Canadian Manners and Etiquette

The stereotype of the fundamentally “polite Canadian” is a bit of a cornball cliche, but it does have some basis in reality. Canada is a nation with fairly strong conventions of social etiquette, and properly obeying and understanding these rules is one of the most crucial ways to “fit in” to broader Canadian society.

In general, Canadians are a mostly friendly, unpretentious people who value honesty, sensitivity, empathy and humility in their relationships with friends and strangers, as well as respect for the privacy and individualism of others. While obviously many Canadians fail at honouring these lofty principles, such values nevertheless provide the basis of what is considered “good manners” in mainstream Canadian society.

Roles and Formalities

Business casual dress

Most corporate Canadian workplaces embrace a dress code known as "business casual," with outfits similar to the ones above representing the norm. Ties and jackets have become increasingly uncommon in all but the most formal or high-ranking office settings.

Canada is usually considered a mostly egalitarian country in the tradition of other western democracies, which means that respect for hierarchy is not considered a particularly important value in daily life. Most Canadians are strong individualists of one form or another, and will dislike changing too much of their behaviour or personality just to please others — indeed, such aggressive conformity may actually be scorned by others as phony or weak.

Modern Canadian children are usually permitted to be relatively outspoken and independent from a young age, and may speak to adults, even teachers or parents, in the same casual style they use for friends. The same is mostly true for employer-employee relations, and maintaining a friendly workplace where everyone acts as if they’re on the same level (even if they’re obviously not) is exceedingly common these days. Though the Canadian government, judicial system and military possess a lot of complex protocols dictating things like proper titles of address and appropriate dress, such institutions are considered outliers of unusual formality and strictness within a broader, casual culture of relaxed relationships.

Seating sign

Signs like this, imploring travellers to surrender their seats to the old or disabled, are common in Canadian buses and trains.

The main figures of reverence in Canadian society are people over the age of 70 (so-called “senior citizens“), who are usually given a higher-than-normal degree of politeness and courtesy, and people with obvious handicaps or physical disabilities, who are expected to be treated with compassion and understanding. Authority figures with obviously intimidating powers, such as police officers, will usually be given polite deference as well, though it should be noted that Canadian law and the Canadian Constitution grants individual Canadians significant legal rights to question or disobey authorities whom they have reason to believe are misbehaving.

Time

Canadian time

Canadians use the 12-hour clock and tend to refer to time in fractions, for example "quarter-after three" or "half-past two."

For the most part, Canadians are very literal about time and schedules. If someone says to “come at 3:00″ he usually expects his guest to be there at 3:00. Lateness of more than 15 minutes is considered rude, and an apology or explanation will be expected. Likewise, earliness of more than 15 minutes is usually considered presumptuous and may cause an awkward surprise for a host who is not yet ready.

Most Canadians with full-time careers work from roughly 9 AM to 5 PM Monday through Friday (so-called 9-to-5 jobs). 12 noon is usually considered lunchtime, while 6 PM is approximately when most families eat dinner. With some exceptions, telephoning people in the very early morning or very late night is considered rude and disruptive. Most do not appreciate being disturbed at work, either. Weekends (Saturday and Sunday) tend to be the most busy and active days for socializing — since most people will not be working — though Sunday morning can be a somewhat taboo time to make plans since many religious Canadians will be attending church.

Canadian Social Customs

Greetings

Canadians meeting for the first time usually shake hands to introduce themselves, and may shake hands before departing, as well. Short hugs are becoming more common for closer friends. Kissing remains mostly reserved for family or lovers, though some French-Canadians may partake in the European practice of giving light cheek kisses as part of a friendly greeting.

Gifts

Giving gifts to strangers is generally rare in Canada, unless the person in question has done some favour or is otherwise considered to be “owed” one as thanks.

Even on designated gift-giving holidays, the decision to actually exchange gifts with friends (or even certain family members) is very much dictated by the degree of closeness one feels towards them. Gifts for “no occasion” can be sweet, but also hold a high potential to create lingering feelings of awkwardness for the recipient, especially with expensive gifts.

