By Heather Summerhayes Cariou, Columnist
Canadian politeness is so notorious, it’s practically our international greeting, our very own version of “shalom.”
Nine times out of 10, when I’ve heard “I’m sorry” uttered in a foreign country, (and here where I live in the US), and I say, “You must be Canadian,” I’ve gotten, “How did you know?”
My American friend Granville Van Dusen loves to tell this story: A few years ago, he was employed for a time in Winnipeg, Manitoba. One day, anxious to get upstairs to his apartment after returning home from work, he rushed the elevator as the doors opened, and bumped into the man coming out. The man said, “I’m sorry.” To which Granville replied, “No, it was my fault, I’m the one who should say ‘I’m sorry.’” The man replied: “Oh. I’m sorry.”
This cracked Granville up. “Why,” he asked me, “are Canadians always saying they’re sorry – especially when they haven’t done anything to be sorry for?”
“We’re just very polite,” I told him.
There’s an old joke that if you see someone in the middle of the night on an empty street waiting for the light to change, that’s a Canadian.
Yet, it’s hard to get a handle on why Canadians go out of their way to be polite. It can’t have genetic roots. Have our British roots turned us into a nation of self-apologists?
Canadian actor and comedian Colin Mochrie turns the tables on that question brilliantly in a clip from the show 22 Minutes on YouTube, in which he apologizes to the American people on behalf of all Canadians.
Here are a few snippets from the YouTube segment:.
I’m sorry about our softwood lumber. Just because we have more trees than you doesn’t give us the right to sell you lumber that’s cheaper and better than your own. That would be like, well, say you had 10 times the television audience we do, and you flooded our market with great shows, cheaper than we could produce. I know you’d never do that.
I’m sorry we beat you in Olympic Hockey. In our defense, I guess our excuse would be that our team was much, much, much, much better than yours. As way of apology, please accept all of our Canadian NHL teams, which one by one are going out of business and moving to your fine country.
I’m sorry about our waffling on Iraq. I mean, when you’re going up against a crazed dictator, you want to have your friends by your side. I realize it took more than two years before you guys pitched in against Hitler, but that was different. Everyone knew he had weapons.
And finally, on behalf of all Canadians, I’m sorry that we’re constantly apologizing for things in a passive-aggressive way, which is really a thinly veiled criticism. I sincerely hope that you’re not upset over this, because we’ve seen what you do to countries you get upset with.
Bruce Grierson, in his wonderful essay,Polite to a fault: Canadians are world champs, credits Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman for inventing Canadian politeness.
Goffman stated: “Society is organized on the principle that any individual who possesses certain social characteristics has a moral right to expect that others will value and treat him in an appropriate way.” So perhaps Canadians are polite in the hope or belief that others will return the favor. Hence we become, on the surface at least, a civilized society.
I took an informal poll among friends from Newfoundland to Vancouver, inquiring as to why Canadians are so polite, and here’s what I learned:
Living in a social democracy, we put the collective before the individual. Americans, however, put individual rights before the collective. Canadians are more aware of the big picture, and respond accordingly-with politeness, which is a social convention reflecting civility.
Canadians are closer to the immigrant experience. Many of our parents and grandparents were immigrants, especially post-war, and came from countries and experiences where to flaunt authority meant death – so we have been taught to be always polite, and not make waves.
And we can blame the Brits. It’s the British influence – the aristocracy and those who once aspired to “polite society.” Because of our British association, we adhere to rules, and we cherish our rules, as opposed to Americans, who are rule-breakers.
On the other hand, during rush-hour traffic in Toronto, Canadians do a Dr. Jekyll-and-Mr. Hyde turnaround, and politeness takes a back seat to every-man-for-himself aggression. “They are notoriously the rudest drivers (we can tell by the license plates: Ontario and Quebec are both strongly represented),” said a colleague living in Florida, where many Canadians winter. “They cut people off, hog the road, take illegal turns across lanes.”
What can we make of this out-of-character behavior? Are urban Canadians adopting rude, aggressive New York City mannerisms? Perhaps all that civility at home means they have to let off steam elsewhere.
Heather Summerhayes Cariou, born in Ontario, is the author of SixtyFive Roses, a Sister’s Memoir . She is a founding member of the Galaxy Writers Workshop in New Jersey, where she lives with her husband actor Len Cariou, and sits on the Board of the International Women’s Writing Guild.
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