5.17.2009

two observations, part one: canadians are still so nice

It's been a long time since I've written a post comparing life here in Canada to my former life in New York City. This is no longer "my new life": it's just my life. In a few months, we'll have been here four years. The Transition Complete sign is no longer even visible in our rear-view mirror.

Every so often, though, something reminds me that what's become commonplace was once amazing.

When we first moved here, I was constantly flabbergasted at how nice everyone was. When you're moving to a new country, there are so many business details to take care of. We had to get our SIN cards, our health care cards, our shiny wonderful new Permanent Resident cards. We had to open bank accounts, buy a car, set up utilities, have cable installed. And on and on and on.

Without exception, every person we dealt with was polite, friendly and helpful.

Here's a story I always tell. When we arrived at our little rental house in Port Credit - lets see if I can do this without choking up, thinking about who's missing - there was an electricity bill waiting for us. We paid rent for a month before we moved, so the bill wasn't unexpected, but $420? That can't be right.

Now, in New York City, calling ConEd is not a task to be undertaken lightly. You'll want to have a good night's sleep and appropriate amounts of caffeine in your system, or maybe Xanax. I knew I had to call the utility company, but I was dreading it. I took a deep breath and girded myself for battle.

"Hi, I have a problem with my bill."

"Hi, how are you today?"

"Uh... fine thank you. I have a problem with my bill."

"All right, why don't you give me the account number and I'll take a look." I give her the number.

"The account is only one month old, and no one was living at this location during that month, but I've been charged $420."

"Oh my, that does seem like a lot of money! Let me see... Are you new to the area?"

"Yes, I am."

"New to Mississauga?"

"I'm new to Canada. We actually just arrived today."

"Today? How exciting! Welcome to Canada!"

. . . I'm almost too puzzled to respond. "Uh, thank you."

"Where did you move from, if you don't mind me asking?"

"Uh, no, we moved from New York City."

"Oh my, from New York City to Mississauga, now that's a big change, eh?"

I'm thinking, where am I? Who are these people?

The representative then cheerfully and politely explains that because we have no credit history with the company, they are asking for a deposit, which will be held in escrow, earning a small amount of interest. After a year has passed, I'm to call again, and the deposit will be credited to my account.

"I'm so sorry you didn't know about this. I hope it's not a big problem for you?"

"No, no, it's fine."

"Is there anything else I can help you with today?"

"No, thank you."

"Good luck settling in, and welcome to Canada. I hope you and your family will be very happy here."

When I hung up, I related this story to Allan. We looked at each other, puzzled. I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore.

And this is how it went - everywhere.

Now I'm used to this. It's made me friendlier. It's made me take an extra moment to add a little friendliness to a business transaction. It's not the ten minutes of small talk that I associate with small town life and so dislike. But it's not the slam-bang-next! that you get in New York.

* * * *

Over time, I also came to see what might be the flipside of all this politeness. I've written about the indirectness, the passive-aggressiveness that I find so maddening here.

I prefer to have more clear communication than I get with so many people in Canada. If USians are accused of being brusque, they are also more direct and straightforward, more likely to say what they mean. And if Canadians are more polite, they are also more indirect, more likely to speak in code. (With the usual disclaimers for generalizations and exceptions.)

I've blogged about this enough, I don't need to go into it again. But I see that over time, I may have started to focus on the downside, the indirectness, more than the upside, the politeness.

Something happened recently that made me recall how nice everyone is here.

As you may recall, the law firm where I work on weekends recently cut our transportation benefit, so I now take a GO bus home on Saturdays and Sundays. I always sit in the front to avoid motion sickness, so I hear whatever comes over the driver's dispatch radio.

Frequently - not every day, but often - a driver calls in with a passenger's special need. "I have a passenger at Square One who is trying to get to the University of Guelph. The Guelph bus doesn't run on Saturday. Can anyone help him?"

Another driver's voice is heard: "I can pick him up at Square One and get him to Airport Road. It will be about an hour, but I can definitely get him."

