A lesson in politeness ?

verbatimCanada taught me a lot… about France. Two western countries, two opposite perceptions of their inhabitants. On one hand, a long list of negative clichés, with people known to be rude, arrogant, grouchy, and unwelcoming. On the other hand, people who are praised for their politeness and kindness. I imagine you’ve already guessed which is which.

Having lived in Vancouver for 6 months, I have started to understand the cultural gap that exists between France and Canada regarding the way people live and express themselves.

I do think that Canadians are friendly and unguarded: they are smiling, cordial, open to meeting others and willing to talk with anyone at any time (the famous “small talk”). As a newcomer, this openness is really valuable. At first, I thought these outgoing manners were indications of wanting friendship or a date, when they were actually just the basics of interaction. In France, however, people are more reserved about personal matters and are less likely to wear a “social mask.” For example, try asking “How are you today?” to the cashier at the supermarket –
which is a common question here – and he/she will look at you tiredly. In France, when we reach a certain level of sympathy or familiarity, it’s because we have other motives for continuing the relationship. In general, we wouldn’t get too involved in a discussion we think is superficial; “hello” and “thank you” and perhaps a smile are enough. I have also noticed that people are more civil and respectful in Canada. They clean after their dogs, queue patiently to take the bus and are often ready to apologize or thank others. Even the buses apologize for being full! And not once have I received rude comments in the streets like in France. Life here is based less on distrust. Public space seems “pacified,” less chaotic. My attitude has changed; I’m less suspicious. I feel that in Canada, there is more freedom to be whomever you are without fearing others’ remarks or criticism.

But what has destabilized me the most is the language. Apart from the fact that I need to know what to say in English to be understood, is that I also need to know how to express myself. I had to abandon the literary aspect of French language and shorten my sentences and get to the point. Coming from the South of France, I also speak with a lot of gestures and tend to exaggerate. This is so far from the way people speak here. I have to rephrase after using irony or sarcasm in order not to sound mean.

The way people interact while eating is also different. In France, we like to debate, question, criticize, express opinions on every subject, talk frankly, philosophize, mock, caricature, etc. In short, we speak in a lively and direct way – this is our secret for spending hours seated at a table! Anyone who has seen a French movie can probably recall a scene where people eat, drink and speak loudly, often all at the same time. This passionate, often not politically correct, way of speaking is something I have been missing since I arrived in Canada.

However, at times I have been surprised to find that under Canadian politeness lies a passive-aggressive attitude. Even serious issues are addressed in nice, sociable ways. The desire not to offend anyone is also found in the way people here treat conflicts.

Overall, I think public space in Canada is more livable on a daily basis and I feel more connected with the people surrounding me. However, on a personal level, I miss French craziness – and the everlasting meals too.