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Three Faux Pas I (Must Have) Committed When I Came to Canada

Ouch, Ottawa, May 2012

A faux pas is a violation of accepted social norms. These standard customs vary widely from culture to culture, and what is considered good manners in one culture can be considered a faux pas in another.

The term “faux pas” comes originally from French (it literally means “misstep”)—I guess the French are so prone to cultural awkwardness they needed a word for it.

I like to think my parents raised me well and that I’m usually a polite and considerate person. But I was also very French when I settled in Canada, and my Frenchness led to me to commit many involuntarily social “oops”.

Here are three faux pas I committed, or must have committed, in my first few months in Canada.

Not tipping or not tipping enough

Like most Europeans, French don’t tip—the service (or lack thereof) is included in the price. At most, you leave the taxi driver or the waiter your spare change, i.e. you don’t demand your 10 cents back.

In Canada, I quickly learned that I had to tip in the food service industry. It remained a dilemma for me for a while because I never knew how much to tip and I suck at math, but I did it anyway (and I’m pretty sure I tipped too much most of the time).

What I really didn’t know was that other professionals also expected a tip. Hair stylists, for instance. Really? Why? Getting a haircut in Canada is expensive, I don’t know my stylist and he/she typically spends about 20 minutes cutting my hair while chatting with colleagues. Why do people deserve a tip to do their job? I’m sorry, it’s cultural and I don’t get it—although I don’t blame them for gladly accepting a tip, but I have issues with the expectation of it.

One day, I read one of these Reader’s Digest “Holiday Tipping” lists and I realized in horror that I was supposed to tip a long list of people—the letter carrier, the garbage collector, the neighborhood’s cops association if any… hell, pretty much anyone I ever interacted with. Where on earth do you draw the line? Who don’t you tip?

“Yes sir… I mean, John”

I believe this was my very first work etiquette faux pas: I didn’t know how to address people. French tend to be on the formal side—like in Spanish, Portuguese or Chinese, there are two ways of saying “you”, a polite and formal way (“vous”) and a familiar way (“tu”).

In my first job, I used the very formal “vous” when talking to my French-speaking colleagues and managers, and I said “sir” or “mam” when talking to anyone above me (that included pretty much the entire company).

Unfortunately, no one was impressed with my desperate attempts to be polite and respectful. My French-speaking colleagues thought I was a snob—unlike French, Québécois rarely use “vous” and are quick to use the informal “tu”. And my English colleagues and managers were on a first-name basis since the end of the hiring interview. As I quickly found out, in North America, people are less formal and respecting that is polite etiquette.

“Where are you from? No, really?”

I grew up in Nantes, a big enough French city but one where there weren’t a lot of immigrants. Those we considered “immigrants” were in fact second or third generation Chinese, Algerian, Moroccan, etc. and they had adopted French customs a lot time ago.

When I came to Ottawa, I was the immigrant—one fresh-off-the-plane to boot. So naturally, I was curious about other people’s backgrounds, especially because I had never seen so much multiculturalism.

In my first job—a really shitty job, one that only desperate immigrants would take—I was working with a girl who was from Afghanistan, a guy from Iran and two brothers from Djibouti. All these countries were very exotic to me and I wanted to know more about their culture.

But as I quickly discovered, a lot of immigrants just want to blend in and don’t want to be reminded they are newcomers. My inquisitive questions seemed rude, because I was denying them the chance to move forward with their lives and to adapt to Canada. Asking people where they are from is natural curiosity but I learned to refrain from doing so, unless the conversation drifted to the topic.

The next installment of the faux pas series (I’m not proud of it, but I have a few more to share…) will be published next week!

How about you? Have you ever committed a cultural faux pas? How did you realize it?

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