3 Baffling Canadian Behaviours (Somewhat) Deciphered

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Minions mural, Ottawa, October 2017

Canada isn’t one of these exotic countries with a reputation for enchantingly complex traditions. Beyond the myriads of small cultural differences, immigrants and travellers—at least for those coming from Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand and the US—generally expect Canadians to be friendly, polite, straightforward and blandly normal, i.e. like them. As for French, many mistakenly believe that Quebecers are long-lost cousins who speak funny but relate to French logic.

Oh, the things we assume…!

Besides true clichés—locals are nice and welcoming—a few Canadian attitudes can be baffling to a foreign eye. So here are three examples of “Canadian logic.”

Just quit, already!

Salaried employees who land on the layoff list are often subjected to a brutal, dehumanizing but quick termination process. It starts with an unscheduled early morning or late afternoon meeting with a HR representative in the room. The employee is given a five-minute talk—of course it’s not personal—and a carton box to pack office plants and family pictures. Escorted by the manager or security (often the former if the person is too stunned to be confrontational), the now former employee surrenders his pass, login info and is shown the way out as fast as possible.

I witnessed the process several times in various workplaces and yes, it’s awkward for everyone, including colleagues—just imagine pretending to read your emails while someone in the cubicle in front of you packs up, sobbing. But at least, the message is clear—your employer no longer wants you on the payroll.

Now, if you are an hourly employee, things are murkier and much less confrontational. You will rarely be told that you are no longer needed. Instead, you will be sent subtle messages through your weekly schedule. If you suddenly notice you’re working undesirable shifts or have to show up for one hour in the morning and one hour in the afternoon, it’s probably not a mistake. This is the passive-aggressive Canadian way of making you unwittingly participate in your own termination.

That’s how it is in Canada: when an employer is hemorrhaging your hours, it just means you need to start looking for a new job and fire yourself by quitting.

Friendly ≠ friend

By default, people are generally friendly—however, it doesn’t mean that they are your friends. It’s easy to get confused at first. Take your average workplace. Everybody is on a first-name basis and even the boss goes by “Jane” or “John.” You chat together, you may even share food in a pot luck. Everybody’s friend, right? Wrong.

A friendly Canadian doesn’t necessarily want to develop a deep friendship with you. Conversations often follow this pattern of superficiality too—general small talk is common, engaging in deeper conversations where parties may disagree is rare.

Many immigrants complain that it’s hard to meet with colleagues outside work, that conversations are vague and watery because Canadians would never risk offending anyone, that their “friends” are flaky. I noticed this too. These “elevator pitch” conversations can be frustrating because you feel like absolutely no one cares about you, that everyone is selling something, that friendships are being cultivated for their usefulness.

The definition of “true friendship” is very cultural. Maybe Canadians lead more solitary lives than Indians, Chinese or Mexicans. There also seems to be more of a general reluctance to acquire new friends as many people are content with their existing circles. It’s also worth noting that people commute greater distances than in Europe and work long hours, which hinder time to spend with friends.

That’s how it is in Canada: Being part of a mutually beneficial network of acquaintances is fairly easy but developing a deep friendship is very difficult.

Wanted: space

Canada is a big country, and even though most of us live close to the border, we have enough room. The result? A fairly individualistic society where sharing public or private space is almost an inconvenience.

This is purely anecdotal but when I first came, I was surprised to notice most houses have several bathrooms. I mean, how many toilets, showers and bathtubs a regular family of two, three, four or five people need? “We all get ready at the same time in the morning,” a Canadian friend explained. Sure… and so does the rest of the world who solves this issue by, oh, I don’t know—sharing living space?

It’s the same for cars. Understandably, they are pretty useful around here because distances are big. But how many cars does a family need? Our neighbours have four—I wince every time they carefully park them on a driveway built for one vehicle. One of my colleagues had six vehicles—four cars, one for each member of the family, plus a van and a pickup truck. Meanwhile, in most countries, people use something called public transportation. Granted, Canadian cities don’t exactly seem dedicated to improving their network and keep it affordable—but really, many Canadians dislike the idea of sitting by complete strangers for ten or thirty minutes every day.

You will also notice that Canadians never stand too close when queuing or when talking to you and this is definitely not a culture where physical contact is the norm. I still remember my first medical appointment where the doctor kept on warning me, “I’m going to touch your arm,” “you will need to roll up your sleeve” etc. Meanwhile, in France, you’re expected to strip down to your underwear for checkups!

That’s how it is in Canada: respect people’s personal space and boundaries—but hug Canadians, that’s okay to do so.

Any other puzzling behaviour to add? And Canadians abroad, what attitudes do you find weird?

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About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.

20 Comments

  1. It’s funny because the Portuguese customary greeting is the double-cheek kiss, which a German/English friend says she hates because she sees it as fake. She would prefer to shake hands as she sees it as more genuine than strangers kissing each other.

    I think Southern Europe in general is a big cultural adjustment for the Northern Europeans. Even between France and Germany there are some things that either culture won’t budge on. For example, we were in Lyon about 11 months ago and stayed with a German guy whose wife and kids were out of town. He’d lived in France for something like 25 years (since university). We weren’t sure what time he would be eating dinner and arrived after 10pm. He said he’d eaten dinner already, around 5pm (in Portugal that’s snack time, 3 hours before dinner), which we remarked seemed early for France.

