7.22.2008

on being nice, and being canadian

Several months ago, I read an interesting piece by Sara Robinson of Orcinus, on Campaign for America's Future. I found it on Truthout.
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.

61 comments:

Steve said...

I've always considered my minding of my manners as a reflection of my parents upbringing and my parent's parents upbringing. To honor them and show a good public face to their good name (my surname).

And in small towns, it's important to make the effort of connection, lest you need your neighbor's help later on.

Finally, reaching out to the people who serve you, or your fellow worker, through niceties, shows that your are acknowledging not only their humanity (how many times are we devalued as human beings through our jobs? Even people who work at menial tasks deserve to be treated with respect), as well as trying to make them feel apart of our society/group and to show them that we aren't in competition with them (actively trying to make their situation worse than ours through our actions).

I think being Canadian means having constant engagement and navigation with the people around you. There is no such thing as "isolationism" here--there couldn't be with all various groups and competing interests in our national identity.

L-girl said...

Steve, I agree with you. I don't feel I have a "name" to honour, but that's an aside. I certainly value the other things you've said.

But do you also feel that sometimes politeness and niceness can conflict with clear communication? Lack of direct communication can lead to hurt feelings and not a small amount of paranoia. Do you find that to be the case, or no?

Stephanie said...

--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.--

While I have more to share on the perception of 'niceness' and being Canadian (another post perhaps) I just wanted to quickly address one point.

I have met people like this and understand your frustration but I can't help but feel it is an overgeneralisation to attribute this kind of behaviour to Canadians as a whole.

This is definitely behaviour more likely to occur in the 'sick office' environment (wherever that may be)wherein a subset of 'social etiquette" is more likely at play.

You may well be dealing with someone who is not communicating directly because they perceive it as too risky (for whatever the reason). It is much like the kind of broken communicating that takes place inside of a disfunctional relationship.

This seems to me to be more the stuff of being human (albeit ugly and intolerable) rather than being Canadian.

Stephanie said...

But then again, maybe it is just my perception that this happens as a part of 'poor communicating' amongst all of us when it is in fact a Canadian phenomenon???

Maybe I'm overgeneralising...

Dharma Seeker said...

I don't think small talk is synonymous with politeness at all. Sometimes the most courteous thing a person can do is realize that other people are busy. I think most Canadians would agree that if people remember to say "please", "thank you", and "excuse me" they're doing just fine.

I laughed when I read about borrowing co-workers' stuff... maybe they really don't mind? Is anyone that attached to office supplies? LOL!

If someone asks "do you want anything?" and won't take your money it isn't because they want you to say no! It just means that it's her treat! It's a genuine offer. If it makes you feel better it can be your treat the next time :-)

L-girl said...

I have met people like this and understand your frustration but I can't help but feel it is an overgeneralisation to attribute this kind of behaviour to Canadians as a whole.

Thanks, Stephanie. That was part of what I was wondering.

I have seen it here much more frequently than I saw it in NYC or Philadelphia, so I'm likely to give it that attribution. But at the same time, I realize it's a small sample size, only my own experience.

L-girl said...

I laughed when I read about borrowing co-workers' stuff... maybe they really don't mind? Is anyone that attached to office supplies? LOL!

Yes, they are. Their desk, their chair, their phone, their equipment, their stuff. Yes indeed.

If someone asks "do you want anything?" and won't take your money it isn't because they want you to say no! It just means that it's her treat!

In the cases I'm thinking of, it absolutely is because they are uncomfortable with the entire exchange. They don't want to pick anything up for anybody, because they don't know how to take the money when they come back with it, and they don't want to spend the money on their co-workers (understandably). You are definitely expected to say no, and if you say yes, there is resentment.

Canrane said...

I laughed when I read about borrowing co-workers' stuff... maybe they really don't mind? Is anyone that attached to office supplies? LOL!

Well...if it was a red swingline stapler...

;)

L-girl said...

But then again, maybe it is just my perception that this happens as a part of 'poor communicating' amongst all of us when it is in fact a Canadian phenomenon???

All I can say with certainty is that it's been new to me.

In my work environments in NY and Philadelphia, people were much more straightforward.

Nancy said...

People do take time to talk to you here, whether it's a bus driver, or a bike store clerk, or a coworker. But I noted the same thing in New York. Then again, the New York I lived in is not the one of today, and I stayed mainly in Greenwich Village, which had a neighbourhood feel because it WAS a neighbourhood.
I think that it is good to be in a polite country. They think of 'us' here instead of 'me', and that, to me, is a good thing.
And boy, if the national saying is "I'm sorry", then I'll fit right in. I say it all the time since I was blamed for absolutely everything as a child by my mother...

