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dawn_guy in canadian_yank

culture may not be as it appears

(cross-posted to my personal journal)

I was born and raised, and still live, in southern Ontario. While there are more similarities than differences between Canadians and Americans, I experience a mild culture shock whenever I travel in the states. These are some of my observations and gross generalizations, prompted by my current trip to San Diego via O'Hare and Pearson. Your mileage may vary. Caution, contents are hot when heated.

People in the states tend to be more outgoing than Canadians, who are more reserved but not in an unfriendly way. An American is more likely to be seen as gregarious or rude, possibly because an American is going to be more visible.

A person who is currently or has recently been in the US military is highly visible to me, and not just when he or she is in uniform (I saw lots of uniformed army and navy personnel in the US airports and none at Pearson). I see in US soldiers a challenging look, an unusually large personal space, a patriotic pride and a belligerent general attitude. I see in Canadian peacekeepers a quiet pride and very good posture.

There appears to be a strongly race-based class system in the states. Blacks and Hispanics tend to overwhelmingly occupy "dead-end" service positions, with higher-end service jobs going to white women who are either young or old and management jobs to white men. Back home the person behind the fast food counter or pumping gas is probably going to be young, with no other common characteristic: youth from every socio-economic background take minimum wage jobs, usually in the service industry, as part of growing up. A few white Americans very visibly treat these low-end workers as "servants" and the workers seem to accept this treatment.

If I go into a corner store in the states, I can buy beer, wine and liquour and the person at the till is likely to be an Indian man. If I go into a corner store in Ontario, I can't buy alcohol (there are beer stores, wine stores and the Elsie for that) and the person at the till is likely to be a recent immigrant, often from south or east Asia, any member of the family old enough to handle the cash. In Quebec, oddly enough, I dont think twice about picking up a beer at the variety store.

Poor customer service, including downright rudeness, appears to be more common in the states than in Canada except in situations where a tip is customary. This holds particularly true in high-end service jobs held by white people.

Homeless people seem to be more actively discouraged (e.g. benches designed to be impossible to lie down on) in warm California than in warm coastal BC.

Back home, I feel free to speak my mind about my government. When I'm in the states, I do not verbally criticise the administration where I can be overheard.

I feel free to take photographs of anything interesting back home. If I see an interesting picture to take in the states and it involves military, government or a large corporation's property I'm a little worried that I could get in trouble for taking the same picture I'd take back home without a second thought.

There's no French on anything! Most packages and signs are in English only, with a few English/Spanish ones.

Portion sizes are larger in the states than back home. Even children's portions in restos tend to be a lot more food than I want at one meal.

It seems as though the 'average' car in the states is bigger than in Ontario.

It's much harder to find places to put recyclables in the states than back home, though there are some "blue bin" equivalents (e.g. in airports).

At home, If someone brushes against me, opens a door as I'm opening it from the other side, or otherwise gets into a situatin where neither of us is clearly at fault but the situation is awkward or inconveniencing one of us, we'll both apologise, smile and be on our way. In the states, I'm much more likely to be simply brushed past or hear "sari" (I know it's "sorry" but the pronunciation's invariably different) in a tone that doesn't sound the least bit apologetic to me.

Most folks in the states are pleasant, good people, much (but not exactly) like the ones back home.


One point I would like to make is that of course there is no French on the packaging. The US is not an officially bilingual country. In states like California, where there is a large Spanish-speaking population, you'll often find labels in Spanish, but there is really no reason for French labeling in the US.

Also, there is no reason to be afraid to criticize the government in the US, besides the possibility that any Americans who hear you may resent their government being criticized by an outsider - just as a Canadian may resent the same from an American.
A lot of times, though, instructions within packaging are in French as well as in English, although probably more likely in Spanish.
It's a culture shock isn't it? I find that myself coming here to Nova Scotia, after growing up in California. Everything and every place is different. I like it though :) I miss home terribly, especially this time of year, snow just doesn't tickle my fancy in the least hehe :) I love it here too though, its beautiful, and its a much slower paced lifestyle to be sure. I find your observations interesting, and even agree with more then a few of them. Just in the same sense that I can pick out the differences in Canadians, not all of them being so nice.

