Americans have a tendency to think that Canadians are culturally quite similar. I think there is some truth to that idea; Canadians are probably closer culturally to Americans than almost any other country. But Canada is indeed a separate, sovereign nation from the US with its own distinct cultural tendencies. From my brief time here, I’d say Canadian culture is a interesting mix of British and American influences on its own unique home-grown character.
Here is one cultural value that is distinctly Canadian: avoiding conflict.
Canadians culturally have an aversion to interpersonal (and come to think of it, international) conflict. It often comes across to the rest of the world as them being super nice. Honestly, when you think of Canadians (which you probably don’t do very often if you’re an American, but if you happen to…) you generally tend to think of someone who is remarkably inoffensive in just about every way. Some might even call them bland in this area, as they tend to be rather self-deprecating and good natured about most things in general.*
*Unless you end up thinking about French Canadians, who seem to be an entirely different ilk of people altogether!
Before I ever moved to Canada, I heard stories of American travellers putting Canadian flags on their luggage so that folks in other countries would treat them better, because – hey, who has anything against Canadians?
This cultural value of conflict avoidance generally makes for a very pleasant place to live. In a city like Toronto with multitudes of people from so many other countries, I think that it’s one of the main glues that holds the city together, and a reason that so many immigrants continue to be drawn here.
There are, of course, exceptions to the rule. Canadians tend to be very aggressive about hockey, both in playing and watching. But, even so, who wasn’t a little shocked when there were riots in Vancouver after the Canucks lost the Stanley Cup this year? That’s just not an image of Canadians that we’re used to. (In LA, “fans” riot when their teams lose and also when the win! Sadly, no one seems to be afraid of conflict there.)
The other exception we’ve found to this is on the road. While we’ve seen a lot of simply bone-headed maneuvers (or manoeuvres) by drivers up here, we’ve also seen a lot of aggressive driving. Speeding, tailgating and pushing into another car’s space are more normal than not on the highways and roads. But again, where else are they going to vent all that pent up aggression from trying so hard to avoid conflict all day?
One of the major difficulties that caught us by surprise and frustrated us when we first arrived in Canada has to do with how this main value plays out over other values, which are held more highly (and therefore, more unconsciously) by us Americans.
Early on, we kept getting taken aback by how frustrating it was to get what we considered “good” customer service. When we’d call a company for assistance, often their service reps would mislead us about our situation or simply avoid bringing up a difficulty that would need to be dealt with. For example, we’d ask when we would receive an item; they’d tell us that it would be mailed that day. Weeks later when the item still hadn’t arrived, we’d call back and find out that there had been a problem all along that the first customer service rep hadn’t told us about, and no one else bothered to inform us about it either. This kind of thing happened again and again, much to our dismay.
To us, this kind of service seemed, at best, incompetent and, at worst, out-and-out deceptive. It turns out that from their point of view, they were simply trying to avoid direct conflict. To them, that is good customer service. Now that we understand this, we’ve learned how better to communicate on our end, generally by asking probing questions.
These subtle assumptions can throw everyone off if we aren’t aware. I was waiting for a friend at the Toronto Airport recently and began a conversation with some Americans that had just arrived on a business trip to help smooth out a merger of their company with a Canadian company up here. They asked me what I had learned about living in Canada and I basically related to them what I’ve written above. Their jaws literally dropped open as they listened. They told me that I had just unlocked for them the key to many of the difficulties they’d been experiencing and couldn’t figure out how to fix. They even asked me if I was interested in doing consulting like this as a business!
This just showed me how important it is to learn about – and respect and work with – differences in cultural values.
That’s my opinion, anyway. I hope it hasn’t upset anyone. And, if it has, I’m “soar-y!”