Tipping in Canada

Receipt

These days, a lot of restaurants will give you the option to give an automatic 15 per cent tip when you pay using a debit or credit card machine, thus sparing customers the difficulty of after-dinner math.

When dining at any “sit-down” style restaurant, Canadians are expected to tip, or donate, some extra money to their waiter at the end of the meal. The bare minimum expected is 15% of the total price of the bill, but over-tipping in the case of exceptionally good service is common as well. Failing to tip (or under-tipping) is considered extremely rude and will probably generate some sort of immediate reaction, even if only a subtle one.

A variety of other professions in Canadian life expect tips as well, including pizza delivery men, taxi drivers, bellhops and hairdressers, among others. Confusion over exactly who should and should not be tipped (and how much) has led to the creation of a lot of helpful online guides. In general, Canadian tipping etiquette is the same as that of the United States, and American tipping manuals are often used for reference.

Gestures

In contrast to some other parts of the world, Canada is not a nation with a lot of obscene or offensive gestures. In general, most rude hand or body gestures are done knowingly, and can be easily avoided as a result.

Some of the most common “bad” gestures include:

  • Raising only the middle finger — an extremely obscene gesture of anger/frustration towards someone else.
  • Thumbs down — mild gesture signaling disapproval.
  • Elbows perched on the table while eating — generally considered rude in formal settings, though common in more casual situations.
  • Eating with an open mouth or talking with a full mouth; unapologetic public belching, nose-blowing or other releases of bodily functions — all considered extremely disgusting and are usually expected to be followed by an apologetic “Excuse me.”
  • Sneezing is weirdly ritualized. Sneezers say “excuse me” following a sneeze, while anyone in the immediate vicinity says “bless you,” as a sign of sympathy.
  • Pointing or staring at strangers — considered rude and a form of leering.
  • Conversely, not making eye contact with the person one is speaking to is considered a rude form of shyness or bored distraction.
  • Though attitudes can be more forgiving in hot summer months, most indoor businesses generally hold firm to the “no shirt, no shoes, no service” principle. Public nudity of any sort is illegal, and attempted only by the most avant-garde and attention-seeking.
  • There is something of an ongoing debate in Canadian society regarding “public displays of affection” or “PDAs,” such as cuddling or passionately kissing in public places. Some may find such displays easy to ignore, while others consider them quite gross and offensive. Unfairly or not, homosexual partners continue to be judged more harshly in this regard.

Conversation Taboos

A common cliche is that the three most common taboos in Canadian life are sex, politics, and religion, as each are considered extremely personal, private matters that many Canadians can find awkward or uncomfortable to discuss in public — especially with strangers.

Politics

Aside from those who make outspoken political opinions a large part of their personality, politics is generally considered a mostly private matter in Canada. Voting is done in secret and Canadians have a legal right to keep their party preferences hidden, even after they leave the voting both. As a result, “who did you vote for?” can be a very presumptuous and uncomfortable question, and even a close friend might react with offense if asked.

Swearing

Swearing is a strange sort of taboo. Almost everyone swears in private, or when talking to friends, but swearing in front of strangers remains controversial, and Canadian law does not permit uncensored swearing to be broadcast on TV or radio. In both cases, the primary justification is usually protecting children from hearing offensive language that they might imitate.

Politics in Canada is quite polarized between right and left, consisting of parties (and voters) who believe very different things about basic government principles and programs such as raising taxes, spending taxes, foreign policy, criminal justice, gun ownership, poverty, welfare, immigration, drug legalization, homosexuality, prostitution and individual rights. Publicly spouting strong opinions on topics like these is usually seen as an invitation for argument, which many find obnoxious and insensitive.

