Some days, I accomplish mundane tasks on autopilot. It was the case that afternoon: I was sick, weak, feverish, eager to head home and finish a work project. I sped through the aisles, grabbing oatmeal, yogurts, bananas and some veggies. I couldn’t find a basket so I was carrying my shopping in my arms and I unloaded it on the conveyor belt with a sigh of relief—at least, I hadn’t dropped anything.
I took a coupon out of my wallet and placed it on the bag of crackers. I checked my phone—one new email, nothing urgent. Perfect. Then I proceeded to stare absentmindedly at the junk food displayed at the checkout. Eh, did you know they make small containers of pretzel sticks and Nutella to go? Mmm… I wonder how many kids skip the sticks and just eat the spread. I know I would.
My turn came. The cashier said something I didn’t hear because I wasn’t paying attention. “I don’t need a bag, thanks” I replied because this is usually the question asked at the stage of the transaction.
The cashier looked at me, puzzled and slightly offended. “Nah, I just said I like these oldies,” he said, pointing at my Nirvana t-shirt. I apologized and started laughing, both because I quite don’t see Nirvana as classic rock yet and because my reply had been completely off topic.
This made me realize that every day, I mindlessly reply to questions that can sound very strange out of context and may be puzzling to newcomers.
So here are 8 questions that somehow make sense in Canada.
“Do you need a bag?”
Most supermarkets and many stores charge 5 cents for plastic bags or sell reusable “green” cotton bags for a few dollars. This is still a relatively new policy and it was well accepted by Canadians. At the cash register, transactions are invariably prefaced with the “do you need a bag today?” question, because while plastic bags are still available, many customers would rather use their own bags and avoid the charge.
“What time is it over there?”
You may want to ask yourself this question when you are calling a friend in Vancouver or trying to reach a customer service representative in Newfoundland. Indeed, their local time may not be your local local time—this is the reality of living in a country with six different time zones (Newfoundland, Atlantic, Eastern, Central, Mountain, and the Pacific Time Zone.
On a side note, time zones can be a headache for Canadian broadcasting networks, especially those showing American programs at the same time as the American network affiliates. The common practice is to broadcast simultaneously to the Eastern and Central time zones, so you will hear anchormen saying “8:00, 7:00 Central”!
“English or French?”
Canada has two official languages: English and French. At the federal government level, they have equal status, so Government of Canada websites, publications, applications, etc. are available in both languages. At the provincial and municipal levels, it depends on where you live. As for the private sectors, many companies operate in French in Quebec and in English everywhere else, but some offer services and products in both languages.
Bottom line is, because you can’t guess someone’s preferred language, you are often offered a choice, either verbally or in writing. For instance, Citizenship and Immigration‘s homepage displays two buttons: English and Français. Sometime, customer service representatives wear little pins that say “I speak English” or “je parle français”. In Ottawa, you can often hear “Hello bonjour, English français?”
“Would you like [insert product]with that?”
Help the economy, spend money! Or at least, this is the message you get wherever you shop. Upselling, i.e. the sales technique whereby a seller induces the customer to purchase more expensive items, upgrades or other add-ons in an attempt to make a more profitable sale, is very common in Canada. For instance, when I buy my daily cup of black coffee, I’m asked if I want “a pastry or a breakfast sandwich with that”.
Sales representative and cashiers are often tasked with upselling, and sometime they hate the pitch as much as you do. For instance, large department stores try to sell you an extended warranty or the store credit card, while supermarkets offer discount for buying two or three products of the same brand.
“Any special dietary requirements?”
Welcome to North America, the home of a million of diets, food allergies, preferences, restrictions, accommodations and fads. From the classic vegetarian and vegan diet to the old-fashion Atkins through the newest Paleo, you can be sure someone you know doesn’t eat the standard fare. After all, everybody is special and different here… Because potlucks and large gatherings where food is served can be a minefield, you will often hear this question asked. Never assume what you put on your plate will be enjoyed by everyone. Always, always enquire about special diets!
Nobody but the debit machine (and maybe your best friend who is struggling with numbers) will ask you this question directly. Calculating the tip amount is a fairly private matter: it’s charged on your debit or credit card, dropped in a jar or left on the table.
Yet, if you aren’t from a culture where tipping is the norm, it takes practice to decide how much the social contract requires you to tip. Even after fifteen years in Canada, I’m glad when I see various tipping percentages (10%, 15%, 20%, etc.) being displayed on the card terminal because it saves me from doing the math!
“How much is it with tax?”
In Canada, the sales tax (HST or GST) is never included. When you make a large purchase, you may need to know the final amount you will pay. For instance, your $600 laptop is actually $678 with HST in Ontario. To complicate matters, some goods and services are exempt and the tax rate varies from province to province.
“Do you want cashback?”
The first time I was asked this question at the supermarket, I paused. Er… yes, I wanted some cash back, please give me my change, why? Then I was explained what “cashback” was. Basically, wherever the service is offered, you can pay for your purchase with your debit card and add an amount to your discretion. You will receive this amount in cash along with your purchase. For example, if your grocery shopping total is $17 and you ask for $60 cashback, you pay a total of $77 with your debit card and receive $60 in cash along with your shopping.
This type of service can be a win-win situation: it reduces the amount of cash banking the store has to do and customers skip a trip to the ATM, which may incur banking fees.
Any question you often hear that would sound weird taken out of context? Do share!