The dispatcher asks, "Can anyone help him at Airport Road?"

Another driver responds, "I will be at Airport Road at 21:40. I can take him as far as..."

The conversation continues until a route is mapped out whereby the passenger will ride a series of GO buses and slowly make his way to the University of Guelph.

I've never heard anything like this. I've never heard public transit employees take their jobs so seriously, or go out of their way for passengers like this.

* * * *

Here's a New York City memory for contrast.

In the 1980s, the subways were pretty bad in New York. This was somewhere between the graffiti era of the 1970s and the improvements of the 90s. (I see people are worried about it again.)

Hundreds of miles of track were being relaid and bridges were being rebuilt, so there was a lot of re-routing going on, often unexpectedly. Subway cars were gradually being replaced, but there were more decrepit, filthy cars in the system than shiny new ones.

The signage was horrendous, both in stations and on the actual trains. I used to say you have to know where you're going to get anywhere; you had to know the system to use it. You'd be walking through some maze of corridors and stairs connecting various lines, you'd get to an intersection, and all of a sudden: no more signs. Or you'd find yourself on a platform that said "Broadway Local," "Broadway Express," and "Nites Only". What is now the #1 train went by something like seven different names.

The PA systems either didn't work at all or were completely inaudible. You'd be sitting on a train and you'd here, "Attention passengers, attention passengers. This D train will now be running on the grrthpwmpzthp track beyond thpdgrzyz Street. Any passenger wishing to go to bzzztkcrtz or zzzztpgdthp, you must exit at rjzzzzzp Street."

Remember, in New York City, many different trains run on the same track. You don't just wait on a platform and get on whatever train comes; you have to see if it's your train. Then there's the perennial question: is an R train running on a D track now a D train? Well, it depends who you ask.

So there I was at Jay Street-Boro Hall in Brooklyn, switching from an F train to an A train. A subway pulls in. It has the big blue A on one car, a purple F on another car, an orange F on yet another car, then two more cars with As.

I find the car with the transit operator leaning out of his window and ask, "Is this an A train?"

He replies, "Can't you read? What does it look like?"

Ah, New York.

I won't say that all New York City transit workers were quite that polite and helpful in the 80s. Let's just say his answer wasn't so unusual.

Sitting on the GO bus, listening to the drivers coordinate a travel schedule for the dude trying to get to Guelph, I thought of this and chuckled to myself.

I also thought of it when I read this post by Impudent Strumpet.

* * * *

PS: the discussion in comments on this post is great.

49 comments:

redsock said...

Good stuff.

***
Then there's the perennial question: is an R train running on a D track now a D train?
***

No, it is an N.

James said...

I've never heard public transit employees take their jobs so seriously, or go out of their way for passengers like this.Maybe if we could export some of this south, there'd be less of that "Government isn't the solution, it's the problem" mentality.

Amy said...

Great stories, Laura. Canadians do sounds wonderful. But I think NYers are the worst offenders in the US when it comes to being rude. When I left NY for college, I was amazed by how polite people from other parts of the US were. When my parents came to take care of our kids in New England, they could not believe strangers would say hello to them. When I first got on elevators in Boston after working in NYC, I could not believe people would smile and say hello, not avoid eye contact.

So Canadians may be more uniformly polite and helpful than the typical US resident (I just can't say USian), but most US residents are also more polite and helpful than the typical NYer. (And I say that as someone who grew up in NY and still has many relatives who live there!)

L-girl said...

"but most US residents are also more polite and helpful than the typical NYer."

I completely disagree.

I don't think NYers are impolite at all. They are usually rushed, and don't make chit-chat, but that's not the same as being rude. I actually think it's being considerate of time - theirs and yours.

I certainly don't find people in Boston, Philadelphia, New York, Chicago or L.A. any friendlier than people in New York. I think people in big cities in the US all tend to be pretty much the same on the friendly/rude scale.

L-girl said...

