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Culture and Customs around the Globe: Dos and Don'ts Canada


  • Canadians are extremely polite when it comes to mild physical faux pas such as stepping on feet or bumping into others. Often both parties will briefly apologize, including the person who was bumped. Use of the word "sorry" in this context is equivalent to "excuse me"; it should not be considered a submissive gesture.
  • Not waiting at the end of a queue for your turn ("cutting in line") is considered extremely rude. This applies in all areas of public interaction. On public transportation, wait until everyone has exited the door before entering. Pushing through people who are trying to get out is considered extremely rude. When merging on motorways, vehicles from each lane take turns, alternating one at a time from each lane. Pushing through behind another vehicle without allowing the vehicle in the other lane to merge in his turn is considered bad driving. When walking on sidewalks, or in grocery stores, you are expected to travel on the right. (similar to driving rules) Not doing so or blocking the path by putting a shopping cart in the middle of an aisle or walking side by side with companions without getting out of the way is considered very rude. Stand to the right on escalators.
  • It is considered polite to inquire if you are allowed to smoke before lighting a cigarette, except outdoors. This is particularly true when visiting others. Smokers should assume that it is inappropriate to smoke indoors as a guest in someone's home, unless expressly told otherwise. Due to changing laws and social values, smoking inside most public buildings, such as work places and stores, is not allowed. Most areas of Canada now prohibit smoking in restaurants as well.
  • Spitting on the ground or blowing one's nose into anything but a tissue or handkerchief is considered gross and rude. This is at odds with other regions of the world where this is acceptable.
  • Failing to hold a door open for another person is seen as very impolite, especially when doing so would require no special effort.
  • In Quebec only, for both sexes, shaking hands with a woman in a casual context introduces distance. Embracing (holding each other loosely in the arms while lightly kissing each other's cheeks, once for each side) is usually expected.
  • Not leaving an appropriate tip or gratuity at a restaurant (typically 15% of the bill for standard service and higher for better service) may make any dinner guests at your table feel extremely uncomfortable.
  • It is polite to remove your shoes when entering someone's house, or to at least ask the host if they would like you to. This practice is not as common in the United States.
  • When visiting someone's home, the serving of coffee at the end of an evening is a signal that it is time for visitors to prepare to leave.

Conversational Etiquette

  • Canadians are generally more reserved than Americans when dealing with strangers. Over-familiarity, such as is common in American customer service, is not advised as it may be interpreted as disrespectful, insincere, or gauche. Canadians tend not to share personal information with strangers. A certain amount of respectful reserve is maintained until a relationship is established.
  • Calling a Canadian "American" may offend. Canadians will generally accept the faux-pas with good humour, but are notoriously thin-skinned about the subject - similar to New Zealanders who are referred to as "Australian".
  • The common American custom of responding to a thank-you with "uh-huh" is very disconcerting for Canadians. In Canada, "uh-huh" is a colloquial way to respond to a yes or no question; in any other context it is a sarcastic response. For example, to use it in response to a thank-you implies disbelief, or that the person saying thanks is not sincere. For English-speaking Canadians, the only correct response to "thank you" is "you're welcome". [This can become annoying if you are an American server in a restaurant with Canadian customers. They (we) will thank you for every water pour; every moment of attention you give them.] Although uttering "Uh-hunh" is a regionally acceptable American substitute for "you're welcome" this is considered very rude to Canadians.
  • Canadians highly value their society's diversity and tolerance and are also eager to avoid conflict in everyday conversation. As a result, expressing a strong, negative opinion about any group of people on the basis of ethnicity, cultural customs, etc. is often considered awkward or rude. Describing someone as a "foreigner" has negative connotations in Canada. It implies that the person "does not belong" or "is not welcome here". Describing someone as an "alien" is a serious slur. Also, it is dangerous to assert that someone is or is not Canadian. Many landed immigrants born elsewhere have lived in Canada for years and feel patriotic, vote, and consider themselves to be integrated into Canadian society. Also, there have been Canadians who are ethnically Chinese, Japanese, Bulgarian, Sikh, and so on and so on, for many generations. Also, overt displays of "nationalism" make English Canadians extremely uncomfortable. English Canadians are quietly and fiercely proud of their country, but patriotic fervour is an intensely private matter and not appropriate for public display (except, of course, on Canada Day) (other than, of course, the national pasttime of making fun of Toronto. But that too represents a truly Canadian preference to mock those in power and take the side of the underdog).
  • Similarly, in most conversation between anyone but good friends and family members, asserting a strong, blunt opinion that is quite different from the opinions of the rest of the group is often seen as a socially awkward move rather than as a good way to get conversation flowing. Many Canadians are also sensitive to issues of superiority and inferiority and generally avoid conversations that highlight differences in status between conversation partners. Topics to be avoided can include pay raises, details of one's educational background, or even discourses on one's area of professional expertise, if it seems that someone in the conversation might feel intimidated by someone else's accomplishments or assets. Generally speaking, it is impolite to ask someone how much money they make, how much rent they pay, or what large possessions of theirs, ie: a car or a house, cost, except among good friends or people who are reasonably sure that there are no huge differences in income or status between conversation partners.

