“Pardon me!” Understanding and adapting to Canadian social norms

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“Keep in mind how important it is to be kind. Don’t be too embarrassed by your mistakes. Forgive others’ mistakes easily. Be willing to set aside your own ideas about what is `right’ and approach new situations with curiosity and an open mind.”

Gabi Cipollone (Olympian)
Quoted from Modern etiquette: Different cultures have different greetings by Mary M. Mitchell, Lifestyle.


One of the first places I visited in Manitoba was a summer fair. It had carnival rides and games. My nephew and I queued for a ride and as we did a group of young girls lined up behind us. While waiting, I saw that one of my nephew’s shoelaces was untied. As I bent to take care of it, the line moved forward. Quickly, one of the young girls behind us stepped over my leg and went ahead of us. She motioned excitedly for the rest of her group to follow her. As I started to speak, one girl in their group apologized to me and said to her friend, “Hey, you’re not in your country anymore. Cutting in line is not done here.” As the girl who cut in line walked back, I saw the frustration in her face as she struggled to make sense of what had happened. To her, it was nothing personal. Because it was commonly done in her country, she thought that it was the normal thing to do.

For many of us newcomers, navigating the realm of social norms (norms are informal rules that govern behavior in groups and societies) can be complicated. Not that we’re uncivilized. And it is not a matter of one culture or country being wrong or right – it’s just that different groups of people do things differently. The underlying reasons for these norms can range from environmental factors to historical roots. Many norms can be hard to figure out, especially when you have not lived in that certain place for a long time. However, observing and trying to understand norms will not only help you integrate smoothly but also help you adapt quickly.

Aside from not cutting in line, here are few other Canadian social norms that I’ve observed:

Noise and decorum

Where I am from vendors hawking their wares, crowded streets, music blaring and car horns beeping define city life. You would have to shout to be heard when speaking to someone in public. This is the volume of life when you’re in one of the most densely populated cities in the world. In this environment, people loudly chatting or shouting at their phones is normal.

You don’t have to shout in Manitoba with its vast, open spaces. Shouting or yelling are uncommon. Speaking loudly when chatting with friends or when using your phone are frowned upon. Generally, loud, disruptive and boisterous behaviour are not acceptable. So it would be wise to tone down your voice especially in public.

This sense of order extends to the environment. You will notice that people do not generally litter. Neighbourhoods maintain clean pathways, parks and lawns. You do not cross the street everywhere or stop public transport wherever you want. There are designated areas to walk, wait, bike, and drive on.

Some norms people will not tell you about:

  1. Don’t sneeze or cough on your hand or worse, just freely. Do it in the crook of your arm (especially now while we’re still in a pandemic).
  2. Don’t yawn without covering your mouth. It is impolite to yawn with abandon, especially while talking to someone. It implies that you are bored and do not want to listen.
  3. Other no-nos: spitting, clearing your throat loudly, burping, slurping, and chewing with your mouth open. Also, don’t spit in the sink. Do it in the toilet.
  4. People are sensitive to smells and scents. If you have body odour or bad breath, no one will tell you but people may avoid you. Conversely, too much deodorant or perfume can be dangerous in a scent-free establishment. You can make people with scent allergies dizzy or sick.
  5. Tipping is expected in restaurants and other service-oriented establishments like hotels or bars. It is safe to tip 15-20% of the bill before tax (for good to exceptional service). You may tip 10% if the service was not satisfactory. You can tip 5-15% of the bill for food delivery service.
  6. Think before you give gifts. This can put someone in an awkward position. They may not have something to give back, or it may be taken to mean something else (like currying favour). It would be good to observe the gift-giving tradition in your workplace or community first before doing it.
  7. Be mindful of personal space when talking to someone. Don’t stand too close or talk too loud. If you’re interacting with someone who is not a member of your household, keep a distance of two metres (six feet) to observe proper physical distancing.
  8. It is second nature for Canadians to say “excuse me,” “I’m sorry,” “please,” and “thank you” when appropriate.
  9. Don’t get on the bus (or other public vehicles) before everyone has gotten off.
  10. Leaving the door open and holding it for people behind you is normally done.
  11. Punctuality is a sign of respect. The right time to arrive for any meeting is 15 minutes early.

Sense of humour

Canadians are fun-loving and have a self-deprecating humour. It’s part of small talk or quick conversations. It’s a way of making people feel welcome and at ease in their company. If you want to participate, remember that humour is a tricky thing. If you are not used to the kind of humour that people around you find acceptable, don’t attempt to make jokes. Canadians value political correctness, respect and kindness more than being funny. As a rule, don’t make fun of how a person looks like, how much they make, or their race, gender, or ethnicity. Even simple comments on personal appearance can be dangerous. A good guideline to keep in mind would be: “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

Community life is important

In Canada, expect the following to be true:

  • Contributing to the community either by donating money or your time is a way of life. Did you know that Manitoba routinely donates more per capita than any other province?
  • Helping your neighbours is important. Cooperating with them to keep the neighbourhood clean, safe and orderly is expected.
  • The greater number would make accommodations for the few. For example, everyone is expected to strictly follow food or scent restrictions at school or work to protect those who have allergies.

Too many things to remember? Don’t worry, everyone understands that adjusting to a new country takes time. Canadians are naturally tolerant and helpful. They will understand that you’re new and still finding your way. Just do your best to always be kind and keep an open mind. Continue immersing yourself in social situations, and keep asking questions and observing. If you commit a social blunder, just say sorry. Take it easy on yourself and keep learning.
Article updated July 18, 2023.

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Community Resources

All of these social norms stem from Canadians’ basic values and beliefs. Read Canadian cultural values and beliefs to understand them better.

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