“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.

A personal experience:

I went to a summer fair with my nephew. We went in line for a carnival ride. A group of young girls followed behind us in the line. While waiting, I saw that one of my nephew’s shoelaces was untied so I bent down to fix it. While doing this, the line moved forward.

The girl behind me went ahead of us. She told the rest of her group to follow her.

Another girl in their group apologized to me. Then she said to her friend, “You are not in our country anymore. Cutting in line is not done here.” The girl who cut in line was confused. What she did was common in her country. She thought that it was the normal thing to do.

Social norms are difficult

Norms are informal rules that govern behavior in groups and societies. At first, it can be hard for us newcomers to understand and recognize them. But it’s not because we are uncivilized and it’s not about being wrong or right. Some things are just done differently.

Norms can be based on anything from environmental factors to historical roots. You might not know them if you have not lived in that certain place for a long time. This is why many of them can be hidden or hard to understand. Observing other people will help you see them. Recognizing how things are done will help you integrate smoothly and quickly in your new environment.

Here some Canadian social norms that I have observed:

Noise and etiquette

  1. You may be used to noise if you come from a highly populated country. In other countries, city life means street vendors shouting, crowded streets, loud music, and car horns beeping. People need to shout to be heard when talking outside.
  2. You don’t have to shout in Manitoba because of the open space. You will notice that shouting or yelling are uncommon. Tone down your voice especially in public. It is not polite to speak loudly when chatting with friends or when using your phone in public. Also, loud and rough behaviour are not acceptable.
  3. Order is seen in the environment. Neighbourhoods have clean pathways, parks and lawns. People do not cross the street just anywhere. You cannot stop public transport wherever you want. There are 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 just freely. Do it in the crook of your arm (esepcially during this pandemic).
  2. Cover your mouth when you yawn.
    • Don’t yawn while talking or listening to someone.
    • It is disrespectful. It shows that you are bored and do not want to listen.
  3. Don’t spit, clear your throat loudly, burp, slurp, and chew with your mouth open.
    • 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 will avoid you.
    • Don’t put on deodorant or perfume in a scent-free establishment. Those with scent allergies can get dizzy or sick.
  5. Tipping is expected in restaurants, hotels or bars.
    • Tip 15-20% of the bill before tax for good to great service.
    • Tip 10% if the service was not so good.
    • A tip of 5-15% of the bill is for food delivery service.
  6. Giving gifts can be misunderstood. It can put someone in an awkward position. They may feel uncomfortable because they do not have something to give back. Other people may think that you are bribing them. To be safe, observe how people in your workplace or community show appreciation before giving out gifts.
  7. Think about personal space when you talk to people. Don’t stand too close to the person you’re talking to and lower the volume of your voice. 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. Always say “excuse me”, “I’m sorry”, “please”, and “thank you” when needed.
  9. Wait until everyone has gotten off before getting on the bus (or other public vehicles).
  10. Leave the door open and hold it for people behind you.
  11. Don’t be late. The right time to arrive for a meeting is 15 minutes early.

Sense of humour

  1. Canadians are fun-loving. They also like to make fun of themselves. They like small talk and joke around. It’s a way to make people feel welcome and relaxed in their company.
  2. Humour can be complicated. Do not make jokes if you don’t fully understand Canadian humour. It is more important to be respectful and kind than funny.
  3. Never make fun of how a person looks like, their salary, race, gender, or ethnicity. Don’t make negative comments about personal appearance.
  4. A good rule would be: “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

Community life is important

  1. You are expected to contribute to the community. You can donate money to causes. Give your time to volunteer. Did you know that Manitoba donates more than any other province?
  2. Help your neighbours. Cooperate by keeping the community clean, safe and orderly.
  3. People take care of each other. Everyone follows food or scent restrictions at school or work places. This is done to keep those who have allergies safe.

Too many things to remember?

Don’t worry about making mistakes. Canadians are tolerant and helpful. Everyone understands that you are adjusting. It takes time. Say sorry when you make a mistake and strive to do better. Always be kind and keep an open mind.

Article updated July 23, 2021.

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