James said...

Canadians will say "I'm sorry" even if you were the one who bumped into them.

Which reminds me of:

Always hear the same kind of story
Break their nose and they'll just say "sorry"
Tell me what kind of freaks are that polite?

-- "Canadian Idiot", 'Weird Al' Yankovic

My mother picked up the Italian version of this from her travels -- she says "scusi" or "mi scusi". I tend to the same as a result.

Scott M. said...

Let me throw one more use of "I'm sorry" into the mix... it's not that unusual to use it to point out to someone else that they made an error, and the "I'm sorry" is actually a passive-agressive attempt to make them feel guilty.

Note that this is different from a sarcastic "I'm Sorry, was my foot in your way" kind of comment. The "I'm sorry" sounds perfectly genuine.

I know I'm guilty of this. It's rooted in the desire to avoid confrontation, however you still want the oblivious other person recognize that they have, in fact, made a mistake. So you apologize for something that is not, in fact, your fault or for circumstances completely beyond your control (and potentially in the control of the other person) in hopes that they will say it's not your fault and recognize that it's theirs.

Stephanie said...

--All I can say with certainty is that it's been new to me.

I guess I can confirm that from the experiences of my friends and family working in an office environment (my own experience comes out of many years in the restaurant business where people are most definitely direct) there seems to be at least one or worse yet two (! yikes a team) people who practice a particular kind of passive agressive 'etiquette' in the office. This entails saying the opposite of what you think (but with a smile)while displaying any and all displeasure through body language and when there is a team this can even devolve into downright childish games.

I have always *preferred* to believe that this is universal as apposed to Canadian but perhaps I am lying to myself. I have long feared that we, in Canada, are (perhaps through the politics of politness??)producing a stratum of society--people who are choking on politeness and are so frustrated with their own perceived impotence that they must use passive agressive behaviour, road rage and even trolling as a screaming demonstration of their meaningfulness.

L-girl said...

Then again, the New York I lived in is not the one of today, and I stayed mainly in Greenwich Village, which had a neighbourhood feel because it WAS a neighbourhood.

NYC is still very much a collection of neighbourhoods, and people in your neighbourhood or your apt bldg do make conversation and chat. That has not changed.

Business transactions, such as in a bank or a store, are faster, without the chit-chat that I always notice elsewhere in the US.

L-girl said...

Let me throw one more use of "I'm sorry" into the mix... it's not that unusual to use it to point out to someone else that they made an error, and the "I'm sorry" is actually a passive-agressive attempt to make them feel guilty.

Scott, you are right on the money there. I notice this too.

As you may guess, I find it irritating! The passive-aggressive, avoidance aspect of it makes me shudder.

L-girl said...

This entails saying the opposite of what you think (but with a smile)while displaying any and all displeasure through body language and when there is a team this can even devolve into downright childish games.

Excellent description! The first law firm I worked at in Toronto had a lot of this. I feld like I was in junior high again. It was also disorienting to me because I didn't know the rules of the game.

people who are choking on politeness and are so frustrated with their own perceived impotence that they must use passive agressive behaviour, road rage and even trolling as a screaming demonstration of their meaningfulness.

Don't forget hockey. :)

But I don't think it's fair to put trolling in this category. That's not uniquely Canadian by any means.

Stephanie said...

I have always been surprised when visiting the US by the openess of complete strangers.

While in Columbus Ohio for a conference a few years ago, for example, I was quite taken aback by the number of strangers in the street who cheerfully acknowledged me or greeted me as I passed. I was even cheerfully shouted to from a car passing by.

And no, I am not a naive young thing mistaking cat calls for friendliness.

James said...

Colin Mochrie poked fun at this in his Apology to America:

And finally on behalf of all Canadians, I'm sorry that we're constantly apologizing for things in a passive-aggressive way which is really a thinly veiled criticism. I sincerely hope that you're not upset over this. We've seen what you do to countries you get upset with.

L-girl said...

I should also note that I've known a lot of British and Scottish people who do the same thing. I had a very close friend who was Scottish, and she was constantly amused (and sometimes disconcerted) by my "disarming directness", as she called it.

L-girl said...

I think that it is good to be in a polite country. They think of 'us' here instead of 'me', and that, to me, is a good thing.

It is, for sure.

This indirectness disguised as politeness, though... not so much. Not for me, anyway.

L-girl said...

I have always been surprised when visiting the US by the openess of complete strangers.

Yes! However, we found this in Newfoundland, everywhere. People were SO friendly!

