Understanding Canadian Culture
What you see first and what you discover later
Culture is like an iceberg – the bigger part is under water!
There are two parts to a culture: one is on the surface and easy to see, and the other one is deep down and not so easy to see.
As a new immigrant arriving to Canada, you will first see the surface part:
Canadian food, dress, music, art, language, dance, literature, celebrations and games.
After some time, you will start noticing the deeper culture:
politeness, topics for conversation, body language, personal space, attitude towards seniors, what ‘on time’ means, concept of cleanliness, expressing emotions, how to raise children, friendship, attitude towards risk, competition or cooperation (collective or individualistic), etc.
Let’s start by looking at the top part.
Canadian food – walk around a typical Canadian supermarket and you will know what Canadians eat: a lot of bread, dairy (milk products), meat, some fruit and vegetables. The middle isles contain pop (soda), chips, chocolate bars and canned fruit and vegetables. You will also notice a lot of other countries’ foods (Thai food, Indian food, European food, etc.) That’s because Canada is multicultural.
Is your first country multicultural? _____________________
What do people eat a lot of?_________________________
Canadian dress – Canadians typically dress in dark colour clothes, especially in winter. They like to wear ‘casual’ clothes like T-shirts and shorts in summer. Beautiful dresses are only for the parties. Most Canadians like simple and comfortable clothes.
How do people dress in your first country?__________________
What kind of clothes do people wear?_____________________
Canadian music and art. Most Canadian music styles the same as American (USA): rock, pop, country, jazz, blues, rap, R&B and more. Some people like classical music. The most famous singer is Celine Dion (she sang “My Heart Will Go On” song for the movie “Titanic”). There are many more – to find out about them, search online for ‘famous Canadian singers’. The most important Canadian group of painters are called ‘The Group of Seven’. They painted Canadian nature. You can look them up online to see the paintings.
What kind of music do people listen to in your first country? __________________
Language. Canadian pronunciation is similar to American but it’s a little bit more nasal. Their spelling rules are closer to British (for example, they spell ‘colour’ with ‘u’ while USA people write ‘color’). To learn more about Canadian English, click here.
How many languages are spoken in your first country? ______________
Dance. There is no special Canadian dance. In Canada, you will find many dance schools that teach different styles from other countries.
Does your first country have a traditional dance? __________________
Literature. The most famous Canadian writers are Margaret Atwood, Lucy Maud Montgomery (she wrote “Anne of Green Gables”), Alice Munro (short story writer and Nobel Prize winner), Leonard Cohen (singer-songwriter) and more.
How many famous writers from your first country do you know?__________________
Celebrations and games. To learn about Canadian holidays and how they are celebrated, click here. The most popular board game is ‘Monopoly’. Some people like ‘Scrabble’ where you make words from letters, others like to play cards (for example poker). Popular sport games to watch are ice hockey, baseball, basketball and soccer.
What games do people from your first country enjoy playing?_________________
What kind of sport is the most popular one in your first country?_______________
So, that’s the top of the iceberg. One more thing to add here is that the top part has a low emotional level. What does it mean? It means people don’t care much. This is your choice and people will respect it. If you eat Canadian food or your country food, people don’t care – it’s your choice. If you play Canadian games or your first country games, people don’t care – it’s your choice. What holidays you celebrate, what music you enjoy – it’s your choice. This is what we call ‘multiculturalism’.
Now let’s look at the bottom part – the bigger part. Note that the deeper you go towards the bottom of the iceberg, the more emotionally charged culture becomes. People will have strong feelings about some of the items at the bottom.
The first thing you will notice is that most people are very polite – they say “Sorry”, “Please” and “Thank you” in almost every sentence. They might hold the door open for you if you’re walking behind them. If you are at a supermarket and buying only one item when they have a full shopping cart, they might offer to let you go first.
They use sentences like “Would you like to…?” and “Could you please…?” Canadians dislike orders and commands (don’t say to somebody “Close the window” – it’s better to say “Could you close the window, please?”) To learn more about being polite and tactful, click on “Speaking politely in Canada”.
In conversations, they discuss the weather, weekend activities or plans and other non-controversial topics. To learn more about appropriate topics for conversation, click on “What Canadian speak about (Small Talk: appropriate topics).
Do people in your first country use the word ‘Sorry’ a lot?______________
The next thing you will notice is Body Language differences. You will see the gestures and other body movements that are not the same as in your first country. How people smile when they are talking, how close they stand to each other, how they avoid touching people they don’t know – all are parts of body language. Canadians are sometimes jokingly described as bobbleheads because they some people nod a lot while listening to you. This is their way of showing agreement and understanding. You may get an angry look from a person ahead of you if you stand too close to them – that means you are in their personal space, and you need to step back. To read more about Body Language, click here.
Do you watch American movies? Do you notice how people move and gesture differently? _____________
Attitude towards Seniors
As you are taking the bus, observe people. You will be surprised to see that Canadians don’t automatically give up their seats to elderly people. But they do give up their seats to young children. If see an elderly lady walk into the bus, you need to ask her if she would like to sit. Automatically getting up and telling her to sit down might make the lady angry! Why? Because Canadian believe that old doesn’t mean weak. If you jump off your seat without asking, you might offend a senior who still feels strong. Canadians show respect by offering an elderly person a choice to sit down or not.