Sex

Sexually explicit conversation can actually be illegal in Canada in many contexts, making it the most sensitive social taboo of all. The federal government, as well as the governments of all the provinces, have laws on the books banning sexual harassment, which includes workplace conversation about sex that makes others feel uncomfortable or vulnerable. This includes stuff such as excessively sexual compliments or come-ons, as well as discussions of one’s own bedroom appetites and habits.

Most Canadians consider their sex lives a very private matter, and may regard hearing about other people’s as unsettling, if not disgusting. In most cases, even mentioning things such as sex organs or sexual acts is considered highly tasteless in any public setting.

Religion

Canadians have widely different religious beliefs, and like political beliefs, these often reflect vastly different opinions on fundamental questions about life and society. Many of the most common Canadian faiths were actually founded in explicit opposition to one another, and thus promote theories of God and salvation that are mostly incompatible, and may portray non-believers as heretics of some form or another.

People don’t like to be judged, so one’s religious views are rarely discussed openly in public, though Canadians are usually fine with openly self-identifying as a member of a particular faith. Beyond that, attempting to explain or promote one’s religious beliefs (or, for that matter, atheism) in any sort of uninvited setting is almost always regarded as preachy, irritating and cloyingly self-righteous.

Other Canadian taboos

Waiting in line

Unlike some parts of the world, Canada has a "waiting in line" culture that encourages customers to be patient and orderly when shops or services are busy. "Budging" in line is an enormous social taboo.

Many Canadians have complicated views about the United States, and mentioning America or Americans can often provoke intense argument or discussion that many might find uncomfortable. Regardless of political context, the issue of abortion is considered almost uniformly taboo to discuss openly, as are any questions or theories about innate differences between the two genders or members of different races. Attitudes considered sexist or racist are generally among the most scorned in modern-day Canada, even if not everyone agrees what “racism” or “sexism” actually entails.

Discussions about French-Canadians and their sense of persecution in Canada, or desires to leave the country, have a strong potential for generating polarized, uncomfortable debate as well — particularly if there are French-Canadians present. The same is true of the status of aboriginal Canadians, whose chronic social problems are one of the most frustrating and embarrassing realities of Canadian society.

Canadians’ sense of what is “private” can vary a lot depending on the person, with some having no embarrassment about openly discussing things such as their relationship with their parents, failed marriages, career woes, income or physical appearance. Others, however, may be more guarded, shy, or sensitive. Being a good conversationalist in Canada is generally a matter of being able to sense a person’s level of comfort on different personal topics, and proceeding accordingly.

Canadian Stereotypes

The common international stereotype that Canadians are excessively, or even absurdly polite is well-known in Canada, and even if not entirely warranted, still affects the way Canadians deal with one another. A sort of positive feedback loop, in other words.

Polite Canada

Our friends on the Internet, of course, have a lot of fun with the polite Canadian stereotype.

In practice, a lot of Canadians, particularly those from more upper middle-class backgrounds, take very seriously the idea that they should apologize a lot, or only ask for things in a very roundabout, indirect sort of way. There’s also a fairly common perception that a stereotypically “good” Canadian does not engage in excessive bragging or self-praise, but rather carries herself with a strong sense of humility and even light self-deprecation. At one time, there was also a certain cliche about Canadians being quick to “defer to authority” — or blindly agree with anyone who outranks them — though in recent decades this has become more a theory of understanding Canadian politics and history, and less a practical, day-to-day value of Canadian living (as discussed in the “roles and formalities” section above).

Of course, in the end stereotypes are just that — unfair generalizations. Each Canadian is ultimately an individual, and as such will likely have his own unique perspective on how to be a decent and well-mannered human being. And sadly, there will always be a large amount who can’t be bothered at all.

Links About Canadian Manners:

Quick Facts:

  • Canadians are generally taught to be friendly, polite, and respectful to both friends and strangers alike.
  • Canada basically follows standard western cultural traditions in regards to things like greetings, rudeness, and gift-giving.
  • The most taboo subjects in Canadian life tend to be politics, religion, and sex.
  • Many Canadians take seriously and enjoy the stereotype that Canadians are supposed to be a very polite people.