Canada is a big place, home to a diverse population of about 35 millions of people—rural, urban, old, young, male, female, French, English, east, west… the demographic variations go on and on. As difficult (and maybe pointless) as it is to make a blanket statement about such a heterogeneous population, common characteristics and shared values do exist and bind people together.
Take this list with a grain of salt because it is based on my observations only. I’m sure other Canadians will (politely) disagree.
Canadians are casual and informal
Regardless of their income, social status or responsibilities, Canadians are remarkably casual. Sure, they dress for their workplace to meet a professional dress code, but they don’t flash expensive shoes, accessories, etc. Outside regular working hours, it’s common to see people walking around wearing very casual clothing, such as yoga pants, sweatpants, flip-flop sandals in the summer, shorts, etc. I think the brand Roots embodies this kind of practical outdoorsy casualness.
On a personal and a professional level, interactions are also largely informal. In large corporations, the CEO may be known as “Jane” or “Bob” and he/she can be surprisingly approachable—the work structure is less hierarchical and patriarchal than in France or China, for instance. In every large city, a few neighborhoods or areas are clearly “upper-class” but yet, the divide between rich and poor doesn’t seem as deep as in several cities around the world, including Paris. As far as I know, there are no gated communities here or no-go zones where the police doesn’t even show up anymore (Canadians may disagree here but really, the country is remarkably safe by world standards).
Two silly anecdotes about how approachable Canadians are: when I first came to Canada and worked as a French as a second language teacher, one of my students was a very famous politician in office. Even though I didn’t share his views, he was very friendly (and introduced me to carrot cakes). And a few years ago, when Feng worked in a movie theatre, Steven Harper often came to watch movies with his family—this was right before he was elected Prime Minister.
Canadians eat early and snack throughout the day
Having dinner with Canadian friends? Don’t be surprised if they book or table or invite you over between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. Canadians are the exact opposite of Argentinians—they eat dinner, and to a lesser extend lunch, very early… must be the British heritage. It’s common for people to start eating lunch before noon, and to be done with supper long before 7 p.m. If they sleep late, they will have a snack before going to bed (duh! I’d be starving if I were to eat dinner so early!). I never adopted this Canadian-ness and I eat late. I just can’t do dinner at five o’clock, no matter how early I get up.
Canadians also tend to snack like overactive toddlers. Food is available anywhere, anytime, and according to some, snacking has long-term health benefits including weight control. I grew up in France where snacking was frown upon and where meals were supposed to be eaten in the kitchen, at the table, so it’s still weird for me to see adults munching on nuts, celery stick and hummus (the healthy version) or candy bars and muffins. I’m not judging though, I think it really is a matter of preference!
Canadians value their personal space
Except for brief hugs (a traditional quick embrace that can be surprising and awkward at first if you are used to the kiss-on-the-cheek or handshake greeting), Canadians value their personal space, this invisible sphere surrounding us, and feel uncomfortable if people are too close or initiate physical contact. If they really have to take public transportation (Canadians would rather drive), they sit as far away from other passengers as possible and eye contact is to be avoided. This is not Asia, where people would sit on your lap during rush-hour commute.
This need for physical distance can also be seen in social contexts. For example, Canadians are very protective of their privacy and information such as age, weight, marital status, etc. Questions about political opinions, personal matters, family, etc. are reserved for later stages of friendship. Inviting guests over isn’t that common either, most of the time people agree to meet in a public place like a restaurant or a coffee shop. If you go to a party to someone’s place, don’t be surprised if the action is contained to one room only or to the backyard—chances are, you won’t tour the house, which is off limit to the guests.
Canadians behave in public
I don’t think I have ever seen anyone urinating in the street in Canada, a sight way too common in France. I can’t recall seeing Canadians drunk in the street, catcalling, spitting on the ground, or skipping the queue. Never seen a car being set on fire here, people putting their feet up on seats in the bus or littering (at least not when they are being watched).
Generally speaking, Canadians are pretty courteous and they behave in public. Even hockey games are fairly peaceful (read, you won’t get killed for supporting the other team). Oh sure, misdemeanors happen every day but they are the exception, not the rule… and such behaviour is unanimously frown upon. Canadians value their “community”—whether it’s their street, neighborhood, city or province—and play their part to keep it nice.
Canadians are agreeable
I can’t remember really arguing with a Canadian. And I can’t remember overhearing a passionate argument either. Even protests here are peaceful! Canadians are masters in the art of small talk, the innocuous, politically correct kind. When they complain, it’s usually about the weather. At most, angry people write letters to The Sun (although I’m convinced the ugly conservative tabloid makes up the letters to the editor).
The downside to this is that it’s very hard to know what people really think. If a Canadian say “sure, I will call you”, chances are, the person is just being polite. Same goes with common sentences like “we should grab coffee” or “let’s meet later”—they are not (always) to be taken at face value.
Did you notice these characteristics? Or am I failing at armchair sociology?