And finally on behalf of all Canadians, I'm sorry that we're constantly apologizing for things in a passive-aggressive way which is really a thinly veiled criticism. I sincerely hope that you're not upset over this. We've seen what you do to countries you get upset with.

That's perfect. It goes to what Scott said, too.

Stephanie said...

So I just described this conversation to a friend of mine who has been having a horrible time working in what I would describe as a 'Toxic Office'.

She started laughing and shaking with delight at the recognition of her own office mates behaviour in your story. She tells me about her old office (same government department different city)where every work station comes equipped with the standard equipment. Each station may have several different people working at it in a day but the equipement stays. When she transferred to the new office she was given a "tool-box" with her name on it and inside there was her own stapler, scissors, pens etc. Each of these *valuable* tools were stickered with her name on it(with the exception of the pens though some bring pens from home and subsequently label them).

Some of her co-workers are so obsessed with "their" tools that they go to the trouble to send out e-mail messages asking if anyone has seen "their" stapler!

Not even high school in this case I think we are back to kindergarten!

L-girl said...

Each station may have several different people working at it in a day but the equipement stays.

That's the same for my workplace. Everyone has everything labeled, including the drawers where they stash their oh-so-valuable equipment. I use whatever is at hand - which makes me some kind of freak. :)

Some of her co-workers are so obsessed with "their" tools that they go to the trouble to send out e-mail messages asking if anyone has seen "their" stapler!

Yup, same here! People send emails asking others to stop touching their stuff.

Kindergarten indeed.

impudent strumpet said...

Do we really small talk? Even in Toronto? I always had the impression that Toronto either doesn't small talk or just rushes through it as a formality (Hihowareyou?Goodyou?Good. Then down to business). And then everyone else hates that and complains that we're rude.

I should also note that I've known a lot of British and Scottish people who do the same thing. I had a very close friend who was Scottish, and she was constantly amused (and sometimes disconcerted) by my "disarming directness", as she called it.

I was going to mention Britain but you beat me to it. If you ever watch Monty Python (or probably other British TV too, but that's the only one I've watched extensively enough) they seem to sort of add another layer of linguistic politeness markers to everything. "I'm terribly sorry, but I seem to have a bit of a dirty fork." "I was wondering about the possibility of purchasing an ant." So maybe this is a symptom of how Canadian English is closer to British English than US English is. (And French also requires an extra layer - or like three extra layers and a graduate degree in philosophy if you're in France.)

While in Columbus Ohio for a conference a few years ago, for example, I was quite taken aback by the number of strangers in the street who cheerfully acknowledged me or greeted me as I passed. I was even cheerfully shouted to from a car passing by.

OMG that's WEIRD! That would completely freak me out.

And I lost the bit I'm supposed to quote, but the "I'm going for coffee, do you want anything?" thing - this is also complicated by the fact that in some cultures etiquette dictates that you MUST offer, and the other person MUST refuse the first time, and then if you really mean it you can offer it again. And it's the kind of thing you internalize and do automatically without realizing that you're following this bizarre rule, so things get really weird if you mix fake-offer people with only-offer-if-you-mean-it people.

L-girl said...

Do we really small talk? Even in Toronto?

Way more than in New York!

"I'm terribly sorry, but I seem to have a bit of a dirty fork." "I was wondering about the possibility of purchasing an ant."

I love the signs in the UK that say "Please be so kind as to not leave your vehicle parked in this spot." In New York that says NO PARKING.

Long ago, I posted in this blog that in a Mississauga supermarket, at a closed aisle ("cash"), a sign reads, "Another employee will be only too happy to help you." It was our first week in Canada and it just cracked us up. In NY that just says CLOSED.

So maybe this is a symptom of how Canadian English is closer to British English than US English is.

I was thinking only culturally than linguistically, but I'm sure you're right.

And it's the kind of thing you internalize and do automatically without realizing that you're following this bizarre rule, so things get really weird if you mix fake-offer people with only-offer-if-you-mean-it people.

Yes! So when it comes to these things, I am speaking another language. I don't offer unless I mean it, and if someone offers, I assume they mean it, too.

I'm learning the new rules, but in this case, reluctantly.

Kim_in_TO said...

I'm accustomed to working/being with people who only offer to buy your lunch when they mean it. And sometimes they accept money; when they don't they are treating you.

On saying "I'm sorry" when someone bumps into you, it's a custom that has bothered me in my younger years, but I've come to terms with it. It's no skin off my back if I'm apologizing for something that is not my fault. It prevents the need for either party to think about it further, by asserting that whatever has transpired, I had only the best of intentions. In a world full of conflict, I quite like the social convention.

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.