Seniors often live in senior housing (apartments for seniors) or nursing homes (nursing homes are for seniors who cannot live by themselves because the require care which is provided by nurses available 24 hours a day). Their children live separately from them. Many seniors try to stay independent for as long as possible in their lives.
Do people in your first country automatically give up their seats to seniors?________________
The same rule applies to any situation where you want to help a person in Canada. You see a person fall down? Ask them if they need help getting up. Do not rush to touch them without first getting their “ok” – you might get in a lot of trouble. Canadians don’t like being touched by strangers. You see a person carrying something heavy? Your question should be “Would you like some help?” If the person says ‘yes’ and smiles, then do help them. If the person says “No, no, I’m good”, stay away from them – do not touch their body or their things.
In Canada, ‘yes’ means ‘yes’ and ‘no’ means ‘no’. If you offer something to somebody (for example some chocolate), and the person says “No, thanks, I’m good” that means “No”. In this situation, do not offer the second time. It’s a real ‘no’, not a polite ‘no’.
Canadians are not a high-touch society. How about your first country? _______________
The first question you will get when you come to some place is “Do you have an appointment?” Canadians schedule their time and follow their schedules. If your appointment is at 10am, you need to be there at 9:55am. Doctors have the authority to make you wait – waiting time can be an hour or more. You still need to come on time.
If you are invited for dinner at a Canadian house and the host says “Dinner will be served at 7”, you need to arrive at 6:45. This will give you 15 minutes to say hello to the host, take your coat off, use the washroom if you need it, etc.
Canadian schedule play dates for their children. If you want your children to come play with children from a Canadian family, you agree exactly what time you will drop off your kids at their house and what time you will come to pick them up. And not 30 minutes later or that mother might be angry.
Five minutes late is the acceptable late in most situations. When you get a job in Canada, observe your company culture and do the same as other workers. In different companies it will be a little different (you must come 5 minutes before, right on time or 5 minutes late may be okay). The start and the ending of the meetings are scheduled, for example, the meeting might be from 2:45pm to 4:00pm.
In your first country, if someone invites you for dinner at 7pm, what time will you arrive?_____________
Canadians shower every morning and put a clean shirt on to go to work. The next day they will use another clean shirt – the same shirt cannot be worn twice. Work clothes are only for work. Work clothes cannot smell of spices and cooking. Some Canadian women wash their hair every day.
Perfumes and other strong smells are not used – there are many people with allergies and many workplaces have a “NO Perfume” policy.
Do people use perfume a lot in your first country?____________________
In general, Canadians are rather reserved and private. You will notice that Canadians don’t speak loudly in public. If you hear someone speak loudly, they are most likely young people or teenagers. Canadians are usually sensitive about privacy and don’t want their conversation to be heard by strangers.
Crying at work is not considered acceptable. If someone needs to cry, they are expected not to make a show of it, but to hide in the washroom until they have regained control of their emotions.
In your first country, do people usually speak loudly or quietly in public places? ________________
Many Canadian families raise their children using authoritative style. They talk to their children as if their children are already adults. They respect their children and give them choices. And they expect mature behavior of them. Positive reinforcement is used – parents ignore the bad behaviour and reward the good behaviour. Physical punishment (beating a child) is not allowed in Canada anymore. If parents physically punish their child, a child (or someone else who sees this) can call 911 and the government can take the child away. To read more about different parenting styles, click here.
What is the parenting style in your first country? ____________________
Friends in Canada might get together several times a month – or several times a year – and go to a restaurant together. Usually, only appetizers are shared, while each person orders separately and pays for their own order. Some friends like to sit in a coffee shop and talk (it’s called ‘catching up’ = you tell me your news and I’ll tell you mine). People have busy lives and don’t see each other very often. People also don’t visit each other’s houses too often – they prefer to meet outside in a public place. Sometimes friends go to the movies together or to a social event.
When friends in your first country get together, where do they usually go and what do they usually do?___________
When you and your friends go to a restaurant, who pays for the food?_____________________________________
Attitudes towards risk
Some cultures are risk-averse – risk is considered a bad thing and people don’t like taking risk. Risk-averse people don’t like making mistakes and they want to do everything correctly the first time. But in Canada, people see some risk as a good thing. Businesses take risk hoping to get high profit. It’s better to try, make mistakes, learn from your mistakes and keep moving forward and developing. Canadians are mostly risk-tolerant people.
Is risk in business considered a good thing or a bad thing in your first country?_________________
Cooperation and Competition
Canada, just like USA, is a highly individualistic society. There’s a lot of ‘me’, ‘mine’, ‘my’ and ‘I”. There little ‘we’ and ‘our’. “Teamwork” in Canada means negotiation and conflict resolution. When at work, do not take things off your co-worker’s desk without their permission. If your co-worker asks for help, first make sure that you can finish your own work. Never do work instead of your co-worker because they are slow and lazy – the manager might get angry at you. If you are helping somebody at work, make sure that you are authorized to do that task and have the right training, especially when it’s about safety.
Is your first country’s society collective or individualistic?____________________________