Graffiti in Montevideo, Uruguay, January 2017

Everything I needed to know about Canada, I learned it at work.

Over the years, the different jobs I had taught me practical skills but also provided numerous clues to decipher Canadian culture. For instance, the way employees show up at the office carrying huge plastic cups of coffee reveals a fondness for consuming food and drinks on the go—French like to socialize around the coffee machine but in English, the expression for gossip is “watercooler talk,” coffee machines aren’t even in the picture! I also quickly noted the emphasis on experience and soft skills over formal education, which can translate into very informal job interviews. All these little details add up and paint a surprisingly accurate picture of Canada and Canadians.

Unfortunately, deciphering clues takes time. I think I made a cultural faux pas in each of the positions I held.

In my first job as a call centre agent, I was hopeless at making small talk. Greeting a customer by asking, “how are you today?” felt completely counterintuitive to me. I had performance goals to meet, including volume metrics, I didn’t have the time to actually care about their day! Little did I know that the answer was invariably “fine, yourself?” …

A few months later, as a very young French teacher, I found it hard to use the informal “tu” with my colleagues and management, and I would often slip back into the polite “vous,” uncommon in the French-Canadian community (it actually made me sound snotty, apparently). Even in English, it took me a while in other positions to adress higher ups by their first name—or a shortened version, like “Jon” or “Bill”—rather than by Mrs. Y or Mr. Z.

I also missed opportunities because I had no idea how to network and promote my skills, and I actually expected to be able to use earned vacation time—ah, little did I know taking an entire week off, let alone two, is seen as a privilege!

Here are a few more clues, deciphered for you.

An informal relationship with the hierarchy

In France, the employer-employee relationship can still feel patriarchal. It’s more informal in Canada, where everyone is on a first-name basis and where (most) executives don’t take themselves as seriously and are generally approachable. Note that job titles aren’t used except during an official introduction, so it’s sometimes hard to know who is who in the company.

Food as a valued reward

I have yet to work in a place where there wasn’t free food available at one point—donuts brought by a manager as a treat, lunch for employee recognition day or around Christmas, the dreaded supermarket sheet cake for birthdays or retirement parties… I’m always surprised to see how excited people are at the prospect of free food—I’m not talking about starving students here, but employees with a decent pay cheque who can probably afford a better slice of cake!

Expressions that shouldn’t be taken literally

Feel free to say, “see you later!” as much as you want when you leave—people say this even if they never plan to see you again. Don’t expect an invitation if you hear “we’ll have to meet some other time” or “let’s do lunch”—this is just another way to say “bye,” not a commitment to further the relationship (unless you do receive an email later on with a date and place…). Finally, don’t forget that the only right answers to “How are you doing?” are “Fine,” “Great,” or “Very well, thank you.” This is not a request for information about your well-being, just a pleasantry.

Charity campaigns

These days, every big company and small business tries to meet “corporate social responsibility” goals through various initiatives to promote environmental and social well-being in the community. Usually, companies focus on a specific charity or chosen cause (poverty, mental health, etc.) and employees go with it. Optional fundraising events are common enough and so are desk-to-desk coworker solicitations. In one of my previous jobs, a coworker and I thought it was going a bit too far when another employee sent a mass email asking for donations to sponsor … his dog (apparently, it was entered in a race).

A politically correct environment

Cynically, I’d say most office environments are a magical place where employees don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t do drugs, have a happy marriage and a healthy relationship with their relatives and kids, care about the environment and social issues and would never, ever, utter the word “fuck.” A positive attitude (smiling, showing support, participating, etc.) is highly valued. Social conversation is light and potentially controversial topics are avoided except when there is a strong consensus (e.g. terrorism is bad).

Did you notice this as well in your Canadian workplace? Anything surprising to a foreigner in your own work environment?

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  1. Martin Penwald May 8, 2017 at 11:58 am

    I see that where I work, but it is not as corporate as you describe. Nobody will hesitate to say ‘fuck’, and it happens that two guys yell at each other.

    1. Zhu May 8, 2017 at 7:49 pm

      Are you sure they weren’t just yelling “TRUCK”?

      1. Martin Penwald May 9, 2017 at 10:07 am

        More probably “Fucking truck”.
        When asked “How are you?”, I answer ” Fine, thank you”, but I essentially think ” Fine, fuck you”, because it is not their business, and I really don’t care how stangers feel.

        1. Zhu May 9, 2017 at 10:02 pm

          The thing is, sometime I DO care. And I feel “how are you?” was completely devalued because we always reply “great” no matter what. It sucks.

          Is your truck fixed?

          1. Martin Penwald May 9, 2017 at 10:48 pm

            Yes, at last. It has been long, but I was able to get back in the yard for the end of the week, and I’ve left monday to deliver a load going to western New-York state.

          2. Zhu May 9, 2017 at 11:04 pm

            Yay! Good for you. (I mean it. Not just being polite).