It depends on your relationship with the person, I think, whether you ask them directly, or go to coworkers to try to find out. But there are many situations in which I think it is better not to ask directly. Also, as a linguist, I don't believe in the concept of gossip.

Kim_in_TO said...

Long ago, I posted in this blog that in a Mississauga supermarket, at a closed aisle ("cash"), a sign reads, "Another employee will be only too happy to help you." It was our first week in Canada and it just cracked us up. In NY that just says CLOSED.

I'd heard, probably back in the late 70s, that some big business (McDonald's, I thought) did a study and found that it was better to rephrase their "closed" signs. I think the replacements simply said "next register, please".

L-girl said...

I'm accustomed to working/being with people who only offer to buy your lunch when they mean it. And sometimes they accept money; when they don't they are treating you.

I wish I worked with those people! :)

Also, as a linguist, I don't believe in the concept of gossip.

Interesting! Can you explain, please?

By gossip, I mean people are discussing the personal life of a person who is not there, with malicious intent. Bad-mouthing the person behind her back, possibly spreading rumours about her, or disclosing confidential information that the person did not intend to be made public.

I'm curious, what would you call that, and why would a linguist not believe in that concept?

I know for sociologists and others, gossip is seen to serve a social function. But that doesn't mean it's not gossip. (Or does it?)

L-girl said...

Btw, I also apologize when someone bumps into me. I have no problem with that. It only bothers me if the bumper does not apologize. And even then, it's just a momentary bother. Doesn't drive me nuts or anything.

Kim_in_TO said...

Re: gossip

Your definition of gossip is very specific, and while we know instances of gossip can and do turn malicious, that is not a part of broad definitions such as "rumour or report of an intimate nature" or simply "chatty talk".

During the industrial revolution, men were going off to work at important jobs and leaving women to do the housework. While men came home with "important" stories from the daily events of the workplace, women had no conversational equivalent. Women's conversation tended to focus on neighbours and relatives. Due to a woman's daily routine being seen as unimportant, the subject matter of her conversation came, by association, to be seen as trivial. Thus, the concept of "gossip" came to be equated with talking about people. And the origin is clearly sexist. That stereotype persists today, although the last time I worked in an office, I found the straight men were no less interested in talking about their coworkers.

It is admirable that many people want to avoid "talking behind someone's back", but I actually think there is great value in talking about people. I take issue with the idea that it is trivial, or less important than sports, entertainment, etc.

M@ said...

Very interesting discussion. I just wanted to point out another use of the "I'm sorry" -- it's a way of acknowledging the other person and the rather uncomfortably close position you've gotten yourselves into.

I think it's a way of defusing the situation somewhat, making a possible confrontation into a non-aggressive sorting-out. If you run into me and I say "Oh, sorry," then you know that your error is not being taken the wrong way, and I have adequately acknowledged that the error was made without malice and provided leeway for you to find a suitable position to go to. So it may be a little passive-aggressive in some situations, but it may also be just a way of ensuring we all get along in many others.

(Btw, Laura, re: the mind reader thing -- I am in total agreement, I hate it too, yet I do the exact same thing and perpetuate the behaviour. I can't help myself! Is there a Canadian gene or something!?)

David Heap said...

Almost all "norms" about politeness are conventional and bound to a particular time and place. Cross-culturally, I can recall many instances where people have seemed to this Canadian:

1. overly indirect (an Asian colleague who commented my suggestion was "An interesting idea" when he really meant -- as he later admitted -- it was a stupid idea);

2. more interested in small-talk than I am (an African colleague who routinely expects a chance hallway encounter to include at least 5-10 minutes of reciprocal discussion about *individual* family members and their doings) vs. much less (my Dutch supervisor, who warned me not to ask "How are you?" unless I really wanted a detailed account of his recent physical ailments and their symptoms);

3. more interested in bodily contact (Latinos who find Canadians depressingly cold and distant because we arrive at work and chit-chat but fail to hug each other) (without even getting into the tricky terrain of one vs. two vs. three+ pecks on the cheek...).

So in the grand range of variation in human approaches to casual social contact, we seem to be focusing on possible U.S. vs. Canadian differences not so much because they are huge differences but because we expect to be fairly similar in cultures and (after all) we speak closely related varieties of the same language. But as has already been pointed out, there can be huge differences between rural and urban communities, different regions etc.

Rather than comparing Mississauga to NYC, it seems to me that lots of people from other parts of the U.S. may find New Yorkers pretty, um, different WRT to their politeness expectations too. And other Canadians certainly have their prejudices and negative stereotypes (entirely unjustified, I hasten to add) about Torontonians.