Just a few observations of my own...(I am a proud American after all)

I have found the rudeness in customer service jobs to be equal among the States, and Canada. I tend to think that people don't like their jobs that much, and don't really want to be there. ie Fast Food, or Walmart.

I actually find recycling much easier in the States. Here we are seperating and washing everything, there they give you a free bin depending on your family size it could be big or small, you put everything in the one container. Then it is taken to where someone has the job of seperating it. Creates a job, and people are more likely to do it if they don't feel like they are spending their whole lives recycling.

I come from a small place in California with a lot of illegal immigrants from Mexico. They work at the low end jobs for cash under the table so that they aren't reported a lot of the time. If they were to try for a higher end job they would be deported, so they do this to blend in. I am not justifying it that way, I am just saying thats where a lot of the issues come about when you see hispanic people working at jobs that no one else will seemingly do.

The pronuncations of things crack me up, my husband is a Cape Bretoner though so they have a wicked accent here.

Of course the only time I ever say anything about the Canadian government is when someone mentions that the American government is farged up (which I totally agree with) but the Canadian is not without flaws. If you have enough information, and are educated on the subject enough to debate the issue, I say go for it. Thats just me though...I am apparently one of those rare breeds of Americans that learned tolerance.

Difference makes the world go 'round! Thanks for these thought provoking observations.

One more comment RE: French

In my experience, Francophones are pretty rare stateside. I'm a New Yorker, and I've probably heard at least a third of the world's languages spoken, many so often I can identify, if not understand them. Heck, I can even tell the difference between a number of dialects within certain languages.

But I'd never heard French spoken colloquially untill I moved to Canada. One day I overheard a pair of men speaking it in the supermarket and I literally had to stop and listen a second to identify what I was hearing.

Funny old world.
there are more similarities than differences between Canadians and Americans

As an American immigrant who's lived in Canada for over four years, in Toronto, widely acknowledged as the most American place in Canada, I disagree with your premise.
Don't leave me hanging! What's YOUR experience?
Well, gee, you've been doin' OK hanging for eleven months and one day...! ;-)

The general perception especially in the US is that Canada is more or less fundamentally just like the US, with minor superficial differences. A few different spellings and minor governmental differences, a coupla candy bars not available in the States, that kind of thing. The longer I live here, the clearer it becomes to me that this is exactly backward. In fact, Canada is a fundamentally different society, with superficial similarities. One of our official languages is pretty much the same as theirs, most of the same brands are in the supermarket, most of the same cars are in the parking lot, but go deeper than that, and the differences become very apparent.

US society's values, in general, are centred around individualism. Individual rights and individual freedoms. Canadian values, by and large, place greater weight on societal rights and societal freedoms. Witness, for perfect instance, the two societies' treatment of guns.

The US political system is a two-party perpetual tug-o-war, lurching vomitously and retributively back and forth between left and right: Muwahahaha, now it's OUR turn, we're gonna undo everything the (pick one: Democrats, Republicans) did! Every issue is deeply polarised, each side considers their view divinely, sublimely Correct, and adherents to either side will not budge an inch*. As a result, very little ever gets done.

Canada's political system has more than two parties (though an unsettlingly large number of Canadians seem to behave as though there are only two), and the nature of the national dialogue and debate is fundamentally different: Rather than a US-style tug-o-war in which each side insists on absolutely 100% of what it wants, the Canadian system seems to revolve around trying to give most people most of what they need, most of the time. Once that's done, the effort shifts to giving most people most of what they want, most of the time. The underlying understanding is that very few people will get all of what they need and want, and very few people will get none of what they need or want. That simple understanding greatly lubricates societal discourse and politics; the US approach throws sand in the machine. Is it really a joke to say Canada is a nation of radical centrists? I think not.