  2. Frenchie au Canada May 9, 2017 at 2:54 pm

    I guess there is a bunch of swearing going on in my workplace haha it can be frustrating! But yes, people are always cheerful and supportive (which is nice).
    And I was also surprised by the informal tone and lack of distinction within the hierarchy. Well to be fair I saw that in Scotland first 🙂

    1. Zhu May 9, 2017 at 10:02 pm

      Oh, Scotland is informal as well? I always picture the UK (Scotland included) as super formal, royal manners basically 🙂

      1. Frenchie au Canada May 11, 2017 at 1:04 pm

        Well, Scottish culture is VERY different from “posh English” culture and they get pretty angry when pple make the amalgam (well not if you’re foreign obv).
        Have you ever watched “Still game”? You can find episodes on youtube. Scottish comedy very much shows their sense of humor and irreverence.
        And BTW, I hate tipping too! And since when am I supposed to tip when I get bread from the bakery! I get you sell takeaway coffee too but seriously!

        1. Frenchie au Canada May 11, 2017 at 1:05 pm

          And reading back on my previous comment, my job not the swearing at work is frustrating 😉

        2. Zhu May 11, 2017 at 11:53 pm

          Yeah, when I was writing this I was semi-aware that Scottish probably wouldn’t like being put together with British, much like many Québécois take offense if you call them “Canadians”. I don’t know the culture well enough though, so please tell your Scottish guy not to be mad at me 😀

          Tipping at the bakery?? That’s crazy!

  3. Bee Ean Le Bars May 9, 2017 at 3:20 pm

    In my company, with my superiors we are mostly calling each other on first name basis and they insist us using “tu”.The only thing I can’t do yet is to “faire la bise” with them, which some of my female coworkers have no problem doing.

    Cursing is so common in my office that I got used to it. This is so different to the work environment I had in the US, everyone was very polite.

    1. Zhu May 9, 2017 at 10:00 pm

      It’s funny because when I lived in France, I was completely fine with spending five minutes every day kissing a bunch of strangers. But this custom feels super strange looking back! Mind you, I find the American hug kind of weird too.

  4. Bianca May 9, 2017 at 7:01 pm

    What a timely post for me personally, as I’ve been both learning and struggling to understand some of these differences in cultural norms ever since I arrived to Canada..

    For instance, the other day I was making an appointment over the phone and when I was done my husband told me that I was quite “rude” to the person on the other side. WHAT! I couldn’t disagree more, for me the conversation was short simple and highly productive. Apparently though, I failed to say “How are you?” .. “Fine, thanks”.. “Have a great day” .”Thank you sooo much” ..etc.. My version was more like Hi, I would like to make an appointment. Okay great, thanks! Bye.

    I do understand that due to cultural differences this may come across as rude, even though in Europe it is completely normal to skip the fake pleasantries and get straight to the point, no? As a European, I find it similarly rude when complete strangers in a rather formal setting address me by my 1st name… Or worst yet, when a sales person addresses me as “sweetheart” or “darling”. You don’t know me that well and where I come from that is considered very rude and has never happened to me anywhere in Europe. Ever.

    Also, the tipping culture in North America is just ridiculous to me.. honestly. I could go on and on. On a flip side, there’s also some things that are far better here, e.g. the customer service is exceptional whereas in Europe it’s notoriously slow and unflexible. Oh well, I am learning to adjust and am getting better at it.. But thanks for decoding some of this for me, as always you bring sound advice and make me feel normal again.. 🙂

    On a side note, um are we not going to talk about YOU popping up on my TV screen the other day??
    Well done you sneaky girl, nice surprise you did great!

    So sorry to hear about the flooding on your side of the country 🙁
    Stay safe and well, hope you have a wonderful day & see u soon!! (–> see, I’m learning, eh?)

    1. Zhu May 9, 2017 at 9:59 pm

      Oh, shit, you did see the segment? 😆 I didn’t even see it (because obviously, it was live!). I… ahem, may mention it later, but I don’t even have the video!

      Oh, sorry. How are you today? 😆

      Honestly, I don’t think you were rude. I don’t feel the need to include all the chit chat on phone calls and emails, I think it’s better to be just regular polite, i.e. Hi, thank you, so that you know… we can move on the reason of the call/email. In person, I must admit I got used to saying hihowareyoutoday. Like, one word 😆 Which is super weird when the person in front of me says the same thing, so we both inquire but don’t even listen to the reply.

      I HATE the tipping culture. Can’t stand it. I don’t think I’m cheap but it’s just so freaking weird to be expected to pay the price + 15% or whatever. I integrated this fact for the food industry, okay, tipping in restaurants, no problem. However, I’m super annoyed with the never-ending list of people we are supposed to tip: hair stylists, driver, package delivery, etc. I’m just… like what? Why?? I have clients (usually individuals or small businesses) once in a while who offer to tip me. I just decline because I’m a freelancer, you pay the rate I set and that’s perfectly fine! I think to fully understand the concept of tipping, you must have worked a tipping job. Feng is more generous than me and more willing to tip because he worked in restaurants. I never worked an “official” tipping job so it’s weird to me.


      Bottom line: you’re NOT rude or weird!