"So Canadians may be more uniformly polite and helpful than the typical US resident (I just can't say USian), but most US residents are also more polite and helpful than the typical NYer."

Please note, I did NOT say New Yorkers were impolite or unhelpful!

I have never said that - in fact, I usually go on about how New Yorkers will give everyone directions, go out of their way to make sure people get the right directions and get where they're going, etc.

The example of the MTA employee was not meant as a stand-in for New Yorkers at large.

Amy said...

I guess our experiences are different. I think the conversation you had with the electric company in Toronto is much more likely to happen in other places in the US than in NY. I just know our experiences with people since leaving NY have made us more patient, more polite, and less abrupt than we were when we both lived in NY. NYers are more rushed and more stressed---my daughter has changed markedly since moving there (and not for the better, IMHO). But it also makes them less friendly and less patient.

Now I am not comparing Bostonians, etc., to Canadians. I have no basis for doing so.

impudent strumpet said...

That is so cool, I had no idea GO would ever do something like that! Knowing that makes me feel kind of safer on the GO. Not that I feel particularly unsafe, but I just always figured that I'm entirely on my own.

L-girl said...

Imp Strump, yes, it was quite amazing.

L-girl said...

"I think the conversation you had with the electric company in Toronto is much more likely to happen in other places in the US than in NY."

Dealing with utilities or any agency in NY - cable, phone, electric - is a nightmare. But I don't think that reflects on New Yorkers. The systems are a complete mess.

Amy said...

Like I said, it's just my experience as a former NYer and as a mother of a New Englander who moved to NYC. I am not saying NYers are uniformly rude or bad or unfriendly. But because they are more rushed and stressed, I do find them less patient and less friendly--whether we are talking about people who work in stores or restaurants, people you encounter in traffic or on movie lines, or the utitilies.

OTOH, I happen to love some of the qualities that same stress and edge brings out in NYers---the sharp wit, the no-BS attitude, the more genuine responses. And, to be honest, I still have some of the NY edge myself. Watch out if you cut in line ahead of me! :)

L-girl said...

I understood what you meant.

James said...

I happen to love some of the qualities that same stress and edge brings out in NYers---the sharp wit, the no-BS attitude, the more genuine responsesThe comic strip Sherman's Lagoon (about some sharks & other sea animals in a tropical lagoon) had a storyline in which a NYC sewer alligator drops by, wanting to get out of the city 'cause it had gotten too nice.

At one point, he tells Megan (the lead female shark in the strip), "As one predator to another, you're pretty hot", and she responds, "Watch your mouth, you overgrown handbag!"

The alligator grins and says, "Ah, that's all I'm askin' for -- a little attitude!"

Skinny Dipper said...

I just finished watching King of the Hill. Boomhauer goes does a home exchange with a family from Guelph, Ontario, Canada. The Canadian family meets Hank Hill and the gang. The Canadians are friendly at first. You know, eh? Then, they start criticizing everything about the US--the loud outdoor parties at the Hill residence, the beer, measurements, and boring NFL football. It was an interesting show tonight.

L-girl said...

Hey, thanks Skinny Dipper, I'll catch it tonight from the Calgary or Vancouver station (thank you, Rogers).

It's hard to imagine a Canadian family criticizing Texans to their faces IRL. But the sentiment is there. :)

L-girl said...

I guess the writers wanted an excuse to do Canada vs US/Texas, because why would Boomhauer go anywhere???

James said...

Jeff Rowland, creator of the web comic Overcompensating, was up in Toronto for the Toronto Comic Arts Festival recently. He's been posting strips about it, with commentary, and his latest had this nice paragraph:

In Canada, you get the sense that America is like terrible downstairs neighbors. Like really rich, obnoxious, downstairs neighbors. Like you're just trying to read a friggin' book, and the downstairs neighbors are always partying, and screaming at each other, and occasionally shooting each other, but you can't really do anything about it because they're friends with the Landlord? Only nobody knows who the Landlords are. Nobody has ever seen them.

Kim_in_TO said...

