“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.

When I arrived in Manitoba, one of the first places I went to was a summer fair. This was the kind with 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 literally 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 our 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 happened. It was nothing personal. Because it was common in her country, she thought that it was the normal thing to do.

For many newcomers, navigating the realm of social norms can be complicated. Not that we’re uncouth or uncivilized. And it is not a matter of one culture or country (or sometimes even region) being wrong or right – it’s just that we 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 understanding them will not only help you integrate smoothly and quickly in your new environment, but also help you adapt in a more genuine manner.

Aside from queuing orderly and not cutting in line, here are few other Canadian social norms that I have observed:

Noise and decorum

Where I am from, vendors hawking their wares, loud music wafting through the air, and car horns beeping define the hustle and bustle of city life. When speaking outside, you would have to shout above the din to be heard. This is the volume of life when you live in one of the most densely populated cities in the world. In this environment, people loudly chatting or shouting at their phones is normal.

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

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.
  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 5-10% of the bill for food delivery service.
  6. Gift-giving can be a dangerous minefield. It 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 embarking on a gift-giving spree.
  7. When talking to people, be mindful of personal space. Don’t stand too close to the person you’re talking to. Observing an arm’s-length is safe.
  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 self-deprecating. You will hear this during small talk and when they joke around. It’s a way of making people feel welcome and at ease in their company. If you have an urge to participate, remember that humour is a tricky thing. If you don’t have a handle of the kind of humour that people around you find acceptable, it would be safer not 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, 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 it.”

Community life is important

In Canada, expect the following to be true:

  • Contributing to the community either by donating money to causes or donating your time by volunteering is a way of life. Did you know that Manitoba routinely donates more per capita than any other province?
  • Helping out 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, at school or work, everyone is expected to strictly follow food or scent restrictions in deference to those who have allergies.

Too many things to remember? Don’t worry; everyone understands that it will take time. Canadians are naturally quite tolerant and helpful. They will understand that you are new and still finding your way. The easiest way to go about your day is to do your best to always be kind and to keep an open mind. Continue immersing yourself in social situations, observe, and continue learning. Embrace the culture and you will get better at it. And if you commit a social blunder, just say sorry. Take it easy on yourself and try better next time.

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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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