My experience in the U.S. is admittedly very different, but I remember being struck by an ad in NYC for banking "rewards", which screamed in huge letters something like "Your checking account thanks you, your line of credit thanks you, your mortgage thanks you, you are thanked like you've never been thanked before." I found it rather aggressive and off-putting, which struck a chord with a Canadian friend (who studied for years at Georgetown U. in Washington): he found strangers in the U.S. to be more overtly "friendly" (something like what Stephanie describes above from Columbus) but concluded that this was a more of false façade which really meant something like "we're going to act really close so that we can keep an close eye on you and make sure you're just like we expect you to be (so be careful)" His interpretation may seem a tad paranoid, but while I like to great people and smile or nod at them in the street, I also find complete strangers who act like close friends rather nervous-making.

Gossip: the fact that a number of linguists have devoted research to the topic suggests that some of us think it exists (whether linguists research non-existent stuff is a topic for a different place). Much of this research suggests (as Kim has pointed out) that gossip is not what it may seem on the surface, and that gendered stereotypes about who does it and why etc. are more revealing about ideologies than about actual behaviour (something I touch on in a course on Language and Gender).

As for petty people obsessing about office equipment, let's recognise that the description of a "Toxic Office" suggests that it may well not be typical of Canadian workplaces. Such people are not polite, they are demented, in any culture or language.

L-girl said...

It is admirable that many people want to avoid "talking behind someone's back", but I actually think there is great value in talking about people. I take issue with the idea that it is trivial, or less important than sports, entertainment, etc.

I agree that there can be value in talking about people. We all do it around our dinner tables and such.

The way I see gossip being used in the workplace, and before that, in school, is as a form of social control. When someone is perceived as being different or out of line, they are talked about maliciously until they re-conform. If they don't, they are often ostracized or mistreated, and that mistreatment also revolves around gossip.

I understand the sexist roots (thanks for that info - very interesting). There does seem to be a culturally female component to this, and I would say it's a form of (usually) female bullying.

I wonder if you see this as less harmful than I do because you have not been involved in the largely female-style malicious gossip and seen the harm it can do? I am just guessing.

L-girl said...

(Btw, Laura, re: the mind reader thing -- I am in total agreement, I hate it too, yet I do the exact same thing and perpetuate the behaviour. I can't help myself! Is there a Canadian gene or something!?)

Ingrained in you culturally, I would say. It's even starting to be ingrained in me and I don't like it!! :)

L-girl said...

So in the grand range of variation in human approaches to casual social contact, we seem to be focusing on possible U.S. vs. Canadian differences not so much because they are huge differences but because we expect to be fairly similar in cultures and (after all) we speak closely related varieties of the same language.

We're focusing on US vs Canadian differences because that is a central topic of this blog, and the topic of this post.

Obviously someone could write many blog posts about cultural differences regarding Latino and Asian culture, and indeed within various Latin or Asian cultures, compare them to Toronto or New York (both huge cultural mixes) or anywhere else.

However, that would be someone else's blog!

Rather than comparing Mississauga to NYC, it seems to me that lots of people from other parts of the U.S. may find New Yorkers pretty, um, different WRT to their politeness expectations too.

NYC to Mississauga/Toronto is my frame of reference.

"Um" or no "um", I wrote in this post - which I assume you read? - that NYC is very different than the rest of the US in terms of small-talk and these other cultural markers.

However, NYC is where I'm from and the GTA is where I am now. This being my personal blog, that's what it reflects, so that's where the discussion goes. Makes sense in that context, I think.

My experience in the U.S. is admittedly very different,

How so?

****

Also, for the record, there's no appreciable difference between these types of interactions in Mississauga and Toronto. The same level of small-talk, eye contact, personal space, friendliness, etc. exists. I don't find Toronto a particularly fast-paced or unfriendly city, but wherever it sits on the fast/unfriendly to slow/friendly scale, Mississauga is in the same spot.

David Heap said...

Sorry, where I wrote My experience in the U.S. is admittedly very different

I should have written "very limited" (it's probably different too, but I really have no idea).

Obviously, the frame of reference here is comparing NYC to GTA; my other examples were simply by way of providing a context in which the kinds of contrasts described in the initial post are not so huge compared with the range of other contrasts that have formed part of my daily lived experiences in a couple of Canadian cities.

I am not saying we're anything close to identical (the Canadian "Sorry" tic is a good example of a real difference, as is, I would submit, the aggressively in-your-face "friendliness" to strangers one experiences in some parts of the U.S.). Just that (peculiarly toxic workplace cultures aside) these differences exist against a background of much broader differences that are also part of my Canadian experience.

