“So what’s it like to be an Irish person living in Germany?”
Well there are obviously quite a few cultural differences. I think the main one is just friendliness, politeness, showing consideration. I miss that in Germany because it’s different here. And small talk. I am not a big fan of small talk per se, but a few years ago we were in Ireland on holidays and we were in a supermarket and I got chatting to women over the apples or something and it was only after that I kind of thought “oh I really miss that in Germany”, just being able to have a nice friendly short conversation with a stranger because that doesn’t happen here. And the other thing is the politeness. In Ireland, if two people bump into each other, again at the supermarket or something, they both kind of say ‘oh sorry, are you OK?’ And here in Germany, neither will really say ‘sorry’.
What do people think about your accent?
It actually seems that I don’t have a very strong accent when I speak German – depending on the situation and tiredness level of course! But, when people do notice or remark on my accent, they don’t think I’m a native English speaker – they tend to guess that I’m from a Scandinavian country or the Netherlands. I am very pleased about that as it avoids the usual discussion about me being from Ireland, no, not England! Recently, I translated the sermon at a wedding (from German to English) and read it out from the altar. I was very nervous but lots of people came up to me afterwards, wanting to know where I came from as I had such a lovely accent – that was nice.
How do you react when people call you English or British?
Not very well! When I first came to Kiel and I told people I was Irish not English, I sometimes even got the reaction: “same difference”. This obviously made me slightly aggressive. In such situations, I eventually resorted to saying: “so you’re from Poland then?” And when they said: “no, Germany”, I would say “same difference”. This was my attempt to show them how insulting it is. Of course, it’s not comparable (especially considering the roles of oppressor/oppressed etc.) but it was worth a try! Still, I never shy away from correcting people who think there is no difference between Ireland and England – or from explaining that them asking whether I’m from southern or Northern Ireland is redundant after I have said I’m from Ireland. That often leads to a history lesson for them!
What stereotypes do the Germans have about the Irish?
The main stereotype that drives me mad is about the Irish weather – that it always rains, which is very ironic, considering the weather in Kiel, northern Germany: It really doesn’t get much worse than that!! Germans also think it gets much colder in Ireland that it does and are always surprised to hear that I only once saw snow when I lived in Ireland (up to the age of about 22) – Ireland benefits from the Gulf stream.
Further stereotypes are the usual ones – that we like to drink a lot. Unfortunately, less is known about the culture and the music. Most Germans don’t know that there is a separate language (Irish) and even when you try to explain it to them, they often remain convinced that it is just a dialect of English.
How much do they know about Irish history?
Next to nothing. Most kids have dealt with the Irish famine in school (nowadays, at least) and, of course – and unfortunately, everybody has heard of the IRA, but that’s about it. So, I have had quite a lot of practice in trying to explain Ireland’s more recent history in as easy and compact a form as possible!
What advice would you give a new Irish EFL teacher about ‘dealing with their nationality’ when teaching in Europe or other parts of the world?
Without wanting to sound arrogant, the Irish are mostly well liked in other countries so I don’t think there are any major pitfalls to avoid, apart from maybe coming across as an extreme nationalist when you try to explain that you’re not English!
Gráinne Newcombe graduated from Trinity College Dublin, Ireland with a Master’s degree in English and German. She has been living in Germany for 22 years. She taught general and business English at a private language school and at Kiel’s university of applied sciences and worked as a project assistant on the PISA 2006 study before becoming an in-house editor at a Leibniz institute affiliated with Kiel University. Gráinne has over 10 years of experience in editing academic texts in the fields of education, psychology, methodology, biology, mathematics, and chemistry. She lives in Kiel with her husband and two children.