Manners and Etiquette in Canada

The stereotype of the “polite Canadian” may be cliché, 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 an important way 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 essence of “good manners” in mainstream Canadian society.

Roles and Formalities

Canada is usually considered a mostly egalitarian country in the tradition of other western democracies, meaning 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 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 way they do to 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

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 acting improperly.

Canadian Attitudes Towards Time

For the most part, Canadians are quite 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), when most people do not work, tend to be the most busy and active days for socializing, 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, particularly women. 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, as well as personal tradition. 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. Giving cash as a gift is generally only done within families.

Tipping in Canada

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 be immediately noticed.

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 in Canada.

Gestures to Avoid in Canada

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:

Middle finger raised

An extremely obscene gesture of anger/frustration towards someone else.

Thumbs down

Mild gesture of disapproval.

Elbows 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

Considered gross.

Yawning

Considered rude if the yawn isn't covered by a hand.

Pointing or staring at strangers

Considered rude and a form of leering.

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.

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, same-sex partners continue to be judged more harshly in this regard.

Conversation Taboos

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 booth. 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.

Politics in Canada is quite polarized between right and left, consisting of political parties (and voters) who believe very different things about basic government principles and programs such as raising taxes, spending taxes, foreign policy (especially Israel), criminal justice, gun ownership, poverty, welfare, immigration, drug legalization, euthanasia, homosexuality, transgenderism, and prostitution, among others. 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 some contexts, making it the most sensitive social taboo of all. Both the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Human Rights Codes of the provinces have policies forbidding sexual harassment, and courts have ruled that proof of sexual harassment can be valid grounds for a lawsuit against an employer or coworker. Sexual harassment includes conversation about sex that makes others feel uncomfortable or vulnerable, including 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 sinners or heretics of some form or another.

People don’t like to be judged, so 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

Many Canadians have complicated views about the United States, and mentioning America or Americans can often provoke intense argument or discussion that some 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 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 considered one of the great embarrassments 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 proceed accordingly.

Canadian Stereotypes and Politeness

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. At best, it can be a sort of positive feedback loop.

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 of Canadians who can’t be bothered at all.