    “But I’m German,” he said.

    • I find shaking hands more awkward than kissing cheeks (at least with friends, not in a professional context!) but of course, I’m biased because cheek-kissing is customary in France.

      I feel this cultural gap between Mediterranean Europe and Northern Europe you, you’re perfectly right. I relate to Spanish, Italians and Portuguese more than to Norwegians, Germans or Polish.

      Do you dinner at Canadian time or Portuguese time? I’m still a late-night eater, never got used to eating dinner at 5 p.m.!

      • We eat dinner at Portuguese time (8:30-9:30 weekdays usually, often later on weekends). Everything in Portugal is later, from mealtimes to the cinema.

        Then again, I never ate dinner at 5pm in Canada. That’s usually around when I finished work!

        I would say I’m fully adapted to the Portuguese lifestyle, even if in some situations I feel like an actor in a play.

        In January, I learned about one company’s annual Christmas party where they serve dinner at 10pm, dance in the ballroom until 4am (!), then breakfast is served, then people go home. And this is their tradition!

        • I love your metaphor: I would say I’m fully adapted to the Portuguese lifestyle, even if in some situations I feel like an actor in a play.

          I still follow your adventures (even if I rarely comment) and I would agree, you adapted really well. In fact, it’s almost hard to reconcile the Gail I met in Ottawa once and followed while you were in Toronto and “Portuguese Gail”!

  2. I like the personal space one, since I happen to like my bubble thank you very much 😉 And yes I agree it’s hard to make deeper connections sometimes. I also feel that it’s sometimes because people here know you as a friend from work, or a friend to go hike with etc. It’s rarer for people to invite you to their house for a meal or coffee if that makes sense? And TBH I think making friends with the locals is hard no matter where you go since people tend to already have a network of friends/family and don’t necessarily feel the need to expend it. As for hugging, I still abhor it. We had a friend over last night and he tried to hug me last night even though I was… eating my dinner. Come on!
    I experienced the whole getting fired thing first hand and yes it was deeply upsetting and weird…
    https://unefillepascommelesautres.com/2016/03/31/chomage-un-an-apres/

    • I also notice it was very rare to be invited to people’s place.

      I’m not a big fan of hugging, although I got used to it. But I’m one of these people who don’t mind being touched so whatever. I understand others are different! I rarely initiate physical contact, though.

  3. Martin Penwald on

    Ils sont bizarres les Québécois. Le maire de Montréal était aussi le maire de Nicodère.

    En parlant de ça, à Montreal, le maire sortant est devenu le maire sorti.

      • Martin Penwald on

        J’écoute à peu près quotidiennement les infos du midi et l’émission du soir de Radio-Canada, et c’est assez fortement centré sur le Québec.
        Et puis les gros scandales de corruption dans la région de Montréal qui ont éclaté il y a 4 ans ont fait pas mal de tort à l’agglomération. Coderre n’a pas été touché par les scandales de l’époque, mais son comportement arrogant et sa manière assez autoritaire de diriger la mairie ont probablement joué en sa défaveur. Plus le cafouillage sur l’organisation de la course de Formule E.

        • J’étais assez au courant de la vie québécoise du temps où j’enseignais et où je lisais La Presse et Le Devoir le midi en mangeant… mais j’ai pas mal lâché l’affaire et je dois avouer que je ne sais pas grand chose des derniers scandales. Enfin ceux liés à la corruption me rappellent ceux dont j’ai pris connaissance entre 2005 et 2009!

          • Martin Penwald on

            J’étais pas là donc je connais moins, mais je suppose qu’il s’agit du scandale des commandites à cette période, non?

          • Martin Penwald on

            Vu que Marois a été élue il n’y a pas longtemps, j’imagine que ça n’a pas été très loin. Je me souviens vaguement de quelques allégations, mais rien de précis.

  4. En plein dans le mille sur les choses qui m’ont le plus surprise, en arrivant au Canada !
    Je suis tellement latine sur plein d’aspects… Sauf sur le fait de ne pas avoir d’espace, mais je m’y fais plus facilement que de manger à 6h du soir et de ne pas gueuler pendant une discussion mouvementée en étant les meilleurs amis du monde 😀

    • Ah oui, on peut dire que tu aimes les grands… euh… espaces déserts! Sinon, comme toi, je suis latine et pas British. Sauf peut-être dans la manière de travailler, car c’est quelque chose que j’ai appris au Canada.

  5. OMG preach on the deep friendship thing ! It is hard !! I have been here for more than 3 yrs and i am not sure if i have a deep friendship with anyone (maybe?). I find it so weird…

    Oh and i always ask somebody if it is ok to hug them. Shaking hands is weird to me.

    • And I’m sorry because I really was (am) that flaky person in our case :-/ I find it hard to socialize and at the same time, I feel lonely. Ugh.

      • OMG no i was not talking about you specifically! I know you are busy and it is tough to sync our schedules but let’s try to meet before the end of the year. I need trip recommendations and advices lol !

  6. The laying off bit is scary; our offices went through this a couple of months back. Someone from the same cubicle had to leave, no sobbing, just a confused smile on his face, he was gone within 10 minutes of his reaching work. I was like “where the hell is he going so soon?” but later found out the real deal, like 3 hours later about what really happened. I couldn’t come to terms with that for almost a week; I kept picturing myself being let go, it is still scary; I mean we are still so new here.

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