“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.

The first place I went to in Manitoba was a summer fair. This fair had fun rides and games. My nephew and I stood in line for a ride. As we did this, a group of young girls also stood in line behind us. While we were waiting, I noticed that one of my nephew’s shoelaces was not tied. I bent down to tie it, and the line moved forward. Suddenly, one of the young girls behind us stepped over my leg and moved ahead of us. She signaled to the rest of her group to come with her. As I began to say something, one girl in their group said sorry to me. She then said to her friend, “Hey, you’re not in our country anymore. You can’t cut in line here.” As the girl who cut in line walked back, I saw that she was confused and upset. She didn’t understand what had happened. To her, it was not a big deal. In her country, cutting in line was normal.

For many people who are new to a country, understanding social rules can be hard. These rules are not official, but they guide how people behave in groups and societies. We are not rude or uncivilized. It’s not about one culture or country being better or worse. It’s just that different people do things in different ways. The reasons for these rules can be many things, like the environment or history. Many rules can be hard to understand, especially if you have not lived in that place for a long time. But, trying to understand these rules can help you fit in and adjust quickly.

Apart from not cutting in line, here are some other social rules in Canada that I’ve noticed:

Noise and decorum

In the place where I come from, people who sell things on the street, busy roads, loud music, and car horns make up city life. If you want to talk to someone in public, you need to speak loudly. This is what life is like in one of the most crowded cities in the world. Here, it’s normal for people to talk loudly or even shout on their phones.

In Manitoba, you don’t need to shout because there is a lot of open space. It’s not common for people to shout or yell. If you talk loudly with your friends or on your phone, people might not like it. In general, being loud, causing trouble, and being overly excited is not okay. So, it’s a good idea to speak softly, especially when you’re in public.

This sense of order also applies to the environment. You’ll see that people usually don’t throw trash on the ground. Neighborhoods keep their walkways, parks, and lawns clean. You can’t just cross the street anywhere or stop the bus wherever you want. There are specific places for walking, waiting, biking, and driving.

Some norms people will not tell you about:

  1. Don’t sneeze or cough into your hand. Even worse, don’t do it without covering at all. Instead, sneeze or cough into the bend of your arm. This is very important now because we are in a time of sickness that spreads easily.
  2. Don’t yawn without covering your mouth. It’s not nice to yawn openly, especially when you’re talking to someone. It can make them think that you are bored and don’t want to listen.
  3. There are other things you should not do: spitting, making a loud noise when you clear your throat, burping, making noise when you drink, and eating with your mouth open. Also, don’t spit in the sink. Spit in the toilet instead.
  4. People can be bothered by smells. If you smell bad or your breath smells bad, people might not tell you. But they might stay away from you. On the other hand, using too much perfume can be bad. It can make people who are allergic to smells feel dizzy or sick.
  5. In places like restaurants, hotels, or bars where people serve you, it is normal to give them extra money. This is called a tip. A good amount to give is 15-20% of the bill before tax. This is if the service was good or very good. If the service was not good, you can give 10%. For food delivery, you can give 5-15% of the bill.
  6. Think carefully before you give gifts. This can make someone feel uncomfortable. They might not have a gift to give you in return. Or they might think you are trying to get something from them. It’s a good idea to understand the gift-giving customs in your work or community before you give a gift.
  7. Be careful about personal space when you talk to someone. Don’t stand too close or talk too loud. If you’re talking to someone who doesn’t live with you, stay two metres (six feet) away. This is to keep a safe distance.
  8. In Canada, people often say “excuse me,” “I’m sorry,” “please,” and “thank you” when it’s the right time to do so.
  9. Don’t get on the bus (or other public transport) before everyone has gotten off.
  10. It’s normal to leave the door open and hold it for people who are coming in after you.
  11. Being on time shows respect. The best time to arrive for any meeting is 15 minutes early.

Sense of humour

Canadians like to have fun and often make fun of themselves. This is common in small chats or quick talks. They do this to make others feel comfortable around them. If you want to join in, remember that making jokes can be hard. If you are not used to the type of jokes that others find okay, don’t try to make jokes. Canadians think being polite, respectful and kind are more important than being funny. As a rule, don’t make fun of how someone looks, how much money they have, or their race, gender, or background. Even simple remarks about how someone looks can be risky. A good rule to remember is: “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

Community life is important

In Canada, these things are usually true:

  • Giving to the community is a part of life. This can be by giving money or your time. Did you know that Manitoba often gives more than any other place?
  • It is important to help the people who live near you. Working together with them to keep the area where you live clean, safe and in order is expected.
  • The larger group will make changes for the smaller group. For example, everyone is expected to follow rules about food or smells at school or work. This is to keep safe those who have allergies.

Is this too much to remember? Don’t worry, everyone knows that getting used to a new country takes time. Canadians are naturally understanding and helpful. They will know that you’re new and still finding your way. Just try your best to always be nice and keep an open mind. Keep putting yourself in situations where you can talk to people, and keep asking questions and watching. If you make a mistake, just say sorry. Don’t be too hard on yourself and keep learning.
Article updated July 18, 2023.

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