5 Subtle Cultural Differences

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Lone Coke Can, Toronto

You know how much I enjoy investigating cultural differences between countries, such as tipping, shopping, eating, chatting, money, holidays or slang. Even though I’ve been living in Canada for about 8 years now, I still discover new things everyday. Immigrating is a never-ending adventure!

Indeed, when moving to a new country, cultural differences are both very fun to discover and very frustrating, because you can feel inadequate. Yet, most people adapt quickly, and after a while, they don’t even notice these little differences anymore. Immigrants go with the flow and embrace their new lives, it’s the only way to survive after all.

But there are these obvious, yet strangely subtle cultural differences you may have never really considered. Driving rules are different. You spend hours looking for household products at your supermarket. You are really not sure what the cashier is saying when he is asking if you have a dime. Welcome to the wonderful world of immigrants!

Driving — Canadians drive on the right side of the road, like their Southern neighbours, no big surprise here. But did you know that you can “right turn on red”? In Canada, and more generally in North American, vehicles at a traffic light showing a red signal to turn right can turn right when the way is clear. Apparently, this law was adopted in the 1970s to save fuel during the oil and energy crisis. If you are a pedestrian crossing, even though you have the right of way, always pay attention because cars tend to turn pretty fast sometimes. Another law you may not be familiar is the school bus traffic stop law. For instance, in Ontario, vehicles going both ways are required to stop when a school bus has its overhead red signal-lights flashing. And failing to stop results in heavy fines, so beware!

Shopping — At first, you probably won’t be familiar with local brands and stores. It’s actually kind of fun, because for once, you don’t feel influenced by advertising or peer pressure. When I first came to Canada, I didn’t know most clothes brands and only bought stuff I liked or seemed good quality. I couldn’t have cared less about what was popular and trendy and what was not. On the other side, when you are not familiar with brands and products’ names, shopping can become an ordeal. When I was in Hong Kong, I needed to buy clothes detergent. I had no idea how to say that in English (much less in Cantonese) and I wandered along the cleaning products aisle in the supermarket for ten minutes, trying to spot a familiar name. The only one that stood out was “bleach” because, believe it or not, it was the name of one of Nirvana’s album. Doing laundry with bleach (well, I thought it was detergent!) was not such a good idea!

Holidays — A few years ago, Feng and I were shopping in a very busy mall. We were wondering why it was so busy that day when I exclaimed “oh, but it’s because it’s Wednesday!”. Feng looked at me quizzically. “Well, yes, it’s Wednesday, kids don’t have school, no wonder they are at the mall with that weather”, I explained. “But… no. Kids have school on Wednesday, why wouldn’t they?”, he said, more puzzled than ever. Turned out that was one of the many little cultural differences. In France, kids (usually up to high school) don’t have school on Wednesday, however, they have school on Saturday morning. In Canada (and probably in the rest of the world as well!), kids go to school from Monday to Friday. Similarly, you will discover a ton of new holidays in Canada, such as Thanksgiving (not on the same day as the American Thanksgiving), Canada Day or Boxing Day.

Money — Obviously, you will have to get used to a new currency in Canada. But do you know the slang for it? Loonie for the $1 coin, toonie for the $2 coin. 1¢ is a penny, 5¢ is a nickel, 10¢ is a dime and 25¢ is a quarter. Also note that Canadians love to pay with debit or use their credit card, even for very small amounts. On the other side, cheques are not that common, you mostly use them to pay the rent. This was a big change for me because French just love writing cheques!

Etiquette — You will notice different expectations for social behaviour, and a lot will be totally new to you. For instance, you will quickly learn Canadians value their personal space. Just observe people in the bus: if there is room, they each pick a different seat. Even in crowded places, people avoid touching each other, or if they do, they quickly apologize. Tipping is another social expectation you may not be familiar with. And even “fun” things, such as Baby Showers and Bachelorette parties may be new to you!

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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.

16 Comments

  1. In Montreal you can’t turn right on red, but you can do so once you leave the island. But I don’t know if they changed the rule this year or not.

  2. I was about to say the same as Poem about turning right in Montreal, I guess it’s because we’re such horrendous drivers 😉

    One thing I am still not used to in France is who sells what since grocery stores and pharmacies carry different merchandise than in North America.

  3. Interesting. Even within countries you can have differences. I grew up in the mountain west of the USA. You treated strangers like strangers. With courtesy but not like your best friends.

    When I moved to Texas people thought I was diffident and prickly. So I’ve adapted.

  4. Etiquette… That’s the toughest one! After 5 years I still so many troubles finding out the best way to approach canadians!

    Or may be it’s me. Who knows!

    Great post Juliette!

  5. I enjoyed reading your cultural differences. Here in the US I think that kids are not as polite. A couple of years ago I hurt my knee badly and had a cane. In a New York subway there were teenagers sitting and none of them offered me a seat, but a month later in Paris on the bus, they did. Also I find that people let their kids be a lot noisier here, like in restaurants where kids can scream and nothing is done. I also noticed that sales people in the South of the US are a lot more pleasant in shops than in the north and a lot friendlier. I always get surprised when I am back in France as to how cold sales people are. One thing here in Georgia (which is going away as more people from other regions move in) is if on the road someone ahead of you turns right or left, you also place your turn signal to let the people behind you know, even though you won’t turn. Also when there is a funeral procession coming from the other direction, people stop their cars, as a sign of respect. Most southern kids are taught to say “yes (or no) Ma’am or Sir” to people even their parents.

