Cultural Cringe

Have you ever heard one of your compatriots say something and thought to yourself, embarrassed, Oh my God, that’s so Irish/American/Indian/English etc? If so, you may be suffering from cultural cringe.

Oxford English Dictionary: The view that one’s own national culture is inferior to the cultures of other countries

Coined by Australian writer A.A Phillips in the 1950s, the term is often discussed in reference to (post)colonial societies, to demonstrate how a culture can internalise its colonisers’ view of it as inferior. Cultural cringe can often manifest itself as a reaction against the language or dialect of one’s culture. A common example would be someone who hates to hear certain colloquial terms from their region. Have you ever changed your accent, to avoid it’s “regional” sound? Made sure to pronounce your g’s, when perhaps your parents didn’t? Sometimes it’s a pragmatic decision to fit in in a new environment, sometimes it’s an unconscious, gradual process, but sometimes it’s because you don’t want people to know where you’re from, or at least to think you’re a stereotypical representative of there.

It’s something I think about a lot in terms of Ireland. While it’s often hard to know if someone is demonstrating cultural cringe, or simply has a genuine issue with Irish culture, I come across utterances which sound like it often enough to think that it definitely exists to some extent here. And it makes sense that it would exist here, not just because it’s a post-colonial society. The fact that Ireland was a relatively poor country until not so long ago means that people often want to make a break between modern cosmopolitan Ireland and the past, therefore having an aversion to anything they consider traditional.

One of the most evident manifestations of this is in language: I come across people who the things like using ye as a plural form of you, or many of the other Irishisms I’ve discussed before. I understand to an extent why people might feel such forms of language are archaic and faintly embarrassing (though having a plural form of you is very useful), but it does leave us in the unenviable position of the English language becoming more homogenised all over the world.

But cultural cringe is perhaps more noticeable here in terms of the Irish (Gaelic) language, due to its unusual situation here. Formerly the first language of all Irish people, it began to decline in the 19th century due to people choosing to adopt English to increase their social and professional fortune, emigration after the Great Famine, and also because of suppression of the language by British rulers. Despite numerous attempts to revive the language (on TV behind my computer as I type is a documentary about Irish dog breeds on our Irish-language TV station), officially , only 94,000 people (out of 4,595,000) claim to speak it as their first language, though I suspect it’s fewer than that. Similar, 1.3 million people claim to use it occasionally in their daily life, but I know that’s not true. I think they consider recognising basic words from school as occasional use.

The strangest thing about that, is that most of us spend about 14 years learning the language every day at both primary and secondary school. Why can so few of us speak it then? Partly it’s because, as in many Anglophone countries, we’re not so good at either teaching or learning languages, as we don’t really need to learn them. We have no motivation to learn another language, as we do all our communication in English. Then, when we decide to become teachers, we don’t have the experience of having learned a language well which is so helpful in teaching a language.

It’s common to hear Irish people complain about the Irish language, often blaming their hatred of it on being forced to learn it as children (though they never complain about their other compulsory subjects, though many of us did have to suffer through old-fashioned lessons with boring techniques). Others will point out its uselessness in their daily lives, though some people will simply proclaim it to be a stupid language. Which I think is ridiculous: how can a language even be inherently stupid?

It’s a pity, because I always find a culture more interesting and more dynamic if it’s bilingual to some extent, even if one language dominates. Is there an element of cultural cringe to Irish people being embarrassed by Hiberno-English and angry with Irish? Not in every case, but I think it exists. And it’s inevitable in a small country which had some pretty low points in its history. Why wouldn’t people want to distance themselves from that, and be seen as equals to more established, larger countries? It’d be a shame to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and lose the uniqueness of the way we speak completely, even if only in English.

Have you ever experienced cultural cringe?

27 thoughts on “Cultural Cringe

  1. I don’t know about “cultural cringe” but here in Canada, there’s a lot of resentment sometimes about having to learn French in school. I don’t understand it–I think we should be proud of being a bilingual country and should embrace the opportunity to learn a second language, even if we don’t use it every day. I also don’t understand why the Irish would cringe over their own culture–don’t you guys know that, to the rest of the world, you’re one of the cool kids?

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Growing up in NY and moving south to Florida, yes, yes. I had to learn to put r’s at end if words that require them ie sneakers which NYers pronounce sort of sneakas…how I cringe when I hear the accent I grew up with. Sounds funny where I live now.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ohh no, Ireland! Don’t lose your Gaelic nor your colloquialisms!! They are so charming. And yes, Ireland is the cool kid, before and after the famine.

    We do NOT want to homogenize the English language. Accents are lovely. No cultural cringe here 🙂

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    • It’s difficult, because so many of our prejudices about language are picked up as children, so they’re hard to shake. I think only spending time with people who speak differently and getting used to it really works.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. momma told us to answer, when asked if we were irish, “not enough to notice but enough to be ashamed of”.. a joke, of course, but it had nothing to do with the beautiful language or brogue– more the alcohol and rogues. after being married to a drunken irishman, i totally understood what she meant.

    i always think of people with accents as more cultured and educated & interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s interesting that we have that impression. In TV and movies European accents in general are seen as sophisticated. And within Europe, (posh) English accents generally give that impression. It’s strange to step back and think that something as simple as the variations in how we say words can have such a profound effect.


  5. […] It was very deflating. You try to be culturally and linguistically sensitive, and prepare your ego for the massage it gets when you demonstrate to someone you have a basic competency. You try to be a good tourist! But then sometimes you realise that it’s just easier to be a purely monolingual English speaker, because that’s what people expect, and what they plan for. And what’s the point of trying to be respectful to people if you just end up annoying them and upsetting their plans? So for all I’ve said in the past about being a good tourist, if you find yourself in Brussels International Airport, just speak English: it’s easier for everyone in the long run. And it’s back to one coffee a day and only the occasional muffin for me again. But maybe I’ll order them in Irish… […]


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