June 30, 2014

Being Canadian: A Complicated Kindness

As our lives on this globe intersect at an ever increasing rate, the desire for us to understand each other as nations grows. When we encounter another culture we often have many questions, some of which have clear cut answers and some of which do not. For example, if one of my ex-pat British friends is asked why Brits drink so much she will say decidedly, 'because they know their country's going down the toilet and there ain't nothing they can do about it.' On the other hand, if I ask why Brits make such good television, the answers are as in depth as I choose to go. The question I would like to ask Hollywood is: why is the collective imagination in the US fixated on superhero and post-apocalyptic movies? I imagine the response to be: because America's debt and lifestyle gap between rich and poor is so off the charts they crave something drastic to happen in order to save the situation, but their own answer would probably have more to do with hero worship. However, if asked why Canadians seem so polite, the answers are not quite so clear. What is it that makes us say 'I'm sorry' every time something happens that may or may not inconvenience another person? 'I'm sorry' is the typical knee-jerk response when we Canadians bump into each other, when we set out to give an opposing opinion, even when we go for the coffee shop cream urn at the same time. As children 'I'm sorry!' is what we call out to the parent bearing down on us with a threatening look in their eye, hoping against hope those two words will stem the tide of disciplinary action coming our way - that worked for me a few times, so I included it.

It occurred to me today that the 'I'm sorry' habit may be something more than what many comedians claim is the Canadian's way of getting out of a potentially uncomfortable situation.* I was in church yesterday when an elderly woman in the pew in front of me accidentally knocked the book in my hand as she sat down earlier than I. Her apology was profuse and completely unnecessary due to the fact that she had barely touched me. I automatically responded with, "Oh no, I'm sorry." We smiled at each other with sympathetic looks peppered with good humour and left it at that. Something then occured to me: the 'I'm sorry' habit is at best about having good will toward other people. Let me explain. If a man and I go for the coffee shop's cream urn at the same time, generally both of us will urge the other to use it first. One of us will be more insistent than the other and finally, after a several laboured seconds one of us will pour the cream into our cup. We will then return the urn to the counter and smile at the other person who kindly insisted we go first, and we will go back to our seats, him feeling proud of his gallantry, and I feeling grateful for it. If this reads like some sort of complicated dance, it is, but as Canadians, we learn it early in life so it stays with us always and leads to a fairly comfortable and pleasant way of going about our daily business. If I have my head down in the grocery store as I consult my list and accidentally bump someone else's cart, I will apologize immediately. If an explanation is required to calm the ire of the bumpee, I will give it and I can usually get a smile from them in the end. Like many Canadians I will do almost anything to avoid conflict, especially in public.

Why are we so eager to avoid conflict at all costs when other nations (I'm thinking France, Italy) seem to thrive on it? I have a theory about that, too. As I said above, I have a few British friends who have lived in Canada for many years, but are still a bit baffled by our social niceties. In theory I agree with them wholeheartedly when they say they prefer the Brit way of just calling a spade a spade and being done with it, rather than all this dancing around the issues. "Brits just speak as we find and move on," said one ex-pat friend after she had witnessed two co-workers in her Canadian office have a big ol' cat fight. Apparently, they had hidden their true feelings about each other for so long that eventually, and predictably, they reached the boiling point and the lid blew off.  My Brit friend who is a teacher had a hard time figuring out the parents of her students until she understood about the tendency of Canadians to avoid open conflict. She would think everything was going along fine with a parent and then one day, somehow, would find out the parent had been harbouring resentment against her for months for some action taken with her child. My friend had detected a certain chill in the air when she and the parent came in contact, but had no idea of the feelings simmering away underneath the surface. My theory about why we Canadians may act like that parent at times is essentially based on my observation that Canadians avoid open conflict because we who live in a cold climate eight months of the year place a huge value on personal physical comfort and safety, and this makes us lazy in our dealings with others. We just do not want to 'go there', but eventually we have to and by then the situation is usually beyond nasty, or at least beyond what it was originally. But, this is the 'I'm sorry' habit at its worst, and, being Canadian, I would rather not dwell on the negative.

I suppose we have historically been the Peacekeepers in global conflict because really, we would just like everyone to calm down, sit back and relax with a beer or even a doughnut. Anything pressing can usually be put off until tomorrow, and a difficult decision is generally made better by the act of sleeping on it. A Dutch man I once worked for said when he first moved to Canada in the 90's he was unimpressed by the Canadian way. No one seemed to work with any urgency, we valued our holidays more than anything, and meeting for coffee at Tim Horton's was often the highlight of the day. Mind you, he had immigrated to British Columbia, which is seen as one of the more relaxed provinces in the country. Over time, he said, he began to see the wisdom of our ways. He began spending more time enjoying life with his family and exploring the area near his home.He decided life was not just about work and making money, but that approach took some getting used to. Now, I would not be surprised if he even said to his clients, "I'm sorry, I cannot possibly fill your order today. I am celebrating Canada Day with my family," and let the chips, or rather the doughnut sprinkles, fall where they may.

*Twelve Ways to Say I'm Sorry

My apologies to author Miriam Toews for stealing her book title 'A Complicated Kindness' for this post.


  1. This is interesting. Our cultures do shape us. American's and Canadians are different in general, but not SO different. My husband asked a Canadian coworker what they did for Canada Day. The guy said it was a day for having picnics and being polite to each other. We contrasted that with our Independence Day coming up - where we get drunk and blow stuff up.

    1. Hilarious ;-) Well, we do have fireworks, at least, so we like a little explosion or two as well. No, our differences are subtle, for example, I never feel any cultural clash when I read your blog. Happy 4th of July!

    2. Oh, and there is plenty of drinking up here, too on Canada Day. Believe me!

  2. I'm sorry but I really thought that it was a habit exclusive to us Brits!
    We might omit the 'I'm' but 'Sorry' springs readily to our lips too when someone else barges into us. There was even a comedy series called 'Sorry!' http://www.bbc.co.uk/comedy/sorry/ and of course one of my favourite radio shows 'I'm Sorry I haven't a Clue' http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006qnwb See also this book http://www.npr.org/2013/11/09/243940676/english-manners-are-downright-medieval-sorry-was-that-rude. Apparently the average Brit says 'Sorry' 8 times a day! We're better at apologising for things we haven't done than the things we *have* done!

    1. Then, we must have got this habit from our long association with your country! We probably imported it like our tea.
      I will check out your links, too. Sounds fun!


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