*-Speaking of inches, the US is very intellectually xenophobic. This permeates everything from school texts to everyday conversations to industrial regulations to the measuring system used only in the States any more and ridiculously called the "standard" system there. The attitude is that the US is obviously right, and the stupid rest of the world is wrong. If I were to start giving examples, this comment would exceed the allowable length.

Polite-Canadian jokes exist for a reason: There is a higher baseline level of politeness, tolerance, openmindedness and thoughtfulness in Canada. Certainly there are reactionaries and jerks and assholes in both countries, but the social standard of behaviour is higher/better in Canada, in general. This probably also reflects the general superiority of the Canadian public education system to the American.

I could go on, but I think this covers the major points.
Sorry, I came late to the party. (I'm more than a little upset about it!)

Thank you, thank you, thank you! This is very helpful and encouraging to me.

(I am in the US and in the process of committing to immigrating to Canada. I stupidly didn't ever fully research it till just recently. I am rather traumatized to discover that my ideal country (as close as it can be, anyway) has been next door all this time and I didn't know!)
I feel pretty much exactly the opposite as you do on a lot of issues. I think the key thing to remember in most cases is home = better.
I see in US soldiers a challenging look, an unusually large personal space, a patriotic pride and a belligerent general attitude...

It's interesting you point this out, because I've noticed this myself. A lot of macho men in the U.S. have this in general, especially since 9/11 and everyone non-American is apparently a would-be terrorist.
Back home, I feel free to speak my mind about my government. When I'm in the states, I do not verbally criticise the administration where I can be overheard.

Do you think this is maybe because you (rightly) think it would be rude to criticize another country vocally when you're visiting it (think how irritated you would be if you heard an American saying bad things about the Canadian government when here in Canada).

If you buy into the image of the united states under this administration as a police state, there's really no need for concern. The only thing you have to fear when talking about politics in public in the United States is offending someone who disagrees with you (the same thing you might have to fear anywhere else). Nobody is listening in on your conversation waiting to send you off to Guantanamo if that's what you're thinking.
I completely disagree with the idea that it's rude to criticize the government of a country not your own, and in fact think that notion borders on xenophobic. If you're ignorant about the ins and outs of a given country's government and then go shooting off at the mouth about it, then yeah, you're an idiot--just like any time someone attempts to weigh in strongly on an issue about which they know little to nothing. But as an American, I am better informed about the Canadian government and Canadian current events than a lot of Canadians are. Do I, as an informed American, have less of a right to criticize the government than the Canadian adult I overheard a couple of months ago, asking her friend whether Adrienne Clarkson was an actress or a singer?

This reminds me of Bush of poo-poohing the very notion of international law and opinion. Look how well that policy has worked out so far. ;)
i don't mean that people don't have a right to comment on or criticize governments other then their own - it's just generally considered rude to bad-mouth a country that you are visiting - it's a little like complaining about your the host's cooking at a party, it may be your right to do it, but it's rude and you would be better to keep it to yourself until you get home.
It's not really a matter of xenophobia or free speech or anything like that. It's entirely about behavior and rudeness. Politics is a touchy subject. The only thing you have to fear by criticising the Bush administration publically in the US is that you will offend the person who overhears you. The same is true in Canada or anywhere else.
Okay, I see what you're saying. My next question, though, is this: How would you define "visiting"? Are you referring strictly to tourists, or also to people who are not citizens, but are living in a country on a temporary visa? Because Canada may be my "host" in theory, but having lived here on a visa for eight years and not having completed my studies yet, I'm certainly not about to keep my mouth shut until I go home. I live and participate in Canadian society and many of the decisions of the government affect me directly and daily. Who decides when you stop being a visitor and therefore shouldn't have to risk sounding "rude"?
"When I'm in the states, I do not verbally criticise the administration where I can be overheard."

Depending on where you are, doing so could win you a lot of friends. I read an article (and I wish I could remember where) where a guy wore a Kerry T-shirt in some very conservative places, and Bush T-shirt in some very liberal spots. He got way more flak and nasty comments in the liberal places.

