I’m a New Yorker who married an Irish man & we now live in the west of Ireland. There are a lot of huge changes that I’ve gotten used to after moving from NYC to rural Ireland. But, one change that still baffles me is the complex meaning of the word no. For those of us who weren’t born in Ireland, understanding the Irish no can be quite tricky.
A little background on Irish culture as I see it. Irish people are polite, kind & generous. They don’t like to impose or create a fuss, even if they are uncomfortable or actually want what you are offering them. So, they answer no to pretty much every question you ask them – even if they really mean yes! This is understood by all Irish people & they know how to respond.
Say you had a BBQ and the smoke was blowing into your guests face making his eyes water. You offer to change seats with him but he constantly refuses, saying no he is fine and insists repeatedly that all is well.
Obviously, your guest wants to change seats. He’s not using the standard definition of the word no. He’s using the Irish no which translates to, “I don’t want to appear to be difficult, but I really do want to move.” As hostess, in this situation, I’d force him to move by insisting over & over again that we change seats. It could require a dozen insists. In an extreme case, I might have to physically pull him out of the chair.
As you know, I love to entertain & have people over. As hostess, I like to give my guests plenty to eat & drink. For the most part, I’ve gotten used to the Irish no & I give them the item in question despite their saying no. But, sometimes deciphering the Irish no can be exhausting & I wish people would just say yes! The difficulty for me arises when I’m not sure if the person is using the dictionary definition of no or the Irish definition of no.
For example, I offer an Irish guest a cup of tea, glass of wine or something to eat, etc. These are the responses I’d get back:
“Ah no, I’m grand.”
“No thank you, I just ate & I couldn’t have another thing.”
“No, you work away.”
“No honestly, I couldn’t.”
“No, no, no, no, no.”
If you’re not Irish, it might surprise you to learn that all of the above replies are code for, “Yes, please I’d love one.” But sometimes, the person actually is full & really doesn’t want anything. Irish people can understand the subtle difference in tone between the two types of no’s. I can not.
So what to do? Well, over my nearly ten years of living in Ireland, I’ve learned to look at my husband for the answer. lol If he says “He’ll have one” then I know it was an Irish no for yes!
On the flip side, sometimes it’s hard for me to know how to reply when I’m offered treats at other people’s houses. I haven’t mastered the Irish no & I feel awkward doing it. It’s like I’m acting in a really bad play. I’m afraid that by saying, “yes, I’ll have a glass of wine,” that I’m being rude. But I’m more equally afraid of failing at the Irish no, the hostess thinking I really mean no & not getting the wine!!
My apologies to everyone who wanted something in my house & didn’t get it due to my misunderstanding of the Irish no. To you rare gems out there who answer me with an “Ah ya, go on” (which is as close to a yes as you’re gonna get) – thank you kindly!
My top tip if you are hosting Irish people: When in doubt, just give them the item in question. The worst-case scenario is they really didn’t want it & it’s left there. I’m hoping to make further advances in my ability to comprehend the subtleties of the Irish no over my next ten years living here.
Do you have any experiences to add?