(For the record, I grew up in the Kensington Market area of Toronto, so if anything I find many aspects of small-town Anglo-centric Canadian culture rather foreign).

L-girl said...

my other examples were simply by way of providing a context in which the kinds of contrasts described in the initial post are not so huge compared with the range of other contrasts that have formed part of my daily lived experiences in a couple of Canadian cities.

Thanks, David. That's true, the differences are small and more subtle. Perhaps that's why I enjoy observing and writing about them.

Many of the differences btn my hometown and my current town weren't noticeable right away, I discovered them over time. It's fun.

David Heap said...

Sure, nothing against examining small differences (linguists do this all the time). But if my *Canadian* experience includes people who are both much more and much less indirect, and who indulge in much more and much less small-talk than what you have identified as "typically" Canadian, then I have a hard time understanding what we are really comparing here. Are Unitedstatesians (or even New Yorkers) really that uniformly homogeneous in these respects? If so (and I really have no idea), perhaps it is part of that old melting-pot vs. mosaic dichotomy, where Canadian "reserve" might act in part as cover for a wider range of individual variation in behaviours.

L-girl said...

But if my *Canadian* experience includes people who are both much more and much less indirect, and who indulge in much more and much less small-talk than what you have identified as "typically" Canadian, then I have a hard time understanding what we are really comparing here.

Then you would probably answer in the affirmative to the last question I raised in the post: "Canadians, do you think I am over-generalizing, perhaps based on my still-limited experiences?"

Are Unitedstatesians (or even New Yorkers) really that uniformly homogeneous in these respects?

Uniformly homogenous, of course not. But generalizations can be made, with the usual exceptions and caveats.

I'm observing some general trends in the workplace - trends I never (or very rarely) encountered in my working life in NYC and Philadelphia, and which I encounter frequently in the GTA.

My observations resonate for some Canadian readers, and not for others.

Your mileage may vary, as they say.

Dharma Seeker said...

It sounds like you work in a place with a strange corporate culture. Offering to pick something up for a co-worker and then resenting the co-worker who takes you up on it isn't the norm, and it definitely isn't a "Canadian" thing. Generally if a person doesn't want to do something she won't offer.

I also think it's possible to communicate clearly and still be polite. I have to do that every day at work! Being direct doesn't necessarily mean being abrasive, or short, or terse any more than being polite means being wishy-washy or non-committal or indirect. It's true most of us will go out of our way not to offend but good communicators can get their point across without a harsh delivery.

L-girl said...

It sounds like you work in a place with a strange corporate culture.

It's not just one workplace. It's all my workplaces in Toronto so far!

it definitely isn't a "Canadian" thing.

I'm glad to hear it. The "mind reading" thing does seem to resonate with a few folks here, but it's good to hear another side, too.

I also think it's possible to communicate clearly and still be polite.

Geez, me too! I do it all the time.

I will tell you, though, that my Canadian co-workers find me "bold" in this way. What can I tell ya. Maybe it's law firms. Maybe it's strange luck.

impudent strumpet said...

The mind-reading/fake offer thing isn't specifically Canadian, but it does occur in a number of different cultures throughout the world (Poland, Japan and India come to mind, but I'm not sure what to google to confirm it - any linguistics people remember what this phenomenon is called?) and it tends to be unintentionally passed down through families. It isn't taught as a rule like please and thank you, but you sort of internalize it from empirical evidence. If every time you decline an offer of food it gets offered again shortly, you internalize that food will be offered more than once and that's how the world works. (Sounds kind of like dog training.) Then if you're offered something once and decline it and don't get offered again you feel vaguely wronged - the same way as when you bump into someone and it's both your faults and you say sorry and they say "That's okay." instead of saying sorry back.

But normally people don't have any idea they're doing this. The only reason I recognize it is it came up in a linguistics class once, and I realized that I've inherited the expectation of fake offer/double offer (although I don't seem to have the social skills to MAKE fake offers, only to expect them from others.) But even consciously realizing how and why I'm operating on a double standard, I can't always stop doing it.

impudent strumpet said...

Also:

Unitedstatesians

This word needs to be part of the standard English lexicon. Everyone start using it at every available opportunity effective immediately!

Kim_in_TO said...

The way I see gossip being used in the workplace, and before that, in school, is as a form of social control. When someone is perceived as being different or out of line, they are talked about maliciously until they re-conform. If they don't, they are often ostracized or mistreated, and that mistreatment also revolves around gossip.

