Grand day!” (if it isn’t raining, of course).
The response will often be “It is indeed, thank God”. When driving on rural roads (particularly where a driver has to pull in to allow you to pass), it is customary to wave “thanks” to the other driver, by raising your hand from the steering wheel. This is particularly prevalent in rural areas of the West of Ireland where many drivers will automatically wave at everyone who drives past them. A polite hand wave (or even with just the index finger raised from the steering wheel) is customary and will be appreciated. When accepting gifts, a polite refusal (such as, “No really you shouldn’t”) is common after the initial offer of the item.
Usually, this is followed with an insistence that the gift or offer is accepted, at which point your answer is likely to become more recognised. However, some people can be very persuasive and persistent. This usually isn’t intended to be over-bearing, just courteous. One thing which some visitors may find disconcerting is the response an Irish person may give to a “thank you”. Most Irish people will respond with something along the lines of “It was nothing” or “not at all”. This does not mean that they didn’t try hard to please, but rather it is meant to suggest “I was happy to do it for you, so it was not any great difficulty” (even though it may have been!). The Republic of Ireland and Britain undoubtedly have notable similarities.
However, Irish people generally take great pride in the cultural differences that also exist between Ireland, Northern Ireland and Britain. Locals can be quite offended by tourists who do not acknowledge or show respect to these differences. Indeed, it is not uncommon for visitors (both before and after arrival into the country) to incorrectly assume that all of Ireland is a part of the United Kingdom (similar to Scotland and Wales). This incorrect assumption will generally cause offense and/or bemusement to locals, who take pride in the Republic of Ireland’s status as a state independent of the United Kingdom. This may lead to genuine curiosity about the differences between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Public or semi-public discussions about religious differences, political views and 20/21st century troubles are generally avoided by locals on both sides of the border. This is because opinions between individuals are so vastly divided and unyielding, that most Irish people (of moderate views) have grown accustomed to simply avoiding the topics in polite conversation.
Most Irish people are moderate in their views. However, it is wise to avoid any political or religious discussion unless you are invited to discuss these topics. Tourists (who are often fascinated by the history of the division) would be advised to show respect and caution if they choose to discuss the differences of opinion that still exist on historical matters. The Irish are renowned for their upbeat sense of humor. However, their humor can sometimes be difficult to understand for more unfamiliar tourists. Joking on almost any topic will be welcomed, although even mild racism is not appreciated by the majority.
Most Irish people are quite happy for friendly jibes regarding the Irish love of potatoes and drinking alcohol. However, any jokes regarding the potato famine of the 19th Century (in which approximately two million people died or fled), should be avoided. Joking about this topic could in many instances cause a similar amount of offense (for example) as joking about the September 11, 2001 attacks would in the United States. LGBT visitors will find the vast majority of Irish accepting of Same-Sex couples. Ireland has recently enacted civil unions and opinion polls show a large majority of Irish in favor of same sex marriage.
Care should be taken outside cities and large towns. Conservative values still hold dear in rural Ireland but most rural people will follow a “if you don’t annoy us we won’t annoy you” attitude. Ireland has very strong anti-discrimination laws and any breach should be notified to the Equality Authority. Most cities have a strong gay scene but gay people will be welcomed in all clubs and bars. Common sense should prevail in all areas but particular care should be taken in poorer areas. Some gay visitors may find themselves the butt of mild homophobia in more working class areas. However this is normally the Irish sense of humor at its most intolerant. If one feels this is not the case then common sense should prevail and if they feel in danger the Garda should be called.
With this, you had the primer on key facts about Ireland, and key facts on culture and customs. Another important part of the culture is the local food and the local drinks. Make sure you read our posts on Ireland food and drinks:
Other tips that you’d like to share on mistakes to avoid in Ireland? Please comment below.