Snow Goose, Ottawa, June 2012

This is the second part of the article published last week, Three Faux Pas I (Must Have) Committed When I Came to Canada.

Travellers tend to remember the etiquette warnings that often apply to “exotic” countries. For instance, before going to China for the first time in 1999, I had been told that I should never ever stick my chopsticks vertically in a bowl of rice (supposedly, that’s the way a bowl of rice is offered to the spirit of a dead person). Guess what—I quickly realized most Chinese did so inadvertently and that the earth didn’t stop spinning. Interestingly, most cultural warnings I have received over the years were blown out of proportion, but that’s another story.

But I hadn’t really studied Canadian etiquette before coming here, and I naively thought traditional European etiquette would apply.

I was wrong.

Here are three more faux pas I committed.

“Hi… oh, hi!”

Who would have thought greeting people was tricky? Pas moi!

French greetings are often considered complicated and borderline scary—take any American movie set in France and note the must-have scene in which a (gay, obviously) French guy attempts to give the unsuspecting American male a peek on the cheek.

Yes, French greet each other with a peek on the cheek. Or two. Or three. Or four. It depends on the city (seriously!). And when they part ways, they do it again. Back in high school and university, I think I spent most of my days “faire la bise” (that’s the name of this greeting) to various groups people.

Now, note that you don’t kiss everyone. Gee, French aren’t totally weird. Among the 20- and 30-something generation it’s pretty much expected to kiss hello, even when meeting friends of friends for the first time. You can also kiss friends, colleagues, family… but you wouldn’t kiss someone older than you or above you hierarchically speaking. With these people, you just nod and say “bonjour.”

Now, I knew I wasn’t supposed to kiss people hello in Canada. What I didn’t know was how to do greetings. See, from what I observed at first, most of time, Canadians would stand a meter apart and nod “hello” to each other. Occasionally (and to me, somewhat randomly) they shake hands. And I’m not sure why, but shaking hands with another woman was strangely formal to me and it took me a long time to get used to it. And other times, people say something like “oh, let me give you a hug!” and proceed with hugging you.

But as a new Canadian, I could never figure out what situation warrants the hug, the handshake or the hello. Seriously, this is as complex as kissing people hello!

Not having a clue

Have you ever seen tourists in the subway in Paris? They are easy to spot. They constantly look around them and stop in the middle of an underground path to check the map. On the escalator, they stand on the left, lost in their thoughts, and anger busy Parisians who can’t pass them. When they buy tickets at the machine, they take forever to decipher the instructions—the screen is broken and/or scratched—and slow the line down. At the ticket booth, they insist on speaking some French and once again, slow down the process for everyone.

It’s painful to watch, really.

And it’s even more painful for me because at first, in Canada, I was that awkward person who meant well but didn’t have a clue.

My English wasn’t that good and I often asked people to repeat instructions, or people were struggling to understand me and it would make matters worse because I’d feel self-conscious. My first few times taking the bus in Ottawa, I boarded through the back door—a big “no no” here since back doors are to exit the bus, and when you board have to give the driver your ticket, or show your pass. I got angry at a driver who almost ran over me—only he had the right of way, I just didn’t know cars could turn right at a red light.

It gets better. Little by little, the more you observe people, the more you learn. But not having a clue of how things work at first, and being painfully aware of it, is quite a humbling experience.

Dressing right

This one is awfully embarrassing, more so because it happened to me not that long ago—within the past year or so.

I was invited to a small gathering of friends to celebrate a minor life event. The event had always happened and my understanding was that the gathering was informal, it was basically a chance to catch up with friends and acquaintances. The invites were sent by email and definitely included the word “casual.” I didn’t know the person who had issued the invitation very well, but I appreciated the thought and decided to come.

It was winter, it was cold and the event was on a Saturday evening. I spent the afternoon taking pictures around the city and then walked to the place of the event, which was nearby.

As soon as I stepped in, I realized I was very much underdressed. I was wearing my usual “winter weekend photo hunt” clothes, i.e. jeans, a t-shirt, sweater, jacket and scarf, and Doc Martens shoes. Which is just fine to hang out downtown, I guess, but all of the women were wearing fancy dresses and Cinderella shoes, and looked like they had just stepped out of a fair tales carriage. I was mortified. “Okay, I’ll keep my sweater on,” I thought, realizing that the t-shirt I was wearing was one of the ones I buy on Threadless. Trust me, I didn’t stay long. It’s very uncomfortable to be underdressed!

I was slightly mad at the hosts (who, I think, should have specified it was not a casual event) but mostly annoyed with myself. It’s cultural: I often noticed how Canadian women like to dress up for evening events, wearing dresses and outfits that I, as a French, find are more suitable for prom or bridesmaids. I’m in Canada. I should have known better! There is a reason why most stores carry these dresses!

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


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  1. shionge June 18, 2012 at 8:38 am

    Hey….now that I am in this Danish town, I look like an idiot figuring how to go about buying my metro ticket. But we tried to ‘stay out’ of the way of the locals as we knew they have that train/metro to catch.

    As for greetings, I have no clue if we should give a peek once or twice – it is always different for Americans, English or even Aussie 🙂

    1. Zhu June 18, 2012 at 12:35 pm

      I can imagine how you feel! I was clueless in S’pore subway system at first but I remember some nice people showed up how to reload our card at the machine.

  2. Cynthia June 18, 2012 at 9:36 am

    I mostly shake hands when I’m meeting someone new or when it’s formal.

    I don’t like the bises thing in France but I have to do it anyway or else I stand out as the weirdo!

    1. Zhu June 18, 2012 at 12:35 pm

      I don’t like faire la bise much, especially when there is a large gathering, It feels weird… and even more so for me now since I never do it in Canada! I get a reverse culture shock with that when I go to France 😆

  3. Elisabeth Stewart June 18, 2012 at 1:21 pm

    Don’t fret about appropriate “greetings.” With close friends and family, it’s kisses and/or hugs – with everyone else, I still don’t have a clue what’s expected!

    1. Zhu June 23, 2012 at 10:46 pm

      Glad to hear I’m not the only one with the issue! Eh, at least we know what to do with those we love 😉

  4. Andi June 19, 2012 at 8:49 am

    Haha I am always the girl that dresses up TOO much! At least you stood out though right??? 😉

    1. Zhu June 23, 2012 at 10:46 pm

      Yeah, a bit too much maybe 😆

  5. Audrey | That Backpacker June 27, 2012 at 10:17 pm

    Oh, my first time in Paris I felt so awkward when people I was being introduced to for the first time kissed me hello. I mean, you see it in the movies, but it was still kind of unexpected. I think I was probably blushing…haha

    1. Zhu July 1, 2012 at 6:12 pm

      I can perfectly imagine! That custom is strange to me as well, having lived in Canada for too long.

  6. Pauline July 3, 2012 at 7:07 am

    The greeting thing is like this: Shake hands with strangers and coworkers, hugs with family and friends and kisses for close friends and family. (although English people aren’t really as into it) The amount of contact is proportional to how long you’ve known the person and/or like them.

    1. Zhu July 3, 2012 at 11:04 pm

      It’s still so different culturally-speaking… it can be confusing!

  7. J June 8, 2015 at 4:18 pm

    I’m a bit surprised by the party invitation saying casual and then everyone arrive in full dresses and cinderella shoes. Maybe it’s just me but that doesn’t sound casual but more semi formal. I was born and raised here and I probably would have been under dressed too.

    1. Zhu June 8, 2015 at 8:06 pm

      Yes, I think there was a lack of communication or a misunderstanding somewhere 🙂


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