The following is an excerpt from a workshop entitled Personal Communication in Canada for the East and West Learning Club held on October 29, 2019. Written
and presented by Eleanor James, to focus on personal communication – what we say to each other and how we say it – within a Canadian cultural context.
Examples of how Canadians see themselves, Canadian culture, and values.
People who live in Canada are lucky. It is a safe and prosperous place and we have healthcare. It’s like a warm glow.
Canada is a nation of peacekeepers and we’re proud of that.
Most Canadians would not think of owning a gun. Some people need them, like farmers or people in remote areas with danger form wild animals. Violence in
cities is still shocking – this is Canada, we don’t have that here!
We are proud of our multi-cultural society. There is a sense here that if help is needed then Canadians give it. As a people, Canadians are very open to
others as a way of living. I’m not saying that we’re perfect, we’re not.
Children are encouraged to leave the nest after education. Many generations under the same roof isn’t common with Western culture in cities, more in rural
areas, and certainly for people who’ve brought the custom with them.
Religious practice in Canada has decreased, starting in the 1970-80s. Those buildings suffer with too fewer people to sustain them. It’s a very big change
and a very long conversation.
We don’t pay too much attention to our history, maybe because there’s not that much. Mostly people running around in the woods, canoeing and trading fur
pelts. We aren’t many years from learning how to survive here. Of course, there’s much more complexity to it than that. Canada is a democratic country
with a government and many interesting characters who made it happen.
We have space, lots of wide open space. Maybe people don’t feel that way if they live in downtown Toronto, but it’s out there – and it has a strong pull
on how we see ourselves.
There are geographical influences on why we are the way we are.
This is a big country, the second largest in the world by land mass. From the Pacific to the Atlantic, from the 49th parallel (the border with the United
States which is fourth in size), and way up north to Cape Columbia on Ellesmere Island.
Meanwhile, the population of Canada is 35.6 million people and 291million people live in United States. That’s a huge difference.
Most people in Canada live within 130 km of the US border because the climate is better and the land can be farmed.
These things have a profound effect on life in Canada. A very wide but narrow band of population created a need for unity. That’s not always easy as the
recent federal election shows. (October 2019).
It was the reason CBC radio was created in 1936– so everyone, everywhere in Canada would have access to information.
Impact of our history with Britain meant that every time our government made a move it had to be approved by the British
parliament. As though we had parents. In 1982 our constitution was repatriated from Britain and it became our own. We are commonwealth members so the ties
still exist, but softer.
The United States fought hard for independence from Britain and they haven’t had parents since 1776.
At 151 years old we are a very young country compared to many others in the world. Our culture is young too, not built over millennia like many others.
Sharing a border with the US has a huge cultural impact on Canada and many work hard to maintain our own identity and culture. Canadians and Americans
see lots of things differently though we are both Western cultures founded on individual freedoms.
If mistaken for American, most Canadians will clearly state their Canadian-ness. Canadians don’t boast – we like to be admired but we don’t insist on it.
No muscle flexing or growls about being the best in the world.
It’s true we’re known for being “nice” and we say “sorry” a lot, but I ask what’s wrong with that. It shows awareness of others and a desire to get along.
There’s no good reason not to. Canadians value civility and being on time.
During an interview, the actor Ryan Gosling was told that he had a reputation for being great on set, easy to get along with and kind. “Why is that?”,
asked the interviewer. He said “I’m Canadian”.
And one of my favourite parts is that we’re funny. We love a good laugh and we get better at laughing at ourselves. There’s a long list of well-known Canadian
comedians out there getting laughs.
Canadians like friendliness, we’re chatty, we like resolution and it builds trust. No doubt an effect of that narrow band of population across the country,
we need each other.
Western people are not so skilled at managing anger though people are more aware these days of the atmosphere they create. Anger is often misplaced: someone’s
angry and they bite your head off when you’ve done nothing. Politeness and respect always work, almost always.
The culture of asking questions – It’s expected
In Canada, the understanding is that if you need information or want to know something, you’ll ask. That’s how we roll. Asking questions shows you are
thinking, or want to do a good job, be part of the team. Curiosity is rewarded.
If it’s information you’re after, that’s almost regarded as a compliment. Why yes, of course I can help you with that!
Personal questions at work are not so welcome. You have to clear the runway before you land the plane. Like, “May I ask you a personal question?” I’ve
met many from other countries who are new to this and they are uncomfortable asking questions. Perhaps it’s not common in their culture, the style of education,
or political environment, or fear of being judged. In Canada, it’s expected that you will ask your questions. People won’t know what you want to know if
you don’t ask. No need to be timid or shy.
A good way of choosing words — the way you ask questions affects the answer you get.
I say ask away but it does matter how you do it. What you want is an answer so ask your question to ensure you get it. This applies when you’re at work,
or at a store, buying a car.
Here is a very basic example of asking a question two different ways. Pick which one you think is best.
list of 1 items
- What’s the matter with you?
list of 1 items
- Is everything alright?
Number one is critical and usually leads to denial that anything is wrong. So you’re not making progress.
Number two acknowledges there is something wrong and because it’s not critical, you’re much more likely to get an answer and open the door to solving a
problem. That’s worth something.
It also helps to let people know what you’re asking about within your question:
Instead of saying, “May I ask you a question?”
“May I ask you a question about how to get office supplies?”
Can you tell where the lunchroom is?
I’m wondering if there’s a policy on working from home if I’m sick.
Is there someone I should notify if I want to bring my child to work on Take our kids to work day?
Sorry to bother you, but could you tell me where there’s a drugstore close by.
I need a bit of company history for my report. Would you mind helping me with that?
Whatever the situation, a little charm goes a long way, and if you don’t know, you could take someone aside and say “Would you help me with the protocol?
The formal way of asking this question is, ”May I ask if you would help me with the protocol?” Canadians love to help.
Brainstorming is a very popular term for group problem solving. People are asked to think about solutions and brainstorm them (throw out ideas) with the
group. The combined effort often works well. Participation is important and nobody’s perfect. In a good work culture your colleagues are all looking for
answers not chances to judge others. We’ve all asked stupid questions, it comes with the territory. Professional respect is crucial. Don’t use harsh language
or be critical.
These are some ways to express thoughts and ideas:
An idea I’ve been playing with is …
What about this …
How about this …
What would happen if we …
Could we …
Brainstorming is a skill and it takes some practice for just about everyone. Be bold.
© Eleanor M. James 2019 www.thejamesthinkstitute.ca
List of Resources
list of 9 items
National Communications Coaching Assoc. (NCCACanada.org)
The Globe & Mail business section.
Books: Fierce Conversations: Achieving success at work & in life, one conversation at a time. Author Susan Scott. Penguin.
Crucial Conversations: Tools for talking when the stakes are high. Authors Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, Switzer . McGraw Hill.
The Antidote: Happiness for people who can’t stand positive thinking. Author Oliver Burkeman. Penguin.
Truth & Lies: What people are really thinking. Authors Mark Bowden & Tracey Thomson. HarperCollins.
Communicate to Influence: How to inspire your audience to action. Authors Ben and Kelly Decker. McGraw Hill.