Noticing cultural differences

When I chose NUI Galway from the list of exchange colleges for my Erasmus year, I immediately had rugged coast lines and rolling green hills in front of my inner eye. Together with the reputation of Irish people being extremely friendly, it was this postcard imagery, Guinness and music that made me first come here. Although I found all these things and much more in Ireland, it took me almost three years to recognise some of the subtler differences between Irish and German culture.
Through conversations with close friends and my Irish boyfriend, I discovered that sometimes I have different ways of thinking and doing things. I used to offend people by being too direct and because they wouldn’t complain openly, I didn’t notice it until much later. I also used to take people too literally. Now that I know how to interpret Irish colloquialisms, I love them; they are so imaginative and colourful.
I moved from a busy German city with several modes of transport, which are almost always on time, to Galway, where some buses theoretically come every half hour, but often arrive late, leave early or don’t turn up at all. I couldn’t believe that the last bus was at half eleven and the connections in rural areas were even worse. What really baffled me was the patient way people stood in the rain, chatting away to strangers. In Germany, everyone would be frustrated and definitely not in the mood for small talk. In the beginning, I got impatient after five minutes and started walking, only to be overtaken by the bus half way. Now I consider everything under a ten-minute wait not even worth mentioning.
Nevertheless, the service still leaves a lot to be desired; it takes forever to get anywhere and the waiting is such a waste of time. On the other hand, this exercise in patience helped me to become less stressed. Ireland made me a more easy-going person.
A friend of mine recently brought a German tourist to a party. We tried to include him in our conversation by asking him where he was from and what he intended to see. He had excellent English and understood everything, but answered each question without expanding on his answer or asking something in return. He was friendly in his own way, but people thought he was a bit standoffish and not really interested in the conversation. He declined drink offers, paid exactly for what he had eaten and left. Afterwards I remarked how German he was and one of my friends laughed and said: “you were exactly like that when you first came here.” And he was right.
Conversation-making is a skill. It’s not that Germans don’t want to engage, we simply have to get used to the idea that a complete stranger is interested in where we are from and what we are doing. Initially, I wasn’t sure how sincere people were when they asked me how I was, and thought it a bit superficial. Now, I think most people are genuine and do care about the answer. We are curious to ask questions ourselves, but it can be tricky to come up with a question that is relevant and not too personal; nothing is worse than being regarded as nosy.
Most Irish people also talk when they are nervous; Germans tend to go silent out of fear of saying something wrong. Name-dropping too requires some practice, and of course one needs to know enough people to join in. Finding out if one is somehow related or at least has some acquaintances in common is a great way of making a connection and linking people to communities and places. It took me a long time to understand this. I started doing it myself recently and it helps to remember people.
When I first moved here, I didn’t know anything about Hiberno English or Irish. I guessed a lot what people meant, this led to funny but also to extremely embarrassing misunderstandings. I struggled with the pronunciation of Irish names because it often differs from the spelling. During my introduction week at NUIG, I went to talk to a lecturer called Emer, I knocked, opened the door, saw a woman and said: “Oh sorry, I’m wrong. I’m looking for Emer”. To my surprise, this lady was Emer. From the sound of the name, I assumed I had been dealing with a man. After that I started googling names. At German universities, all communication between students and staff are rather formal, at least as long as the student attends the lecturer’s class. I was pleasantly surprised when I asked one of my Irish professors to sign a document and he enquired how I found college life and what other courses I was taking. Irish people are incredibly friendly and helpful, but naturally they expect the same in return.
There are even differences when it comes to socialising. In Germany, we invite friends to our houses for parties. Everyone brings a dish or drinks and we sit down for dinner. I tried the same for my first birthday in Ireland and when asking an Irish friend for advice, she told me to make sure I wasn’t going to run out of alcohol and not to expect the guests to turn up on time. However, because they knew it was a German party, they arrived on the dot, brought bottles of wine and drank very little themselves. I ended up having more alcohol after than before the party. The dinner was nice, but a bit awkward. A few weeks later, I turned up to an Irish house party in jeans, only to find everybody else dressed up. People were standing around in groups, eating and drinking, instead of having one conversation involving the whole group.
In the end, it’s not the landscape, Guinness or music that made me stay in Ireland, but the friends I made here. They are what feeling at home is all about. Living abroad not only moved my image of Ireland away from common stereotypes of ‘Irishness’, it also changed my perception of Germany. Moving to another country is an enriching experience that I highly recommend. Irish culture still fascinates me and I look forward to getting to know my new home even better.