FEAR OF BEING BORING


I never felt much affinity with anything in Ireland, to be honest. In fact, from an early age I more or less hated the place. I hated the weather, I hated the food, I hated the Irish language, I hated the drunk culture, I hated the education system. I hated Fianna Fail, the GAA, the Catholic Church, God, Jesus and all the rest. As soon as I was old enough, I knew I had to get out of there.

The trouble was, where would I go? England seemed a bit more enlightened, but it was still basically Ireland with a few cosmetic differences. Europe seemed much more enlightened again, and parts of it even had much nicer weather, but then I didn't speak any European language well enough. Canada was too cold and remote. Australia seemed interesting but was absurdly far away. And as for the USA -- well I hope American readers will forgive me if I say that as a teenager I pretty much regarded the USA as The Great Satan. (Not a common attitude in Ireland, it must be said -- most of my peers thought 'America' was synonymous with 'Paradise'.) I didn't fancy the idea of living at the centre of the Axis of Evil - I mean, living in Drogheda was bad enough.

I steadily grew out of this attitude, though, and by September 2000 I was even looking forward to my first American holiday. I went to the Bay Area, California; I expected it to be good, but I had no idea it would be such a revelation. Being bathed all day in dry heat, breathing air that smelled like menthol -- I liked that. Warm nights, blue skies, watermelons -- I liked them too. I liked the way social events usually centred on eating rather than drinking. I liked the way Palo Alto (pop. 60,000) had fewer pubs than the parish I grew up in (pop. 1500). I liked all the restaurants - actually I liked them a bit too much.

Perhaps the biggest surprise, though, was how friendly and talkative people were. Shopkeepers seemed genuinely pleased to see me and really tried to be helpful. Random strangers -- in shops, on trains, in the bank -- would talk to me about absolutely anything. You might say that people are always nice to tourists anywhere, but the Bay Area is such a multicultural place that I don't think these people even realised I was a tourist. Hell, some of them were asking me for directions.

People in the Bay Area were talkative, I think, because they weren't afraid of being boring. In Ireland (and therefore in Britain), things are rather different. Being boring is an unforgivable conversational sin. The fear of saying something dull makes some people seize up like clams and everyone else speak in nervous banter. In conversation, it's also forbidden to be serious. No-one will listen to what you say if you say it with a straight face: you have to tack a smirk or a joke or a put-down onto everything. There is a tremendous pressure to be funny at all times, especially during introductions. I always find it intimidating to meet an Irish person (males in particular) for the first time, because I feel I have three sentences to

  1. Say hello
  2. Make a joke
  3. Prove I'm 'one of the lads', I 'like a drink', and so on

or otherwise their eyes will glaze over and they'll look at me as if I'm some kind of annoying children's cartoon character. This is usually what happens.

The people I met in the Bay Area didn't suffer from such inhibitions. Like I said, they would talk about anything. Once I was standing in a queue in a bank and the girl behind me suddenly started talking about what a nice bank it was and how she preferred it to the other bank down the street. I was astonished. I was totally bowled over. This was such a boring thing to talk about! A person in Ireland would die rather than initiate a conversation about the relative qualities of banks, but here was this girl talking away! I'm sure we would have got on quite well together if I hadn't spent the next minute at a loss to come up with a funny response, as life in Ireland had conditioned me to do. I wouldn't make that mistake again.

Whereas once I used to believe that people should only talk about interesting things, now I think it's more important that they talk. And talk and talk and talk. If you talk enough, eventually you'll communicate something. And one of the biggest problems in this world, in my opinion, is that people don't communicate. When people don't communicate, they start to get suspicious of each other, to hate and fear each other, to get the idea that the biggest problem in the world is Other People. (The media, with sensationalised crime reports and crime shows and 'reality' shows, certainly does its bit to perpetuate this idea.) But if people talked to each other more, they'd realise that Other People aren't so bad. Even 'the lads' in Irish pubs aren't so bad when you get to know them, loath as I am to say it. It is, however, significantly harder to get to know people when you feel that every sentence has to be a quip. So people should speak out without fear of being boring.

Not that I'm suggesting that California is free from communication problems - it obviously has some seriously large ones. For every Palo Alto, there are many more East Palo Altos. From my limited experience, though, it seems that a certain layer of Bay Area residents have their communication problems pretty much sorted out; and while I was there I got a glimpse of the kind of place I'd really like to live in. (Of course it helped that the weather was great.)

For a while I did actually try to live there. As soon as I got home from the holiday I started firing off as many job applications as I could in the direction of the Bay Area. Yes, I was even prepared to work a 70-hour week, spend most of my salary on a one-room apartment, and do other standard Silicon Valley things just to be a Bay Area resident. No companies wanted to pay for a H1 visa though, and anyway (perhaps luckily for me) the dot-com crisis intervened, so I ended up moving to a country with good chocolate instead.

Now I just have to learn how to be boring in French.


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