Another illustration of the distinction between TO and NYC:

When using the subway, there are always morons who try to board a train without letting passengers off first. In both cities, announcements may be broadcast during rush hours to explain to people that they need to let passengers off the train first.

Years ago, in Toronto, I was waiting to board the train when a conductor made such an announcement. He was obviously frustrated, and sounded as though he were about to burst into tears.

Also years ago, I was watching a tv program which was discussing public transit. It showed a short video clip of the NYC subway with a train arriving at a station and hundreds of people waiting to board, and the conductor made this announcement:
"Let the people off the train first. You don't let them off, you don't get on. You don't get on, you don't go to work, you lose your job, you starve and you die."

I love that anecdote as a non-specific but concise illustration of the difference between people here and people there.

redsock said...

When using the subway, there are always morons who try to board a train without letting passengers off first.

And then there are the people who take one step inside the door and stop, so that everyone else behind them who wants to get on they train has to now walk *around* them.

Part of city life is learning how hard you can bang into those louts to both bother them (but not much that they pull out a gun and shoot you) and still satisfy your desire for revenge.

...

...

or I'm simply a very troubled individual.

Amy said...

No, Allan, you just sound like a NYer!! :)

L-girl said...

"Part of city life is learning how hard you can bang into those louts to both bother them (but not much that they pull out a gun and shoot you) and still satisfy your desire for revenge. ... or I'm simply a very troubled individual."

Or both.

L-girl said...

""Let the people off the train first. You don't let them off, you don't get on. You don't get on, you don't go to work, you lose your job, you starve and you die."

I love that anecdote as a non-specific but concise illustration of the difference between people here and people there."

LOL I've never heard that line myself, but I can easily imagine a wise-cracking MTA operator using it.

L-girl said...

"When using the subway, there are always morons who try to board a train without letting passengers off first."

Please note this happens in both cities! :)

redsock said...

No, Allan, you just sound like a NYer!! :)

I know. I remember something L told me about a friend of hers (who has been mentioned in this blog (in other circumstances!)) "accidentally" bumping her umbrella into people who get on and stop. (I hope I have that right.)

And then there are the men who sit with their legs spread far apart. Like their balls are the size of basketballs or something. How much pressure do you exert to claim what should be a normal amount of seat space for yourself, all the while acting like nothing is going on because you are busy turning newspaper pages and reading?

Gee, I'm getting a little nostalgic here ...!

L-girl said...

"I remember something L told me about a friend of hers (who has been mentioned in this blog (in other circumstances!))"

Ah, my sociopathic friends. What does that say about me?? (Don't answer that!)

L-girl said...

"And then there are the men who sit with their legs spread far apart. Like their balls are the size of basketballs or something."

You once said this to my mother, she nearly died laughing.

Talking across the car to each other is a big using-up-space thing, too. Two friends board a nearly-empty subway car together, but instead of sitting next to each other, they sit across the car, each with their legs spread as wide as possible, and yell a conversation back and forth.

Thus anyone who needs to stand in between them is in "their" space, plus they take up three seats each.

I have seen this in Philadelphia, Chicago, DC and Boston in addition to NYC. Not sure if I've seen it in Toronto.

L-girl said...

"You once said this to my mother, she nearly died laughing."

Only you said "testicles the size of grapefruits," which made it even funnier.

impudent strumpet said...

I've been experimenting on subway people lately. With the ones who stop in front of the doors, if you put your hand or arm or bag against their back and just keep boarding the train as usual, pushing them along in front of you, they tend to move and it doesn't even seem to occur to them that you're pushing them. (I've got a big-eyed "OMG, sorry, did I bump in to you?" prepared for if they react, but so far no one has.)

With the wide sitters, they move if I just start sitting next to them anyway. Exactly like how if the corner of someone's coat has strayed onto the seat, you don't ask permission or wait for them to move, you just start sitting down and assume that of course they'll move the corner of the coat.

Still trying to figure out what to do about people who stand in front of empty seats on crowded trains, thus blocking access to the empty seat for everyone else.

