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3 Baffling Canadian Behaviours (Somewhat) Deciphered

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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