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5 Canadian Culture Facts I Never Truly Understood

Canada, Gatineau, February 2012

I have been living in Canada for quite some time now and all in all, I think I adapted pretty well.

I left France at 18 years old, traveled a lot and of course, I’m living with a Canadian—all that probably explains why embracing another culture was fairly easy for me.

Yet, there are a few cultural facts—habits, customs etc.—that I adopted without being entirely comfortable with.


Tipping — Before the flaming starts, let me assure you that I do tip—I was told it was proper etiquette in North America and I respect that. Yet, I don’t truly understand why I tip. Normally, people tip because they receive good service but most Canadians automatically tip 15-20%. It is expected, regardless of whether the service was good or bad. So what’s the point of going through the “Gee, what’s 15% of $9.48?” routine? Why isn’t there a service fee included in the price? And while tipping in restaurants is now second-nature to me, I’m still not entirely sure who I’m supposed to tip in other service industries. Hair stylist? Massage therapist? Gas station attendant? Why should I tip them rather than, let’s say, a doctor or a receptionist? Why should I tip professionals who are paid to be their job? I think part of the problem is that I have never worked in a tipping job, and that France doesn’t have a tipping culture.

Calculating the HST — In Canada, sales taxes, such as the Harmonized Sales Tax (HST) are not included in the price: they are added at the time of purchase. Don’t bother getting your change ready at the cash register, because your $24.04 hardcover book won’t be $24.04 but $27.17. To make matters even more complicated, taxes are not levied on all items—good luck guessing what goods are exempt. The fact that taxes are not consolidated in the price displayed annoys me because it’s hard to compute the final cost mentally. On small purchases, the difference between the price without tax and the price with tax isn’t an issue but for bigger items, such as electronics, it makes a difference.

The identity quest — Canadians seem to be obsessed with defining themselves as a nation. There are a lot of documentaries, TV shows, books etc. dedicated to showing the world—or more likely, Canadians—that Canada is a bona-fide country and not just a cold suburb of the U.S.A. The Canadian psyche is often probed and our national identity is examined a lot. And I don’t get it. Of course Canada is a country! Sure, it’s a young nation (by European standards) and sure, it shares some similarities with its southern neighbours, much like France shares some similarities with Italy or Spain. Defining Canada is difficult because it’s a huge multicultural country but to me, this is a strength, not a weakness.

Profanities and censorship — Yes, “flower” is a much nicer word than “fuck”, and “peace” is better than “piss”. But hey, shit… I mean, bad things happen, and few of us actually say “oh, fudge!” I know I certainly don’t, and I don’t care whether it’s lady-like or not—if I stub my toe against the table, I’m piss… I mean, slightly annoyed. That’s why I don’t understand media censorship. When I found out that the version of “Creep” by Radiohead issued for North American radio play replaced the line “So fucking special” with “So very special”, I was puzzled. Can you actually do that? Who these days if offended by a single “fuck”? Beeping bad words on TV doesn’t make sense to me. Ever tried watching Hell’s Kitchen? Gordon Ramsay’s rants are basically a long succession of “beeps”! Either censor the entire show or quit being hypocritical, for fu… I mean, “please”.

Some comfort food — Some food are an acquired taste and I never truly learned to like Canadians’ favourite comfort food. Like peanut butter for instance: there is peanut butter, and then peanut butter ice cream, peanut butter cookies, peanut butter candies etc. I still don’t get why people are crazy about it! Same goes with hot dogs. I don’t think I ever had one actually. Back when I was a teacher, my students would line up in the cold on Bank Street to buy them from the hot dog cart—I don’t see what’s so great in a sausage, bun, mustard and ketchup. And I don’t get Kraft’s mac & cheese (it’s just… macaroni and cheese!), Pop-Tarts… or poutine!

Are there still some cultural facts here that puzzle you? Some customs you never truly adopted in your new country?

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