If I were pro-Bush, I'd be afraid to say so in Canada. I'd probably get my ass kicked (politely, of course). :)

My northern, liberal, outspoken mom has recently moved to rural South Carolina. She doesn't make a secret of her political leanings, and no one bothers her about it.
Interesting read. How do you say "Sorry"? Just curious :)
Differences I've noticed here in Montreal as from California (my origin):
Customer service has no sense of urgency here. If I call to have something delivered (ie wood) or need help from Sears, someone will come by eventually and usually not on the day they said they would, with no apologies. I get the impression this is just the way of doing business here. This is also true while dining out.
Here people have gone out of their way to help me if it appears I may be lost or uncertain about something. Something that wouldn't happen so readily back in California.
I thought California drivers were nuts. I was wrong :) There are many Montreal NASCAR potentials driving all around me, all the time, no matter what the weather.
I completely agree with the portion sizes. Here they are much more reasonable. I don't feel like I have to overeat so as not to waste food.
Everything is so much more expensive here. Except Christmas trees, as we found out today :)
oh yes the drivers...I don't know what part of California you are from but I have driven the 405 at rush hour and seen less crazies then some of the people that drive around here! hehe
"Sorry" in Canada rhymes with "story". In the USA, "sorry" rhymes with "starry".
That is not the case. The "starry" rhyme is generally more prevalent the farther East you go, the "story" rhyme the farther West. Same general pattern as in the US.
... it should also be mentioned, Montreal is completely unlike anywhere else in North America ;) The differences you notice in Montreal would equally be felt if you were originally from somewhere else in Canada, like, Vancouver. In fact, there's less cultural differences, I find between Vancouver and California, than there is between Montreal and Vancouver.
Thanks for your candid observations.

Really I think a lot of this depends on regional differences within our respective countries. It's very easy to come to a too-quick general conclusion based on the customs/habits of the limited areas we know well, and of the stereotypes of areas we don't. I'm a liberal New Englander, and when I visited the southern United States (not the Deep South mind you, but southern Virginia anyway), I was pleasantly surprised by how friendly everyone was. People say hi to you for no reason. And I vividly remember preparing to cringe when I accidentally ran into a male teenager with his pants practically around his ankles, only to be sort of shocked when he sincerely and politely said, "Oh, excuse me, ma'am!" I'm not accustomed to any of that, including in the large cities I've lived in Canada. OTOH, I've heard tell that PEI is a lot like this. So yeah, it varies.

That said, I do admit to feeling a kind of difference in the air between the States and Canada. I think it's that in many places in the States, people have been systematically if somewhat subliminally taught to be afraid of each other. It seems that's not as much the case in Canada, even in the more Americanized areas.
I'll agree with you on the portion size thing, and that would support my American wife and my observation that there are more fat people in the US than Canada. I might also agree with your statement on customer service; although I've not had really bad service very often in either country, it seems like some folks up in Canada just care more about the customers... but maybe that's just me thinking about those wonderful service agents at WestJet!

I don't agree about the people being more outgoing in the US. I think if you try to talk to a stranger in a lineup in the US, they are more likely to look at you like you're some sort of a nut. Here in Canada, you can make small talk with anyone, anywhere, anytime, even the Native self proclaimed "gang banger" who held a door open for me at a downtown building once.

I really can't respond to the stereotypical racial job roles you describe: here in Edmonton, it seems like everyone does everything. I've heard from relatives posted down there about racial prejudice against people of African extraction in the southern US, but I've also heard it personally up here in Canada against people from the First Nations.

Squonk also had a couple of good points: I think there are HUGE regional differences within Canada, and even larger ones in the U.S..
He also said there might be a slight attitude of mutual fear between Americans in public, and he may be right: the dual fear of guns and lawsuits... but that's only speculation.

If I had to give my own summary of what the real essential difference between the two great nations is, I would say this: Americans seem to share an attitude that their country is the absolute best in the world, and that everyone else in the world wants to become as American as possible. Canadians are very slightly more mixed in their opinions of Canada, but we realize that being just like Canada is not a viable or desirable option for the rest of the world; I think we respect other people's ways of life more than Americans do.