Debates about Irish culture or Irishness (what it is, if it really exists, are we really British?) often entail long riffs on the pre-eminence of British, American or Anglo-American influences on Irish life. Irish people are pretty much the same as British or American people, the argument goes, because they spend all day speaking English, shop in M&S or House of Frazer, they get their lunch in McDonalds or KFC, and they go home and watch Friends, Will and Grace or Desperate Housewives.
All true, but the focus is normally on what is consumed, and not on what is produced. We tend to overlook how much the culture of work in Ireland has changed the country over the past twenty or so years.
A key part of the ‘Celtic Tiger’ (blech) was the arrival of large, mainly American-run multinationals. The changes these have brought to daily life in Ireland still have not been fully explored. As well as bringing much-needed employment, these organizations also brought antiseptic codes of bourgeois niceness, euphemistic and hyperbolic job titles, pyramid structures and deferential working practices. This has, of course, coincided with the worldwide spread, Japanese knotweed-style, of management-speak.
This type of working culture inevitably leads to severe lexical contortions, such as the arbitrary appropriation of a noun for use as a verb. So I might talk about ‘sunsetting’ this blog, or ‘laddering’ someone’s salary (don’t ask). Also, empty intensifiers become the norm, so instead of saying ‘uh-huh’, or ‘aye’, or even ‘yes’ in order to express agreement, one feels compelled to respond with ‘absolutely’. And rather than just saying ‘it is a better way to travel’, one should say ‘it is effectively a better way to travel’.
It is an unwritten rule, in the codes of ‘niceness’ that underpin these places, that in order to ‘get on’, one should refrain from discussing any topic that could possibly be construed as controversial in the working environment. In chance meetings at the coffee-dock, then, little is left to chance. Topics for conversation rarely deviate from the weather, the weekend, canteen food, traffic, the awfulness of the coffee, and maybe the odd uncontroversial news item like the smoking ban.
It all makes for a rather dull day.
There is one person in my own place of work who eschews the straitjacket of the sunny, subtext-free, coffee-dock encounter, and is totally unfettered in his use of language and his expression of opinions.
The problem is that he’s an out-and-out Provo: perhaps the type you only get among those whose only visit north ever has been to do the Christmas shopping in Sainsbury’s in Newry. And because I am from the North, I’m the ideal candidate for an impromptu pow-wow about the evils of partition, or the intransigence of unionists, or how Orangemen walking down the Garvaghy Road is like the Ku Klux Klan walking through Harlem. Either his quasi-evangelical zeal blinds him to the fact that I’m rather uncomfortable with my role as Real World Sounding Board for his ideas about the North, or else it impels him to carry on regardless.
“Have you read this yet?” he says.
“Look at this here [he shows me a Daily Ireland article about some unionist indiscretion or other]. If it had been a Sinn Fein rep got caught doing that you’d never have heard the end of it from that securocrat lovin’ asshole Jim Cusack in the Indo or that racist bollix McDowell.”
Assorted middle managers queue to pour themselves coffee, and I nod uncomfortably.
“Ah well, I don’t get much time to look at that sort of stuff these days. To be honest I just ignore most of it.” I say, cursing my 9-to-5 bourgeois niceness.
I don’t want to encourage him, after all.