As per always, I was running late. I’d invited a friend and her two kids over for Saturday lunch and had organised nothing. Fifteen minutes before they were due to arrive, my kids jumped the wall into the neighbours’ house, and I cantered to the shops to get supplies.
With a fair wind, razor focus and a thin queue I was back on my neighbour’s doorstep in approximately thirteen minutes, having cheated time yet again. Yes! The clock-warping legend that was me.
When my neighbour – whom I don’t know particularly well – came to the door, I instantly remembered our shared grá for real Irish strawberries, a lead topic in one of about five conversations we’ve had. I bent into my bags and produced the ginormous tray of lush strawberries I’d just scored for seven euro – seven euro! There were thousands of them – meaning to tip her off on the find, one berry lover to another.
‘Oh my god, are you sure?’ she said.
Before my brain had even edged out of neutral, I was thrusting the tray at her, insisting she take it and that I take her son for the afternoon too, just in case she’d picked up on any hint of awkwardness during the nano second it took me to compute my loss.
And there went the strawberries.
I did feel unusually giddy afterwards, which was less to do with the euphoric act of giving and more about ridiculing my knee-jerk response to a simple miscommunication. What was wrong with me? Surely, I thought, at this point in my life I should be able to handle these situations with a bit of self-control and sass?
The following week I was out for a walk when five euros fluttered out from under a dog and came my way. I chased the note, stamped it down and tried to hand it back to the dog owner. The promenade – just then pulsing with people – cleared. The fiver didn’t belong to the dog owner or anyone else I tried to accost. What was now dirty money to me – held high at ear level, about two feet from my head – was liquid anthrax to the masses. I was actively and rigorously swerved. Which is exactly what I would do if someone tried to hand me a fiver.
True, most people wouldn’t accept money from a stranger when they hadn’t lost it, but it just all felt very ‘Irish,’ the sacrificial strawberries and the reviled fiver, like the mood on both fronts had been misjudged but the ultimate aim was wanting to appear to be decent, dead-on, solid, salt of the earth. Guilty as charged.
It occurred to me that Mrs Doyle, Craggy Island’s enthusiastic tea-pusher and violent bill-payer, rather than being a wildly exaggerated, screwy caricature is actually the truest and most brilliant embodiment of one of our country’s core social drivers: the need to appear to be Sound even if you may be personally disadvantaged and/ or bulldoze someone with your fierce goodness in the process.
This doesn’t mean you’re not Sound, obvs, but does mean that you will regularly go to farcical lengths to ensure someone knows you care. It’s shirt-off-your-back kind of stuff. I have the not-very-flush friend who insists on giving her kids’ teachers €75 vouchers each at Christmas; another who tried to haul a chatty taxi man from his car, demanding he join us for a drink (he fled at speed); a dad who we have to body-slam to get to restaurant tills; and every second driver on the road who will, on a whim, stop dead to wave on nose-peeping, alley advancers and confused pedestrians.
And don’t forget starting every sentence with ‘sorry’ and not being able to say ‘thank you.’ A simple compliment from a friend is shot down with evidence of your repulsive offensiveness and pitiable, outrageous stupidity. We’re actually just being Sound. In fact, I’ve been known to go the other way and effusively compliment someone because I’m struck for words. A fairly conservative friend of mine turning up with angel wings shaved on either side of his head is one notable example. I was still raving about the artistry and precision of the blade when we parted, two hours later.
After fifteen years in London, I’m much more aware of how different our social rhythms are; how I had claimed certain traits as unique to my personality while I am in fact a product of my birth environment. Surprisingly, as we are hopefully on the path to global multiculturalism, these age-old social habits are still so strong. The dance here seems to be bouts of intense love-ins – big nights out, extreme gestures of kindness, dropping everything to help a friend – and sharp retreats from public life, both to recover from all the Soundness and to avoid a sniff of a confrontation. In London, there are less obvious demonstrations of being Sound, no retreats, just advance diary dates – unless you’ve been ghosted – and a fearless approach to showdowns. It doesn’t mean Londoners are less ‘Sound’, but they are possibly more honest.
So who’s winning here? Are we more anxious to be liked because we live on a small island? We are bound to see and know the same people for the rest of our lives and continue to be judged on the How Sound Are You clapometer. Or do we just like being liked, to the point that we are happy to put other people’s needs before our own and generally buck the crawl-over-dead-bodies-to-get-to-the-top mentality? Notwithstanding, the many exceptions to every rule.
Is it because we hold a person’s Sound character as the pinnacle of social success? Or because we don’t have the self-confidence to chill out?
Sarah Knight thinks we need to prioritise our f*cks. She’s the author of The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck, directly inspired by Marie Kondo’s best-seller with a similar but less expletive title, extolling the benefits of organising your home. Knight decided to abandon her sock drawer and instead focus on her mind, which she realised was way too preoccupied with what other people thought. So she stopped giving a f*ck, politely, with her #NotSorry method. By following a ‘joy’ principle to determine whether or not she should give a f*ck – measuring how much joy something brings her – she reorganised her life and lost a few acquaintances along the way.
She is a brilliant, funny writer and despite flinching through over three hundred and eighty f*cks – about three hundred and fifty too many for me – I concluded that Knight is absolutely right. She has militantly reprioritised her life for the better, with a comprehensive, sustainable model and is deliriously happy.
But is she Sound?
One thing’s for sure; there’s no way she would’ve parted with those strawberries.