Thursday, August 20, 2009

One Difference Between Canada and the US

When I first moved to Canada in 1990, I was struck by how unfriendly it seemed compared to places in the US that I had lived. For example, if you meet someone in the hallway at an American university, and say, "Hi, how are you?", you will nearly always get a response along the lines of "Fine, how are you?" But not so in Canada. Instead, you will typically get the response "Fine." -- and then the person will walk on, without inquiring about your own health.

For many years I found this astonishingly rude; sometimes I even resorted to mumbling "And yes, I'm fine too, thank you very much for asking" under my breath. Then someone explained to me that in fact it was I who was being rude, since in Canada inquiring about someone's health is considered too intrusive. Instead of rudeness, what I was witnessing was the clash of expectations. Although I understand this on a rational level now, I still continue to find it rude viscerally.

Here's another example: go to any American city, stand on a street corner, open up a map, and look at it. Within 30 seconds, someone will ask you, "Can I help you find something?" or "Do you need any help?" Yet I've done the same experiment over and over again in Toronto, and after 10 minutes still no one volunteered any help. The one time someone did, it was an American tourist! As my wife explained, this is not an example of Canadian rudeness; Canadians simply have a different notion of personal space. They find it rude to approach a stranger and casually offer assistance when none may be needed. Americans find it simple friendliness.

I am struck by this difference now that I've temporarily relocated to the Boston area for my sabbatical. We were standing in Kendall Square looking at the map, and just as the stereotype dictates, within 15 seconds someone asked us if we needed help. Just now we came back from a brief bike ride in a Boston suburb; as my son and I looked at the street map, a woman asked "Can I help you find something?"

For the moment, I'm glad to be living in a place where my cultural expectations match those of my neighbors.

24 comments:

Ian said...

That's funny. I was just visiting Seattle with my girlfriend, and we got lost while cycling. Within 20 seconds of opening the map, two strangers asked if we needed help.

Needless to say, as a Canadian I found it incredibly odd. I know how to read a map, I don't need help with that. Rather, I could have used the help when we foolishly decided to bike on Seattle's incredibly hilly roads :)

andrew said...

I would certainly agree with your wife on this one, that it's a difference in perception of space and interruptibility.

My example is a bit different from yours: when I'm in a U.S. city I'm regularly asked for directions, but I'm also never asked for directions when I'm in Canada. And it's not limited to the U.S. I have been asked for directions in Germany, England, France and the Netherlands. But never in Canada.

Mind you, the whole "fine" thing reminds me of the southern U.S. using "uh hunh" as "You're Welcome". Drove me batty when I was in Texas, I took it as insulting and dismissive the first few times.

(and don't get me started on when a U.S. girlfriend first called me "the shit".)

Elad said...

I think you are making a gross generalization. Is there such a thing as a "Canadian" or an "American" culture? Remember that over 50% of the people who live in Toronto were not born in Canada. Alternatively, would you open a map and expect to be assisted in downtown Detroit?

As an immigrant to Canada I often find myself being surprised at people's behaviour: sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. I think that, at least in the parts of Canada we live in, the population is too heterogeneous to be able to make any culturally-based conclusion.

Barry said...

This may not be a Canada wide phenomenon. I lived in Burnaby / Vancouver from 1971 to 1976 when I went to graduate school at Simon Fraser and UBC. I hitchhiked everywhere, had no trouble approaching people, etc. In fact SFU had hitchhiking stands for student commuters.
So Toronto may be a lot different than Vancouver (and the 2000s may be a lot different than the 1970s).
Of course, you might argue that SFU and Vancouver in the '70s were on another planet. If so, it was a pretty nice planet.

M@ said...

I've found this difference too, when I've travelled in the USA. It becomes hard just to scan a map in New York without being interrupted by others trying to help -- about which I'm not complaining, it's just a little bit amusing.

But it's certainly changed my attitude towards others now that I'm in Toronto a lot. If I see anyone with a map, looking around, I ask if I can help. I think it really is a friendlier way to do things.

Although I should add that Toronto is, in my experience, a far, far unfriendlier place than most cities in Canada.

Anonymous said...

I've heard that this is exactly why celebrities love vacationing in Canada: Americans have no problem interrupting a familiar face to say hello or ask for an autograph, Canadians leave them alone.

I've often seen famous folks in Vancouver or Whistler and I've never once seen them be approached. It's the personal space thing again.

Jonathan Lubin said...

Well, I’m an American, and I hate to be asked about my health by a stranger who really doesn’t care. By the same token, I never ask the question unless I’m concerned for a friend’s health. If I get the question asked of me, I smile brightly and say, “Fine, thanks”, and go on to other things.

Blake Stacey said...

You're in Boston? Greetings from Somerville! :-) I hereby extend a cordial invitation to the Boston Skeptics in the Pub monthly gatherings.

I've actually started carrying a city map in my laptop bag just for the occasions when people ask me for directions. The geometry of this city is sufficiently non-Euclidean that sometimes I can't help them. . . .

Frank said...

Years ago we had some exchange students from Africa and they commented how they thought Americans were very rude. Apparently, they were greeted with "How's it going?" and the greeter would continue walking without waiting for the response.

When I lived in Europe one common complaint was that Americans were indeed helpful and friendly but in a shallow way. Maybe they said more but I was't listening /s ;>)

Bayesian Bouffant, FCD said...

"How are you?" doesn't necessarily have anything to do with health. It could be an inquiry as to mood.


I recall reading in a biography of Alan Turing that he found the American response (to 'thank you') of "You're welcome" to be incredibly friendly and inviting, until he eventually learned that it is a throw-away line.

andrew said...

Hey, non sequitur and all, are you (or you and Wes) going to address the latest Dembski paper? Seems like it would be right up your ally.

