You say tomato, I say heuristic cultural device

Shopping a la cart.

Shopping a la cart.
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

TURNING on a red light.

Slicing ‘toMAYtos’.

Answering ‘cell’ phones.

Rarely seeing, let alone using, public transport.

All things you do in the US, which you don’t in Ireland. And all of which I encountered on a visit this month to my wife’s hometown of Los Angeles.

These differences are usually small curiosities (unless I forget to look before turning on that red).

Like the way I stare blankly at voluminous LA coffee menus, or in wide-eyed wonder at the Whole Foods’ shopping cart escalator.

They’re just tasters to a deeper difference between American and Irish people, which is far more engrained than the rules of the road or in-store trolley conveyance.

In my experience this difference comes by way of a simple question: is the coffee cup half full or half empty?

Americans are often accused of being glibly optimistic, if not naive, in their world view. Many are, I’m sure, and many are not.

But they are considerably less cynical than the Irish, something that is impossible not to notice when you some spend time each year in both countries.

Cultural differences.

Cultural differences.

My other half is the perfect example. A music journalist, she cut her teeth in the first dot-com boom, before launching a catering business, returning to journalism for a number of major US publications and then, in her mid-30s, deciding to leave it all behind and move to Ireland.

At every turn her question was not (as I would have asked) ‘why?’ but ‘why not?’

Where I would seek out flaws in a plan she would see speed-bumps; where I might see regrets for past decisions she sees experience.

This faith in reinvention is not an exclusively American trait, of course. But I’ve seen more of it in citizens of that country than most others.

It’s been fodder for commentators, artists and academics for years. One New Yorker recently tried to explain it to me using, as he put it, ‘heuristic cultural devices’.

Tonias Wolff. Pic: Mark Coggins

Tobias Wolff.
Pic: Mark Coggins

But I’ve come across a simpler description. It is contained in a collection of Tobias Wolff’s short stories, gifted to me by my LA-based father-in-law on my visit earlier this month.

In one of the stories, A Mature Student, a Czech-born immigrant says of her adopted home: “Americans…such faith in the future, where all shall be reconciled. Such compassion toward the past, where all may be forgiven.”*

How much faith do you need, how much compassion can you have? That’s the $64,000 (or €45,000) question.

That, and ‘tomato’ or ‘tomayto’.


*Tobias Wolff, “A Mature Student”, Our Story Begins (Vintage, 2008), p 315

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10 thoughts on “You say tomato, I say heuristic cultural device

  1. Nice piece. I like this.
    I remember Bono once saying that the difference between Americans and Irish is that an American looks up at the big house on the hill and says ‘Some day, I’m gonna BE that guy’. An Irish man says: ‘Some day, I’m gonna GET that guy’. Clever, but ironic, since his statement about Irish cynicism is, in itself, cynical.

    • Thanks Dave – no better man to comment on this topic! (Ever turned on a red in Skerries?)
      That Bono comment has come to my mind more than once in recent times – probably his most accurate observation. I doubt he’d say it now though, in an era of Davos hugfests.

  2. Love this piece. The Whole Foods shopping cart trolley is a new one to me…can’t wait to experience on my next trip Stateside. Unbelievable.
    Brilliant quote from the Wolff book. The exact opposite of that sentiment is something that I regularly come up against in the Irish countryside for reasons I have only begun to understand. I’m going to go out on a limb and wonder if it is a point of view that stems from feelings of persecution. If you were to interview a demographic of Americans of African or Native decent, many may not hear the same faith, optimism, or forgiveness of the past.
    Oddly, our little boy says To(may)to despite having only one American audible influence in his daily life.

    • Thanks Imen. The Irish mindset in this regard is hard to pin down and likely born of a myriad number of historical-cultural factors. It’s hard not to generalise.
      One theory which I’ve encountered is that the Irish ‘half empty’ attitude has roots in the subjugation of the native Irish for 800 years or so, from the Norman invasion to the Act of Union with Britain.
      As the Irish battled (often with each other) for resources an inward-looking, protectionist mindset developed. Add to this the social effects of the decimation of the population in the 1840s Famine and any Irish equivalent of a ‘manifest destiny’ is impossible to imagine. Instead it’s ‘protect what you have, keep your head down’. Or as Heaney put it (in a slightly different context): “whatever you say, say nothing”.

  3. Anne says:

    It’s funny. I used to say, “why not” much more often; the most significant example would be when I decided to up and move to Japan not having a job, the language or any idea of the lay of the land secured. Now I find myself worrying about the future, afraid to make a small leap much less a long jump, and realized recently (not that I haven’t been reminded after conversations with your other half and mine as well!) that I rarely take risks anymore. Over the last 3 weeks, as if the Someone or Whatever Thing is around got sick of my worrywort mentality, I’ve happened upon no fewer than 4 articles which included a line or two about how taking risks is essential to living a full life. Too many hints from the universe to ignore, for sure, so I’ve decided to make a commitment to stop being so fearful and pessimistic and start jumping again. I’ll report back.

    Maybe that tiny bit of Irish my father mentioned takes up a higher percentage in my blood than in Clare’s? :)-

    • Maybe that’s it Anne!
      To be honest I hate broad cultural generalisations (says the guy who wrote the post); there are plenty of exceptions to the opinion above. Other circumstances, time, career, life events can have as much influence as 2% Irish blood!

  4. Great piece Cormac and very true… I took to the Irish skepticism quite quickly, in fact, I like it a lot. After years living sandwiched between Mexican, American and Japanese cultures, I found the Irish one very refreshing. Living in Ireland gave me a new perspective, a fresh start where I chose to leave all my luggage behind and only carry that which I felt would be helpful to my new start… perhaps that’s why I found in Clare such a kindred spirit? Sure 13 years in Ireland have given me plenty of food for thought.

    I’ve learned that the Irish are, above all, daring: a nation of fighters and travellers, of thinkers and politicians (not the ones sitting in the Dail, but more in the sense of dealers and wheelers). You seem to have no problems sailing away and uprooting yourselves and yet you manage to keep firmly rooted to the Irish land in a connection that goes down through generations.

    I think the Irish are positive and enjoy the occasional leap of faith, you just don’t make too much noise about it. You’re entrepreneurs, you seem to neither forgive nor forget… I don’t see why it seems to be such a bad thing… I actually quite love it. How else could I explain 13 very enjoyable years in Ireland?

  5. Thanks Lily. I agree with you to some degree – there’s certainly plenty of thinkers and politicians in the country (it’s just a pity many of the wrong ones wind up in the Dail) and there’s no doubt about the loyalty of our emigrants to their Irish heritage. The latter is quite remarkable, particularly in places like the east coast of the US.
    In my view the Irish leap of faith, though, tends to be the exception, rather than the rule, though I think this is changing.

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