I view that as bullying, which in my mind is a separate behaviour. While I am familiar with the behaviour, it's not what comes to mind for me, when, for instance, someone says "they were gossiping". Compare that with "they were talking". "Gossip" is a subset of "talk", and yet, I don't think most of us would include that behaviour as part of the definition of talk. Bullying can also include abusive, nonverbal actions; I see the verbal part of bullying as more connected to that, than as part of the definition of talk or gossip.

I wonder if you see this as less harmful than I do because you have not been involved in the largely female-style malicious gossip and seen the harm it can do? I am just guessing.

Well, it's definitely non-existant (or almost) in the last office I worked in. But I am very well familiar with it from my teaching days. And I don't think I see it as less harmful than anyone else.

At about the grade 3 level, we start to see bullying. My colleagues all agreed they would much rather deal with boys' bullying, which usually consists of hitting and then an apology, and the boys move on. Girls, on the other hand, often engage in exclusion, which is a powerful form of bullying and is difficult to detect unless the victim reports it. They tend to take turns, excluding one member of the group today, and then moving onto another girl tomorrow. It is ongoing and very trying to resolve until you have experience, because the first time you try to deal with it, you get wide-eyed denials. (You need to call them on it and show them you understand exactly what they are doing.)

Kim_in_TO said...

Unitedstatesians

I love that. I learned that in Spanish class, where I was taught the equivalent, "estadounidense".

L-girl said...

Unitedstatesians

I see more and more bloggers using this, and USians. It's great! Avoids the whole "American as a nationality issue" and certainly simpler than "people from the US".

L-girl said...

The mind-reading/fake offer thing isn't specifically Canadian, but it does occur in a number of different cultures throughout the world (Poland, Japan and India come to mind, but I'm not sure what to google to confirm it - any linguistics people remember what this phenomenon is called?) and it tends to be unintentionally passed down through families. It isn't taught as a rule like please and thank you, but you sort of internalize it from empirical evidence.

Cool, thanks for this. I think I'm already internalizing it in the workplace. But I don't like it! :)

I realized that I've inherited the expectation of fake offer/double offer (although I don't seem to have the social skills to MAKE fake offers, only to expect them from others.) But even consciously realizing how and why I'm operating on a double standard, I can't always stop doing it.

M@ said something similar above. It's amazing how ingrained these beahaviours are. A lifetime of practice and observation will do that.

L-girl said...

Kim, thanks for that, great stuff. Yes, I think I associate the word gossip with a form of bullying, and all the other stuff I just call "small talk". I love small talk and don't denigrate it.

I recently shocked someone in my workplace by refusing to engage in that verbal bullying.

One of my co-workers routinely waits until no one else is around to run over to my desk and bad-mouth other co-workers. I have nothing against these people - what's more, I often don't even know them, as they work on other shifts when I'm not there.

The talk is usually about office stuff (pure crap, IMO). I am usually just unresponsive - tiny nods, uh-huh, barely paying attention - and she ends up talking to herself and going away.

This time, though, co-worker #1 started telling me something very private about co-worker #2. It was a rumour - #1 had no way of knowing if it were true - and if it were true, it would be very painful for #2.

I interrupted and said, "I'm not comfortable hearing this information. I don't even know 2. I don't feel I should discuss her personal life this way."

I was really glad I did it!

L-girl said...

They tend to take turns, excluding one member of the group today, and then moving onto another girl tomorrow.

Ohhhh yes. Only you're lucky if it's today and tomorrow. The exclusion can go on for long periods of time. It can be very painful and confusing.

Ah, good old junior high.

James said...

Unitedstatesians

I've seen "Statsian", "USian", "Usian", and a few other of variations online. Probably the most common one I've come across is the somewhat rude "Merkin" -- I thought that was an Internet coinage, but apparently it dates back to the 60s. It may be the source for the name of Peter Sellers's President Merkin Muffley in Dr. Strangelove.

Jen said...

Imputent Strumpet: "I realized that I've inherited the expectation of fake offer/double offer (although I don't seem to have the social skills to MAKE fake offers, only to expect them from others.) "

I'm the opposite. I make the offer often, don't always take it up. It was always that way growing up though. If you were going into the kitchen/down to the basement you asked if anyone else needed anything. Often you got taken up on it. I do remember being resentful of this in my teen years (e.g.: "Man, I came out here for [something simple], and now I'm making tea"... because that's *so* difficult to a teenager). Perhaps your co-workers have this teen reaction to the offer since they have such a juvenile approach to office social graces in general?