Anglo-Franco-Canadian relations

  • French and English Canadians can be culturally divided. Expecting an English-speaking Canadian to know how to speak French well, or vice versa, can create awkwardness. However, it is more common for francophone Canadians to be fluently bilingual than anglophone Canadians.
  • When meeting a French-speaking Canadian, do not assume that he/she is in fact a 'French Canadian', as there are various French-speaking Canadian cultures in Canada with vastly different heritage. The mostly-Maritime Acadians, for example, self-identify as a distinct people and are fiercely proud of their history, language and traditions - to call one aQuebecois would be considered ignorant and boorish and vice versa. Even if one can distinguish between the two dialects, given that there is no difference between the French spoken in western Quebec and the contiguous areas of Ontario, it is best to refer to them as simply as Francophones until they self identify.
  • Non-Canadians are not advised to initiate a discussion on Quebec/Canada politics due to the sensitivity of the subject. Avoid faux-pas by respecting it as you would a private family matter. Outsiders offering even good-natured criticisms or commentary about Quebec are just as likely to offend their English Canadian audience.

Aboriginal peoples of Canada

  • Visitors from abroad are often misinformed about the aboriginal peoples of Canada. The history of oppression and genocide of aboriginal peoples in North America makes certain topics sensitive or taboo. Several words used to refer to aboriginal people can have very negative connotations and should be avoided by everyone except aboriginal people, including the commonly used "Indian" and "Eskimo" as well as the more obviously offensive terms such as "redskin", "savage", "squaw", and "brave". The people once called "Eskimo" by Europeans are the Innu, the Inuit (one Inuk, two Inuit) and the Dene peoples, depending, and the more southern aboriginal peoples are called First Nations, aboriginal people, or Metis. (The Metis are a distinct group in Canada who have a mixed aboriginal, French, Irish and Scottish heritage.
  • Similarly, it is important to keep in mind that many faulty stereotypes persist about First Nations people. Although traditional spiritual, cultural, lifestyle and hunting/fishing/trapping practices survive or thrive in Canadian aboriginal communities, all have evolved into the modern-day and often incorporate snowmobiles, rifles, motorized fishing boats, sequins and plastics, blue jeans, etc. etc. Expecting a First Nations person to be "just like in the movies" may cause a visitor to be seen as amusing, ignorant or just plain offensive.
  • However, a healthy respect for traditional practices is greatly appreciated. For example, when visiting a pow-wow, it is extremely rude to touch a dancer's clothing (called regalia) or to take a photograph of a dancer without asking for, and RECEIVING, permission from the dancer. (Remember that it can be difficult to say no politely. When asking permission to take a photograph, watch and listen for the answer, and respect the dancer's decision, whether he or she says 'sure, thanks for asking', or 'ok', or 'i'm in the middle of getting my hair done.' The first and second answers mean yes - the third is probably a no.)
  • Also, be mindful of interrupting. An older First Nations person who is especially well-respected in the community is called an elder, and when they speak on an issue, it is not acceptable to speak until they say they have finished, or invite others to speak or ask questions. Interruptions are thus also seen as somewhat impolite as a general rule.
  • Aboriginal People, like the rest of Canadians, generally have a good sense of humour and will often tell self-disparaging anecdotes or make jokes about their particular tribal group. It is considered quite inappropriate to tell jokes about Aboriginals if you are not one, although it's perfectly fine to laugh if one is told by a First Nations person.