One of the privileges of my life and career, traveling around the world as a businessman and motivational speaker, is my chance to observe and compare the cultures of different countries. The last time I checked, there were over 195 nations on earth, plus a few islands and territories. Currently I work in 150 of them and counting.
No matter where I go, I’m always conscious of having been born and raised in an Irish household in Boston, Massachusetts. Being a Bostonian is a big part of my identity. So is being Irish.
My mother grew up in Ballindine, a tiny village in County Mayo, Ireland. It had only a hundred people back then; by 2018, it was still deeply rural with only 349 citizens. The family’s livelihood was dairy farming with cows and sheep. To get to school each day, she often had to walk through unpaved mud and farmland muck to the neighboring small village of Irishtown. Moving to America was a massive change in her lifestyle.
For years, starting as a boy and as I thought of my mother’s background, I kept trying to learn exactly which ship had brought her across the Atlantic Ocean. Answering that question became an ongoing mission for me: everyone in the family seemed to have a different story about how she got here.
Finally, on a recent trip to Ireland, one of my aunts combined her memory with the Internet. We established that my mom had come over on a ship in 1952 at the age of 18. I was amazed to learn that she had taken a train from County Mayo to board a ship in Cobh, on the seaside of Cork city. Cobh was the last place the Titanic docked before it sank. The last sight those ill-fated passengers took in as their ship sailed away was the Cathedral on the hill. Mom probably looked out at that exact same hill as her ship sailed away to the USA.
My dad was born in Boston but his parents, too, came over on a boat from Ireland. He embodied the same cultural inheritance as my mother: a commitment to working as hard and as steadily as you need to, in order to achieve a goal. They were the opposite of pampered. Both of my parents were diligent and determined in their drive to provide for the family. The two of them together taught me the ethos of hard work,
My parents were also strong believers in the American dream. One of the reasons they worked so steadily was to achieve their ambition for me: that young John would become the family’s first grandchild to obtain a college degree. They were proud to make that possible and I’ll always be grateful to them.
Beyond sheer hard work, religious faith was also a core value in my Irish family. I spent 12 years as a boy attending Catholic school and being a member of the Catholic Youth Organization, CYO. Yes, I enjoyed sports — baseball, football and street hockey. But our lives, first and foremost, revolved around the church.
Even now, I attend every week and am a Lector and Eucharistic minister. Unfortunately, the number of both the Irish and Americans going to Mass has greatly declined. But I will always speak in glowing terms about the church because it did so much for me as I grew up.
It seems the Irish have always been voyagers, too, so maybe it’s appropriate that I travel as much as I do. And consider this: the current population of the Republic of Ireland is less than five million people, BUT … some 50 to 80 million people around the world have Irish forebears.
That’s true only because for the past few hundred years, we Irish have disbursed ourselves across the planet at a much faster rate than people from most other countries. Yes, we’ve had our reasons to escape from Ireland at times – serious internal conflicts, famine and poverty. But as a result of that migration, you’re likely to find at least a wee bit of the Irish in most of the countries you visit on this earth.
And because people quickly perceive that my lineage is Irish – starting with my last name – I’ve been aware for decades of the stereotypes that exist in some minds about my heritage. Some people imagine the Irish as an extremely friendly and outgoing people who laugh a lot and all have red hair! (Fact: only about 9% of the Irish have naturally red hair.)
Stereotypes and pre-conceptions can limit our thinking about any individual or culture. They can hinder our ability to view and assess each person or situation on his, her or its own merits.
In fact, one of the values I’ve gained from working directly in so many different countries and cultures is to look beyond stereotypes and to appreciate DIVERSITY – not just between countries but WITHIN them. It’s not just that each country I visit is distinctly different in many ways from others. It can also be true that any individual CUSTOMER has specific preferences for the ways that I and my products can help them be successful.
Learning to avoid stereotypes – even about my family’s original culture – has helped me to form strong positive relationships with all kinds of customers … dealing with each individual person or business with a completely open mind and an eagerness to LISTEN, not just “assume.”
That said, and even though I’m grateful to have been born an American, I can’t help feeling a tiny bit of pride on behalf of my Irish heritage. The 2019 edition of the World Happiness Report ( https://worldhappiness.report/ed/2019)published on March 20 of that year ranked Ireland as the 16th happiest country in the world. Finland ranked #1. The USA was ranked #19.
Which proves that national size and might isn’t everything. That research has also given me one more reason to consider myself lucky to be Irish AND American … even as I’m privileged to enjoy and learn from the other cultures I visit and experience first-hand.
What’s more, given my need to work effectively with a wide variety of people and nations, I feel fortunate to have been prepared by the warm and friendly spirit of the Irish people. Their famous “gift of gab” inspires me every day to step up and do my best to relate to others. Thank you, Ireland, for helping me “connect” to people, wherever we happen to be!