Kensington Market, Toronto, September 2013
Kensington Market, Toronto, September 2013

Do you speak Canadian? Knowing basic slang words and canadianisms is a good start, but learning to read between the lines is also important.

Every culture has expressions that shouldn’t be taken literally. For instance, if a Latino tells you the bus will be there in “más o menos cinco minutos”, expect to wait at least an hour. If a French person reports that whatever movie is “terrible”, it likely means that it’s awesome, not awful. If a Chinese person says “你吃饭了吗?” (“Have you eaten yet?”), you are supposed to reply “yes” even if you haven’t—this is just a polite greeting anyway.

So, what do Canadians really mean when they say the following?

In customer service lingo, “It won’t be long!” often means “it will take a while”. Note the French-Canadian equivalent, “ça sera pas bien long”—the meaning is the same. Canadians are polite folks, they have been taught that the customer is king and they really want to answer your question and get back to you as soon as possible, even though they know it won’t happen. So they soften the blow with this statement.

When a Canadian says “pretty cold, eh?” usually means “it’s -45C, I’m freezing my ass off but I really want to show how tough I am”. Don’t be fooled. Canadians are human beings, they feel the cold. They lose feeling in their fingers, have tears freezing their eyelids shut and dripping noses just like you. They just won’t admit it.

This winter isn’t that bad, actually!” If you hear that sentence and if you aren’t particularly fond of long conversations about the weather, plan your escape immediately. Why? Because such observation usually calls for a lengthy story about that winter, years ago, the coldest ever. Oh, you weren’t here that particular winter? Well, you will hear all about it, and even more. Consider yourself warned.

At work, “I need a coffee” translates into “I will come back with a small coffee and a box of ten Timbits. And donuts”. Because let’s face it, when you are waiting in line at Tim Hortons and when you are stuck behind the guy who has twenty different custom orders and can’t find his change, all you can do is stare at the pastries on display and smell the freshly baked sugary goods. And by the time it’s your turn to order, you need sugar.

“I like the outdoors” doesn’t mean “I enjoy sitting on the patio sipping a glass of wine, watching the sunset”. When Canadians are into the outdoors, they are really into the outdoors. As in spending their holidays camping in the middle of nowhere, fighting bears and other wildlife animals, carrying canoes across rivers (there is even a word for that: “portage”) and driving from one huge provincial park to the other. Don’t laugh: some folks even head to the Artic. For their holidays. In the middle of the summer. No kidding.

At the cash register, “It’s $8.75” means “don’t get your change ready, you fool! The price is plus tax! And you may want to tip on top of that too.”

“How are you today?” is a polite greeting that just means “Hello!”. Whoever asked the question certainly doesn’t expect a thoughtful answer and chances are, doesn’t really care about your mood, the fact that you missed the bus or that your team lost the game last night. Do not go into details—the only acceptable answer is “good, yourself?”

Any other common expressions and sentences to add?


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  1. harlow October 30, 2013 at 9:37 pm

    Im not gonna lie,i hate when tim hortons cashier expects me that i ll make an order. Coffee,donuts,blah blah blah. Im always like im notbgoing to eat that crap even if you give me as a gift.

    On a side note,i was in ottawa for thw last couple of days and it is SO small!!! Thought would need a bus. But walked pretty much everywhere.

    1. Zhu October 30, 2013 at 11:04 pm

      Ottawa is very spread out. The downtown core is pretty walkable (Parliament area, the Byward) but then there is the Glebe, Westboro, Chinatown, Little Italy, the Farm, etc. Wat did you visit there?

      Not a big fan of Tim Hortons’ eh? 😉

      1. harlow October 31, 2013 at 9:30 pm

        Yes,we stayed in a downtown area,parliament building( which is absolutely gorgeous) seemed like a neighbouring building. What i didnt expect for such a small city food scene really wasnt bad. Was able to get everything that i wanted. Besides byward market- rideau area,we went to chinatown and little italy.wasnt impressed by university campus, to be honest. All in all, its a nice small town.

        Unfortunately,i dont hate timmies as much as id like to. currently im trying to ditch double-double for good. Its funny because, i have no problem, to eat healthy, but when it comes to drinks (coke and double-double) i literally need to join anonymous soda/ coffee addict clubs 😀

        1. Zhu October 31, 2013 at 9:38 pm

          It’s funny, I don’t see Ottawa as a “small town” and I am a city person. I see Canada as a country of “middle-size cities” basically 🙂 Ottawa has a good food scene going on, lots of foodies here!

  2. Crystal October 31, 2013 at 2:42 am

    LOL! I agree with all of those! I’m especially guilty of the weather related ones, and tell my students here in France that I don’t mind the cold. Of course, “cold” for me is anything -10° and below 😉

    I’d add that anytime a hockey fan says, “How about those Leafs/Canadiens etc.” what they are really doing is luring you into a debate over why their favourite team is the BEST and testing you to see if your fav team is the same. If not, be prepared for battle 🙂

    1. Zhu October 31, 2013 at 10:06 am

      How could I forget to mention hockey? Shame on me!

  3. La Madame October 31, 2013 at 2:52 am

    La caissière qui demande comment ça va, ça a toujours surpris mon Monsieur 😀 C’est vrai qu’en France si la caissière te dit bonjour c’est déjà énorme! LOL

    1. Zhu October 31, 2013 at 10:06 am

      C’est vrai ça! Je préfère le service au Canada en général.

  4. Colleen Brynn October 31, 2013 at 2:07 pm

    I actually struggle with that “how are you” question… I am more likely to really get into it with someone, or I like to at least. And when they just keep walking I’m like… But I haven’t told you anything yet! At the same time, when I don’t feel like talking, it’s such a good out. “Good, you?” and keep on walking!

    1. Zhu October 31, 2013 at 3:49 pm

      I always want to give an honest answer but I notice people rarely do so here!

  5. Christiane November 3, 2013 at 7:45 am

    Hahaha my husband did “This win­ter isn’t that bad, actu­ally!” to me and i got a long story about how last winter was rough and such. I enjoyed the story but thanks for warning me for the next time !

    1. Zhu November 3, 2013 at 9:08 am

      I don’t mind these stories too much, some are cool actually.

  6. Lou's Lake Views November 4, 2013 at 12:47 pm

    Great list Zhu! I learned quite early on that the ‘pretty cold, eh?’ phrase actually meant it was so frigid a soft european should stay safely indoors! The ‘I love the outdoors’ one made me giggle too because we always say that and we have done a few things on your list this summer :-0

    1. Zhu November 4, 2013 at 5:44 pm

      Yes… Canadians love understatements when it comes to winter weather!


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