      1. Bianca May 10, 2017 at 7:28 pm

        First things first.. I am well, thank you, and howareyoutoday? 🙂

        OK, moving along.. Honestly, my issue with tipping is not so much the money itself but more the fact that it is EXPECTED.. In Europe I would often leave a tip and feel happy to do so because it is completely optional and perfectly fine not to tip at all – in fact a tip is never mentioned, or heavens forbid (!) bluntly asked for.

        So I tipped my Canadian hairdresser the other day (10%) and was left speechless because I was flat out ASKED to tip. Now to be fair, I was very happy with both the haircut and the service but still.. Another thing, I need to get used to the fact the prices do not include tax…

        I am positively working on adjusting and softening my conversational skills to this new social environment, though. There’s good and bad everywhere, right? 🙂

        Oh yes, coincidentally I caught your whole segment on CBC News, you were so cool and collected! You might be able to find your segment on their website?

        Well done you did a great job!

        1. Zhu May 11, 2017 at 7:37 pm

          Yes, I have the same feeling as you about tipping. And like you, I was flat out asked to tip a few times and I found the situation super weird. Did you notice some restaurants also calculate the tip for you?? I… don’t like it. And honestly, I’m not sure why I’m supposed to tip, let’s say a hair stylist. I know they probably don’t make that much but tons of people (including me) don’t make that much. Things are different in the US where many states have a ridiculously low minimum wage (like $2/hour) but Canada has a much higher minimum wage and there shouldn’t be an expectation that customer cover for a better wage… even though everyone deserves a living wage. Gah. The whole situation sucks.

          I was very moved by the fact you took screenshots of the segment 🙂 It was just… really kind. 🙂

    2. Martin Penwald May 9, 2017 at 10:54 pm

      Ah, yes, I am not confortable either when people call me ‘honey’ or ‘sweety’, it is weird and I find that rude too. But I am even more uncorfortable to complain, so, I let go.

      1. Zhu May 9, 2017 at 11:04 pm

        I hate it as well. Like, seriously… do I look like a “honey” to you??

        1. Martin Penwald May 10, 2017 at 9:01 pm

          Like we say in my part of France : « On n’a pas élevé les cochons ensemble. »

          1. Zhu May 11, 2017 at 7:52 pm

            On dit ça chez moi aussi!

  5. Holly May 10, 2017 at 12:53 pm

    All except the last – where I worked the f word was every other. Could just have been me though!

    1. Zhu May 10, 2017 at 6:54 pm

      Really? I’m surprised by the number of comments who report that swearing did exist in their workplace. Maybe Ottawa is super proper??

  6. Lexie May 12, 2017 at 5:10 pm

    On ne jure pas non plus à mon bureau, et même si j’en ai récemment fait la critique, je reste toujours surprise de voir à quel point c’est mal vu d’utiliser le mot en “t” 🙂
    Ca me fait rire moi aussi cette attirance pour la food gratuite, mais c’est très fréquent au bureau (reste de réunion ou d’événements).
    L’impair que je commets au quotidien c’est que je suis “un peu trop”, je demande des nouvelles, je veux savoir comment les gens vont vraiment, j’envoie des courriels etc. Le small talk n’est pas vraiment pour moi!!

    1. Zhu May 12, 2017 at 11:59 pm

      Bah, moi j’aimerais bien travailler avec toi! Franchement, mieux vaut une personne qui se soucie vraiment de toi au sens amical.

      Marrant cette attirance pour la bouffe gratuite, hein? Je ne me souviens pas de ça en France.

  7. Gail at Large May 14, 2017 at 4:00 pm

    I’ve only had one job in the public sector and it is everything you describe, from the small talk to the stinginess of holidays to the sheet cake. No wonder I didn’t last! It’s also like that in old institutions that are run like the government, i.e., big banks.

    BUT, every other job I’ve had, which was either in the private sector and/or medium or small companies, were completely different: much less strict or formal or stingy with holidays. I think it has a lot to do with the industry you work in.

    For example, in Vancouver I had friends who worked in the gaming industry and their environment was like the gaming industry in general which is full of young men. They wore hoodies, drank lots of beer, offices were like the Silicon Valley campuses with games and cupboards stocked with food and nobody had set hours, just project deadlines.

    I worked in equity research in both Vancouver and Toronto, an industry which is full of boozing fund managers with expense accounts, so we’d have lots of meetings in fancy restaurants and lounges or even the airport, because everyone was flying around. It was all about money — people censored themselves only if they were talking to the media.

    If you work in a startup or an arts space, the environment is very different, again.

    Ottawa’s main industry is government, which skews it to the institutional side. If you lived in a city that was neither the capital of the country or the province, you’d have a different set of experiences.

    P.S. Are you using WP-Spamshield now? Do you still have problems with spam?

    1. Zhu May 14, 2017 at 7:10 pm

      You’re right, reading all the comments I realized my perspective is probably distorted because of the overwhelming presence of the federal government in Ottawa. I mostly worked with the public sector and of course, my experience is limited to Ottawa.

      I managed to deal much better with spam with WP-Cerber 🙂 Awesome plugin, give it a shot.

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