Kim_in_TO said...

I have seen this in Philadelphia, Chicago, DC and Boston in addition to NYC. Not sure if I've seen it in Toronto.They're replaced by the assholes here (always men) who put their legs up on the seats and take three seats for themselves.

L-girl said...

As much as I hate these subway assholes - and yes, they are always men, only men - I'm somehow comforted to know they exist in Toronto, too.

L-girl said...

"With the wide sitters, they move if I just start sitting next to them anyway. Exactly like how if the corner of someone's coat has strayed onto the seat, you don't ask permission or wait for them to move, you just start sitting down and assume that of course they'll move the corner of the coat."

I've always done this too.

However, with hardcore wide sitters, this won't work. They simply will not move. And - unlike some people I know, and more power to them - I won't get into thigh wars, applying pressure to try to get a man to move his leg.

I don't lack the assertiveness or the courage, but I just can't stand the body contact with a male stranger. I'll just stand.

L-girl said...

"Still trying to figure out what to do about people who stand in front of empty seats on crowded trains, thus blocking access to the empty seat for everyone else."

When you come up with a good strategy, please blog it!

redsock said...

Fighting "thigh wars" sounds like something out of early Seinfeld.

A Conformer said...

Well, just to add some non US/Canada to the discussion, traveling through Mexico I have been surprised by the generousness and openness of people there. Three examples that come to mind: while passing through a town called Tamazunchale (I was hitchhiking at the time) a man called me over with the inevitable "Guero, guero!". He asked me how I am, where I'm going, and then said, "well, to hitchhike you need oranges" and gave me about 5 of them. He will forever be the face of that town for me, the one thing I remember about it. The next day, an older man picked me up, and I ended up eating lunch in his house with his family, and leaving with a book we had talked about as a gift. And in small family restaurants I always used to get into long conversations with the owners, one time especially, where I came into a place for lunch, sat for 4 hours talking to the owner, and ended up eating dinner there too.

A Conformer said...

Thought I'd split the comment, to not do a mega big one. I love the subway topic, cause I'm a big public transportation buff. I've written a lot about public transport while traveling.
The whole thigh war thing brought two stories of it being taken to extremes to mind: the first happened in Israel. A big fat guy sat next to me on the bus, and I was reduced to about 1/3 of our two-seat territory. No problem with that, but I did not appreciate when, under the fatness pretext I guess, he started fondling my thigh. At first I gave him the benefit of the doubt, then a very dirty look, and sure enough his hand disappeared back into his 2/3. The second one was on a bus in Guatemala. A man came on the bus and sat next to me. He started slurring unintelligibly to me, and I could not understand a word. I even asked the people around me "can you understand him? Do you know what he wants?" to which they all smiled sympathetically at me. He was quite obviously drunk out of his mind. He proceeded to repeatedly push into my thigh with his, and then to also put his hand on it. Each time I lifted his hand and put it back in his lap, some of the times saying "no". It didn't register at all, and it just kept on going like that. Then along came the driver's assistant to charge the fare. After a couple of seconds in which the guy didn't respond, I told him "I very much doubt this guy has any money". Sure enough, he had nothing, refused to get off, and after several minutes of struggle was literally thrown off the bus.
Not really on point, just what came to mind. And btw, the Mexico City subway system is the best one I've been on. There's always something happening, it's a lot of fun.

L-girl said...

The subway in Mexico City is great! We also had a lot of really friendly help from bus drivers there.

We have that in common, Ofer - Allan and I both like to take subways wherever we are, and check out the public transit in any city.

[My saying "public transit" instead of "public transportation" is a sign of my assimilation into Canada.]

James said...

Here's a classic Bill Cosby routine on the NYC subway: A Nut On Every Car.

Unfortunately, it only plays in the US.

Scott M. said...

In my experience, GO Bus drivers are the best of the best. They're always so friendly, helpful, and genuinely interested in making sure you have a good trip it's amazing.

