(Updated April 2020)
Canada is a big place, home to a diverse population of 35 million—rural, urban, old, young, male, female, framcophone, anglophone… there are hundreds of demographic variations. 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 plenty of 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 the job to meet a professional dress code, but they generally don’t flash expensive shoes, accessories, etc. Outside regular business hours, it’s common to see people walking around in a very laid-back outfit, such as yoga pants, sweatpants, flip-flop sandals in the summer, shorts, etc. I think Roots is the Canadian brand that embodies best this kind of practical outdoorsy casualness.
On a personal and a professional level, interactions are also largely informal. Even in big organizations, 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. There are always “upper-class” neighbourhoods or areas, 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 or no-go zones where the police doesn’t even patrol 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 used to come watch movies with his family 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 a table or tell you to show up at their place between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. Canadians are the exact opposite of Argentinians—they eat dinner, and to a lesser extent 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 frowned 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 snack version) or candy bars and muffins. I’m not judging but the French in me want to scream “you won’t be hungry for dinner!”
Canadians value their personal space
Except for brief bear 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. They 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 totally 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 limits to guests.
Canadians behave in public
I don’t think I have ever seen anyone urinating in the street in Canada, something way too common in France. I can’t recall seeing Canadians drunk in the street, catcalling, spitting on the ground, or skipping the queue either. 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, misdemeanours happen every day but they are the exception, not the rule… and such behaviour is unanimously frowned 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 masters 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 the same things? Or am I failing at armchair sociology?