Nursing is HORRIBLE for moving beyond gossip and talk to bullying or "lateral violence". New grads are subject to the "eat their young" phenomenon, but then, in junior high fashion, it moves on to whoever is the [seemingly]weakest link. There's heaps of articles and internet stuff, but interestingly only about a third of the google hits for nursing terms (nursing lateral violence, nursing eat their young, nursing bullying) than for searches for "office bullying". Sadly, you are in good company.

re: "Unitedstatesians" When I was living in Ireland my co workers would often start sentences with "You Americans..." and I'd remind them that I was Canadian and they'd say that they meant North Americans. So, I'd start a similar comparison with "You British..." since Ireland is one of the British Isles. Usually stopped them from getting all abbreviated with their landform geography.

redsock said...

Unitedstatesians

How about Morans?

M@ said...

My colleagues all agreed they would much rather deal with boys' bullying, which usually consists of hitting and then an apology, and the boys move on.

While I understand that girls' bullying is much different and more insidious that boys' bullying, I can tell you from experience that bullying among young boys is far, far different from hitting and then an apology. I would suggest that boys are conditioned to internalize their reactions to the bullying, and so feel forced to act as though the apology put an end to the issue. Bullying among both sexes is, I would argue, primarily psychological.

How does this manifest in the workplace? I think men gossip less, but they use bluster and intimidation (which stand in for physical domination) to get their way.

Good for you, btw, Laura, for stopping the gossiper. Not enough people do that.

L-girl said...

Unitedstatesians

How about Morans?


Now, now. That's only, what?, 49% of the USians?

L-girl said...

the somewhat rude "Merkin" -- I thought that was an Internet coinage, but apparently it dates back to the 60s. It may be the source for the name of Peter Sellers's President Merkin Muffley in Dr. Strangelove.

I thought that was from Bush! I definitely never heard that before 2000. Although maybe that one is spelled "Murcan"?

L-girl said...

It was always that way growing up though. If you were going into the kitchen/down to the basement you asked if anyone else needed anything. Often you got taken up on it. I do remember being resentful of this in my teen years (e.g.: "Man, I came out here for [something simple], and now I'm making tea"... because that's *so* difficult to a teenager).

I had that too! My father used to say "don't leave empty-handed" - if you were leaving the room, you could also make it an errand for someone else. That is, him. Used to drive me crazy!

Perhaps your co-workers have this teen reaction to the offer since they have such a juvenile approach to office social graces in general?

Could be!

Nursing is HORRIBLE for moving beyond gossip and talk to bullying or "lateral violence". New grads are subject to the "eat their young" phenomenon, but then, in junior high fashion, it moves on to whoever is the [seemingly]weakest link.

God, how awful. And in all places, a caring and helping profession. Reminds me of the anti-democratic, anti-liberal practices of many progressive organizations.

So, I'd start a similar comparison with "You British..." since Ireland is one of the British Isles. Usually stopped them from getting all abbreviated with their landform geography.

Very good. :)

L-girl said...

Bullying among both sexes is, I would argue, primarily psychological.

I would agree with that.

And girls' bullying often uses physical intimidation, too. With bullying, it's often not so much violence as the threat of violence. (That is, terrorism.)

Good for you, btw, Laura, for stopping the gossiper. Not enough people do that.

Thank you! I had never done anything like that before, and it just popped out, unplanned. Now I have more fortitude to try it again, should the need arise.

James said...

I thought that was from Bush! I definitely never heard that before 2000.

The Wikipedia page says it first showed up in the 60s. I first saw it online in the late 80s. I suspect Bush increased its popularity, though.

The Wikipedia page has a picture of a real merkin.

Kim_in_TO said...

While I understand that girls' bullying is much different and more insidious that boys' bullying, I can tell you from experience that bullying among young boys is far, far different from hitting and then an apology.

Sorry - in the interest of brevity, I ended up grossly oversimplifying. I do agree with you. The attitudes I referred to toward boys' bullying vs. girls' came from the fact that I worked in a small private school, where the typical, ongoing forms of boys' bullying couldn't occur without teachers noticing. Girls' bullying, on the other hand, tends to be more insidious and can take place in the corner of a quiet classroom, and a small school is a perfect incubator for that behaviour since there is a much smaller population for the victim to turn to for friendship.

Kim_in_TO said...

When I was young, someone came out with a book of Canadianisms called Canajun, eh?. There was later a sequel called Murrican, huh?

James said...

Back in the 50s, Peter Sellers and his compatriots on The Goon Show referred to Americans as "Herns" after their accent. While Brit theatrical tradition had crowds of extras mumbling "rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb" to sound like a crowd without actualy saying anything distractnig, the Goons used stuff like "hey, hern, hern the hern of the hern hern, an' hern that hern" when they wanted crowds to sound American. And not just for background stuff: they might have a news announcer with a line like "Welcome to the Hern O'Clock News on channel hern."