From what I've experienced, in Canada, the only ones who give GO bus drivers a run for their money are the VIA employees working out of Winnipeg. One trip on the Canadian or the Hudson Bay and you'll be flabbergasted about how amazing customer service can be.

Jen said...

ImpStrump: Still trying to figure out what to do about people who stand in front of empty seats on crowded trains, thus blocking access to the empty seat for everyone else."

L-Girl: When you come up with a good strategy, please blog it!

It would be a pretty boring post for me. I usually say "Excuse me, I want to sit there" and they usually move and say something like "Excuse me" or "Sorry!" or they at the very least grunt or sigh.

If I'm too far away I just wonder at why people nearer look longingly at the seat and shoot daggers at the blocker-person.

The bus to the college meant the script was more like this:
Me: Excuse me, can you move your bag? I'd like to sit.
Entitled teenagery person: sigh, eye roll, frantic texting.

L-girl said...

"If I'm too far away I just wonder at why people nearer look longingly at the seat and shoot daggers at the blocker-person."

I do the same!

Scott M, I remember your tremendous respect for the GO drivers. In my experience, too, they are really a cut above.

richard said...

And you live in the GTA! Go anywhere else in the country (with the notable exceptions of the Montreal and Vancouver airports)and multiply the joy X2. X3 for small towns in BC (that's a joke... with a dash of truth!)

When we lived in Boston there was a guy who sold flowers in North Station who sat there with a chip on his shoulder and never, ever, said anything to me, even when I bought his flowers (which was often - I'm a sentimental softie ;-). If asked for directions he would only point and grunt. I always felt sorry and tried to speak as nicely to him as I could to brighten his day. Hope it worked at least a little bit.

From my limited experience New Yorkers are not so much rude as that hey have their own "code" which is often misinterpreted by outsiders as rudeness. They are rushed and impossibly busy. hat's a problem but it's not rudeness.

Yankees fans, on the other hand, are a different matter entirely...

richard said...

You know, come to think of it, it wasn't the flower guy but the newspaper guy at North Station.

20 Years messes with memory

L-girl said...

"And you live in the GTA!"

Yes, I've often marveled at that - that this is the most populous area in Canada, and people are still so friendly.

I don't think I could take it much friendlier than this. The people in Newfoundland were just ridiculous. :)

"From my limited experience New Yorkers are not so much rude as that hey have their own "code" which is often misinterpreted by outsiders as rudeness."

That's a good way to put it.

Now about those Yankee fans... ;) Go to any Yankees-Red Sox game at Fenway and you'll find Red Sox fans are just as bad.

richard said...

Now about those Yankee fans... ;) Go to any Yankees-Red Sox game at Fenway and you'll find Red Sox fans are just as bad. Yeah, but their cause is just :-)

(Oh my, that's how tribal warfare gets justified, eh?)

L-girl said...

"(Oh my, that's how tribal warfare gets justified, eh?)"

That's right!!!

Having lived on both sides of The Great Divide, I'm all for peaceful coexistence, a one-state solution where we can all freely express our faiths. :)

L-girl said...

Heh. Coming on four years and still fielding the welcomes. :)

I still wonder, though, if my experience in NYC (re activism) was peculiar to New York or more general to the US.

richard said...

And then there's stuff like this...

http://tinyurl.com/qcfc6y

L-girl said...

Yes, it's quite an amazing story. Not helping the police's reputation any.

impudent strumpet said...

[My saying "public transit" instead of "public transportation" is a sign of my assimilation into Canada.]

Thank you SO MUCH for mentioning this because it made my life exponentially easier today!

I had to explain to someone who doesn't take feedback well that you can't just switch between public transit and public transportation willy-nilly in the same text.

Normally this sort of thing involves an epic debate on the virtues of internal consistency and a comparative stylistics lecture on how the different languages put different value on the use of a varied vocabulary.

Instead I was able to simply tell them "Public transit is the Canadian term, public transportation is the American term." Problem solved.

L-girl said...

Cool! Glad I could help.