I live in a nice place.
I mean that literally. It took some getting used to. After 20 years in Silicon Valley, where people put a premium on being direct and to the point, have no time to waste on small talk or personal sharing, and will call a stupid idea stupid to your face, moving to Canada required a whole lot of gearing back on that brusque American aggressive-in-your-face thing. The humbling fact was: We had to learn to mind our manners.
Much of the adjustment work that first year involved re-learning the art of Being Nice. We had to get used to meetings that started with 10 or 15 minutes of personal chit-chat. We had to train ourselves to stop interrupting people, and to be more careful to say "please" and "thank you." We had to discover (sometimes, the hard way) that losing your temper with Canadians means that you will invariably lose the conflict. The more terse and irritated you get, the more determinedly calm and polite Canadians become, until you're standing there looking like a raving idiot and they're still firmly in control (though they're very sorry you're having such a bad day).
We also learned the unofficial Canadian motto, which is "I'm sorry." Canadians will say "I'm sorry" even if you were the one who bumped into them. (Americans, on the other hand, won't say it at all: apologizing is admitting fault, which is an invitation to lawsuits.) We used to respond to this by pleading with them out of our own misguided sense of Niceness: "No. Please. Don't be sorry. It was MY fault." But after a while, we gave up, went with the flow, and started apologizing for everything, too. It was really...well, nice, once we got used to it.
The whole world makes fun of Canadians' resolute civility -- but once I'd read a little Canadian history, I realized that this Being Nice thing isn't just a cute cultural quirk. In fact, up here, it's is a deadly serious matter of national survival. Canada's 13 provinces and territories are, effectively, three separate nations — each with its own culture, language, religion, and history. On top of that, the country is the world's largest importer of new immigrants, a large fraction of whom are from cultures very different from Canada's aboriginal and European bedrock. The federal constitution that binds all this together is very weak (it's not unlike the U.S.'s original Articles of Confederation), and the overwhelming bulk of government power is still tightly concentrated in the hands of the provincial premiers (that's Canadian for "state governors"). Secession is eminently possible, as the Quebecois so often like to remind us.
In the face of all that, there's the constant possibility—which does not exist in the U.S.—that one cranky politician having one bad day could stand up and say one idiot thing that would cause one faction or another to decamp en masse, thus precipitating the instant demise of Canada-as-we-know-it. The threat is real. It could happen. And the only thing that keeps it from happening is that resolute collective determination to stay calm, keep the peace, and Be Nice.
Civility is, in a very real sense, the glue that holds this big, diverse nation together.
Sara is contrasting Canadian niceness with American directness to illustrate larger political themes. The essay is well worth reading, but it prompted to me to think somewhat tangentially about the smaller picture.
I relate to some of what Sara writes. Moving from New York City to Mississauga, we also had to learn to take a few extra moments for the social niceties. Any business transaction, whether in a store, a bank or the podiatrist's office, is also a social transaction. You don't merely say "please" and "thank you", as I always did in New York. You make small talk. And since we see this in Canada's largest population centre, I imagine this tendency must be even more pronounced elsewhere in Canada. It certainly was in Newfoundland!
But we were accustomed to learning and re-learning this, because we noticed the same pattern whenever we traveled anywhere in the US outside of New York City. Whether it was upstate New York or the Mississippi Delta, people were more friendly and more chatty than they are in New York. I love New Yorkers, I think they're (can I still say "we're"?!) the greatest, but they are usually in a rush. Interactions with strangers are pared down to basics. What do you need? Here you go, thanks, next customer.
Perhaps Silicon Valley is more like New York City that way, but I never found people in the US to be rude or aggressive in casual interaction.
On the other hand, I often find Canadians' lack of directness irritating. If I ask a co-worker, "Do you mind if I use this?" I can never trust her answer. She will never say, "I would rather you didn't". I am supposed to know in advance how she feels, and if it bothers her, not ask. I am supposed to be a mind reader.
Before leaving for lunch, everyone asks, "Does anyone want anything?" However, if you ask someone to bring you back something, they won't accept money from you. Which means you really shouldn't ask. In fact, "Does anyone want anything?" is just a perfunctory social custom. You're expected to ask, and everyone is expected to say no.
In this past post, Idealistic Pragmatist contrasts Canadian and American perceptions of rudeness. I see this frequently. My co-workers don't ask each other directly what they want to know; they ask other people about each other. You don't say, "Kim, is everything OK? You seem down." You say, "Christine, do you know what's the matter with Kim? She seems down." To me, that converts concern into gossip. But I think my co-workers see it as more polite.
I've learned that the ubiquitous "I'm sorry" is not, in fact, an apology. It can be an acknowledgement of your time, or a form of interruption (like "excuse me" or the Spanish permiso), or just a way to begin a sentence. (Impudent Strumpet has written about this.)
I try to always be polite, but I value clear communication over mere courtesy. That means politely but directly saying what you mean and meaning what you say. The emphasis on niceness can be a form of obfuscation.
Those of you with experience on both sides of the border, do you find this to be the case? Canadians, do you think I am over-generalizing, perhaps based on my still-limited experiences? I look forward to hearing your thoughts.