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

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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?


About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.


  1. Talking about money irks French people, I tend to forget 😉

    I hate tipping too, I hear that now 15% is not enough anymore and people are tipping 20%! I think employers should just pay their employees more and not expect customers to foot the tab!

    • Oh yes! I occasionally talk about money with my French friend in French and I can see them clam up. And I’m like “shit, I did it again!” 😆

      I think tipping 20% is an American thing, no? I know waiters down there can get paid $2 an hour. But we have a minimum wage in Canada!

  2. I feel like some tipping is a little old-fashioned. Besides the service industry (servers, taxi drivers, hotel maids or bellboys, and I guess hair dressers), I don’t think too many people still tip their postman. It feels a little old-fashioned to me in the sense that I think it was sort of a Christmas bonus type thing for people who provide a service to you all year, back when lots of people had many more service people. Maybe I’m wrong though and just too young to have ever had to tip my postman in North America!

  3. Those weren’t so much faux pas as they were learning experiences!
    And speaking of committing a faux pas, I had to look up what the plural was – much to my surprise, it’s written the same way – just pronounced differently…

    • For the spelling… “faux” (wrong, bad) always has an “x” at the end, and so does “pas”. In French, you don’t pronounce either ending 😉

  4. I think tipping is probably the biggest problem I have in North America – I just can’t really conceive the high amounts that are expected. In Spain, I was used to only tipping when going to a good restaurant and getting an outstanding service. In the US, however, I even came across bills that “suggest” the tipping amount! It said something like: 15% if mediocre, 20% if good and 25% if outstanding. Why would I give an extra 15% for something that was mediocre? (The food and service were really good, by the way, but their straightforwardness on it kept on surprising me).

    • That’s exaggerated. I usually tip between 10% and 15% in the food industry, 10% is when there is little to no service involved. As for services, like haircut, I tip a flat amount, usually $5-7 for a haircut. Take it or leave it… I’m not fussy and my haircuts typically take 20 minutes and already about $50 (that’s the price in Ottawa!). It’s okay to not tip if the service is really bad.

      • I was taught by my parents that not tipping at all leaves just the impression that you forgot and so doesn’t really send a message. Better to leave a really pathetic tip (like, $1) to get the message across. That said, I’ve never done that! If the service was really awful, we complained to the manager and got the bill reduced.

        • I don’t think I ever left without leaving a tip in Canada or in the US, even though I have been tempted to in a few restaurants considering the lack of service. But good point! I wouldn’t have thought of it. I know some people who leave a penny when the situation warrants it.

  5. Aaah j’avais du mal avec le “tu” ! Au point où, j’avais décidé de tutoyer tout le monde au boulot (sinon ça me faisait mal au crâne). Deuxième semaine de boulot, un homme me tient la porte d’entrée, je lui dis, “merci, je te vois en réunion !”
    Merde. C’était le big boss. Le big big big boss. Et apparemment, à la vue de son regard interrogatif et suspect, le “tu” n’est pas généralisé, même au Québec ! 😀
    Mon problème majeur, cependant, ça a été l’humour. Mon humour ne passait pas du tout du tout. L’ironie et l’humour noir, faut oublier je crois. Je suis passée pour une grosse nulle je pense !

    • Ooops, j’imagine la scène! 😆

      C’était drôle pour moi de réaliser que de vouvoyer quelqu’un quand le tutoiement est attendu peut être aussi gênant que l’inverse. Mais j’ai toujours travaillé dans des milieux à grosse majorité anglophone, et les anglos ne sont pas très à cheval sur le tu/vous (pour ceux qui parlent français).

  6. I use vous with strangers, seniors and those in management positions at my work, I hope that’s right. (At least that’s how I was taught)

    The faux pas that drives me nuts is the arrogance that some people (NOT you of course) have, ie. The country/city/province I come from is sooo much better than Canada/Ottawa and I’m only here for work.

    I’m not a super nationalist or anything, but I’ve lived here my whole life and my father’s family has been in Canada a long time, so when people denigrate it, it pisses me off.

    It’s o.k. to critique some things, I mean we all do that, but someone constantly bitching about how they hate it here and make huge ignorant generalizations about the people, it makes me wonder why they are even still here?

    • I get really annoyed when some immigrants criticize Canada too. There is a way to do it, a moment to do it… but if you are constantly complaining I’m sorry, maybe that’s not the right place for you to be. Same goes with travelers mind you, I hate when people complain about everything around them. If you can’t find anything you like, maybe it’s time to move on!

  7. This is interesting and makes a good read. Different cultures are so different. You really don’t have to tip a taxi driver in France? I must have tipped way too much there. I never tip the letter carrier or garbage collector. I never see them to tip them. I don’t think we tip those in Canada. The hair stylist yes. I agree they are too expensive to begin with, but you still are supposed to. But how much I’m not sure.

    • I don’t think I have ever taken a taxi in France (too expensive, plus the public transportation system is good). You wouldn’t tip a percentage, you just leave the change. I.e. if the ride is E9.60 you’d give a E10 and not expect the change back.

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