John Farrell said...

Welcome to Boston, Jeff. I hope you keep your blog updated with any local events you get involved with.

jyby said...

Social Codes vary alot between cultures. Salutations are benign!

In Chile, students arrive 10 mns after the begining of class. Some professors arrive after that. All meetings start systematically 15 mns late. Usually for a concert advertized as starting at 9:30, the musicians arrive at 10:00, do their sound settings, and start playing at 10:30. I once waited till 12:00 for them to play.

Japanese girls laugh when they are uncomfortable. Too bad for the foreign tourist thinking himself a seducer.

In South American go to dancing clubs to meet new persons. In a French dancing club, invite a girl you do not know to dance and you might get pushed around by her boyfriend.

Canada and US have enough immigrants that people are generally aware of the possibility of culturan misunderstanding. In other cultures (South America, Denmark, etc...) natives have sometimes problems with the concept of cultural difference.

Welcome back "home", Jeff!

Alf said...

I'm a Canadian living in Philadelphia, so I can say that you've definitely got a kernel of truth there. I often find that my American friends and colleagues sometimes intrude into my idea of personal space.

That being said, Toronto is on the extreme end of the Canadian spectrum. I lived there for many years (still own a home there, even), but I have definitely found it to be the most introverted of Canada's cities.

yea-mon said...

My wife was surprised when observing the local 'inquiry about health' during our recent trip back home to Northern Ireland.

Paths converge and...

Me: How ya doin?
local: How ya doin?

...and paths diverge.

I guess with us the expression of interest into health suffices on the street.

Anonymous said...

I am from India, so my perspective is different from those of you who aren't. In the US since 9 nine years now, I quickly learned the friendly wave of the hand, or the "How you doing? Hi?" etc are simply ways for the greeter to overcome their discomfort when you catch them looking at you - or at least that is what they think. No one ever does that in India, but in terms of helping you find your way, there can be no city like Calcutta - the friendliest place on earth. If you ask for directions on a bus or a trolly/tram or even while walking around, a syndicate of guides immediately forms around you, a route is quickly thrashed out by discussion, and one of them deputed by the syndicate to see you off to your destination. Over here, NYC city employees Transit employees, sight seeing venue guides etc., are the friendliest people. Charming, helping you find the best route, giving you information on working hours, eateries, and so on, and even in your own language! Boston is rude, and full of quarrelsome drunks! Toronto never ceases to amaze me with its smart and sophisticated people, generally tend to be a little bored, but cheerful - I guess everyday looking at the stupid debates over healthcare, Canadians can't but feel thankful they live in a country where corproate special interests are kept in their place, and social benefits are administered without a fuss!

People in the smaller towns, such as Pittsburgh, or the one I live in are as a rule friendly, cheerful, warm, and very helpful. Chicago is very courteous, though a little snooty - they know it, but want to pretend they aren't. In Atlanta the famed Southern charm is but a memory, but Jackson, Miss. That's something else - pretty, charming, hospitable, I could go on...

Miguel said...

I too prefer the Canadian non-inquiring response, although I usually tack a "thanks" on to the end. I also tend leave people with maps alone, unless they're obviously distressed. I'm more than willing to help, but I don't want to be intrusive. I figure that if they need help, they'll ask for it. I'm not sure if it's just me, or if it's a cultural thing (Australia).

Toronto Real Estate said...

I found this difference between European countries and the US too. For example in the US if you smile at a stranger, they usually smile back, sometimes even start a conversation. In Europe, they just stare back and think you're weird. It's just so different and I must agree, sometimes it's nice to see happy and caring people like Americans instead of getting rude looks when you ask a question.

Take care, Elli

Jeff Orchard said...

I've never liked the casual "How are ya?" I rarely return the favour because I know that usually the person doesn't care. It's a throw-away phrase, and I find it a little awkward to answer... I rifle through my mind trying to think of something relevant to say, but can usually only muster a "fine thanks" in time, before they pass me in the hall and walk away.

Anonymous said...

Before my surgery, I also answered, "Fine, thank you."

Now I just frown.

I either have to lie or I have to tell them I feel like shit, and I do not want to do either one, so I usually just say nothing at all.

I find the 'greeting' to be intrusive and unwanted. "Hello" is just fine without tacking on a superfluous "How are you?"

I have heard that in England, they also regard the "How are you?" as a disingenuous intrusion.

Anonymous said...

well from this i can tell you all one thing...AMERICAN'S ARE ALL IN YOUR FACE...Canadians are all independent and not so in your face.

Anonymous said...

All my friends are foreigners or American.
I'm American. I found Canadians cold and
critical and boring. Maybe its me but
I feel Canadians are too self absorbed and
materialistic. Canada has a good idea
about health care and has produced a lot
of talented entertainers. The Canadian
workplace is micromanaged and employers
push their workers.

Tony McManus said...

when I lived in Edinburgh I had a paranoid friend who, when asked "how are you?", would instantly fire back "why, what have you heard?"
I love having the stereotypes undermined- for example the famously rude Parisians who are nothing of the sort; I had one gent empty his pockets of change as I was struggling with a photo booths in a metro station (photo was for a US visa). Germans are neither arrogant nor humourless, Americans are not insular....but the Scots are mean there's no denying that.

John MacRae said...

As a Canadian, I can answer why this is. We are a polite people (although sometimes it may not seem like it). A part of us being polite is not interrupting. When we need to ask someone for something, we start with "Sorry to bother you, but...". Canadians do not have a problem helping you if you ask for it, but we don't like to intrude on other people's business. We also have a very small "personal bubble"...we're okay with being very close to people when talking, where I find in other countries they move away from me a bit. This is just our form of politeness, but we are definitely not trying to be rude! :-)