  6. Poor you buying bleach.. In NZ we do most of our washing in cold water and have detergent for that (e.g. cold water surf, cold power), since moving to France I’ve shrunk so many of my clothes and I notice that the colour doesnt’t last so well. The having Wed off in France is weird and I always wondered why there were so many people in town on Wed afternoon. As for driving the first thing I noticed in France was people DO NOT (EVER) stop at pedestrian crossings!! You the pedestrian have to wait patiently, if you dare cross you are likely to get run over or honked at. It was the first thing I warned my mum about. In NZ we use debit or credit cards for little purchases, I remember buying a 45cent stamp once. In France many shops wont let you purchase anything with a card if less than 15€. I found using cheques all the time weird too, I never had a cheque book in NZ but find I need one in France. Cheques are a pain in the butt if you are in line at the supermarket. In france I find my personal space invaded all the time, it still bugs me after 4 years.

    Was going to the Doctors in Canada different? In France its completely different to in NZ! Here, you walk in the Drs sit in the waiting room after ringing the bell, the dr welcomes you, does the checkup and then you pay her directly (in cash or cheque, no cards welcome) and then she shows you out. I’m used to receptionists!

  7. Bleach! Oh no!

    I really love this post, and I can definitely relate to it! I remember when I asked one of my colleagues once in the car if you could turn right on red in France, and she looked at me like I was nuts. At least I learned the rule before my parents came to drive in France!

  8. London Caller, I can answer your question – it’s Diet Coke here too (and in the USA). There also seems to be a product around called Coca-Cola Zero….and I have Zero idea why people would drink it….

    I was just learning about the Wednesday afternoon/Saturday morning thing in French schools yesterday – very interesting! My husband and I are daydreaming about moving to London for a few years, and sending our kids to a French school while were are there, which I expect would follow the same pattern. I wasn’t having any luck finding any French immersion schools for English-speaking kids in England – maybe London Caller can tell me if am I right that they don’t exist there? Something with at least 50% of the day with French as the language of instruction? Or is it just a Canadian oddity? We may just have to cope with school on Saturdays…

    Traffic – just to add to the confusion, Québec (across the river from Ottawa) always used to prohibit right turns on the red, until recently, when they changed it, with the exception of Montreal. I think. But I’m not sure.

    Could be a problem.

    And as for the school busses, as a parent I would just like to mention that, well, you risk rather a lot worse than a ticket if you don’t stop!!! Kids as young as 3 can be using them, and I doubt you would want to hit one…;-)

  9. I love reading your observations. I think it’s harder for me to get shocked, as I have lived in so many places in the past, that there hasn’t been a single solid background that I can evaluate new experiences to. It’s kind of unfortunate, but at the same time, I see myself as someone very easy to adapt.

  10. “Canadians drive on the right side of the road, like their Southern neighbours, no big surprise here. But did you know that you can “right turn on red?”

    Actually you can’t turn right on red in Québec. (Which despite what some Americans and some separatist Québécois say, IS definitely part of Canada)

    My husband and I live very close to the ferry to that province and remembering this law can be a bit tricky.

  11. Je ne savais pas que c’était dans les deux sens qu’on devait s’arrêter pour les bus scolaires!!
    Sur l’île de Montréal on ne peut pas tourner à droite au feu mais on peut partout ailleurs!!

  12. @Poem – They probably didn’t change, I just don’t drive to Montreal much so I forgot about this exception!

    @Cynthia – I felt the same in Canada at first, I could never tell which store sold bus tickets and which store didn’t, which ones had medicines etc. Tricky, eh?

    @Yogi – So would you say people are more friendly in Texas? Interesting!

    @Mr.G – It is not you 😉 It gets me confused too but I guess few people have the answer, so many of us are immigrants!

    @Vagabonde – I agree with you, French almost never take young kids to the restaurant but here it seems that every restaurant is a “family restaurant”. And yes, kids are taken very seriously here, while in France most people like kids but don’t value their opinion that much.

    @kim – I never thought about the doctor part, but you are right, doctors do everything themselves in France. When I was a kid, they even did house calls… like every afternoon, they would go see their patients at home. And that was in a big city, not in the country!

    As for bleach… never made the mistake again! Try Génie main in France, I loved that laundry detergent, it’s pretty gentle and the smell is great. I usually take some when I go backpacking.

    @Soleil – 😆 But seriously, I’m glad I learned to drive again in Canada. Must be hard to get used to new driving rules when you don’t even expect them to be new rules!

    @Sidney – I agree, it’s interesting!

    @London Caller – Diet Coke in Canada, but in France it’s Coca Light.

    @Margaret – I love Coke Zero, it’s my drug! It basically tastes like normal Coke but it has zero sugar. Kind of like Diet Coke improved.

    I’m sure there is a French school in London, there are tons of French expats there. But they will probably have school on Saturday, the no school Wednesday are controversial in France those days.

    I agree with you for schoolbuses, you must slow down and stop when the red light is flashing and it’s also commonsense. But a lot of immigrants like me have never seen schoolbuses before and I wouldn’t have known I had to make a complete stop. Although I may have stopped anyway.

    @Linguist-in-Waiting – I don’t really get shocked, only when I look at all the small differences, I’m like “wow, it’s kind of cool” 🙂

    @Pauline – Right, I totally forgot about that!

    @Delph – Et si, dans les deux sens! Ça m’avait surpris aussi.

  13. The best part about learning that you can’t turn right on a red light in France like you can in the U.S. or Canada was the shocked expression on my Parisian friend’s face? Right on red? But that’s so dangerous! Ummm…and speeding crazily through the narrow, winding streets of Paris isn’t? Funny how we develop our own ideas of normal and dangerous.

  14. Ah! I didn’t know about the name of the coins, I was only aware of the quarter; it’s quite funny! Do you also have names for notes? A guy I met in Canada was delighted when I told him that in Ireland we call the 10 euro note a “tenner” and the 5 euro note a “fiver”, but was disappointed when I answered is question about 20 euro notes, it’s only a “twenty”.

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