Before I write anything else, I must first say this: it’s impossible and ridiculous to generalize about an entire nation in terms of its ‘culture’, especially one as large and diverse as Canada. Canadians can’t even really agree on what it means to be ‘Canadian’, so analyzing Canadian culture certainly has its challenges.
However, I always like a good challenge and will therefore attempt to describe some of the things that Canadians may not appreciate or find offensive in a first meeting. I will use examples from my own experience interacting with non-Canadians around the world, and I’m perfectly open to the idea that what I am about to say does not represent Canadians in general at all!
Some things to avoid when meeting a Canadian for the first time:
1. The handshake: Do not hang on to a Canadian’s hand too long (two up and down strokes is fine – then drop the hand) and do not use a ‘dead fish’ handshake. Even women prefer a solid, firm handshake and will feel uncomfortable shaking a wimpy, limp hand. Having said that, do not crush the Canadian’s hand either.
2. The questions: Do not ask personal questions about the Canadian’s marital status, whether they have children or not, what religion they are, how old they are, or details about one’s family. If you mess this up and ask anyway, do not ask follow-up questions such as “Oh, why aren’t you married?”, “Oh, why don’t you have children?”, etc. Canadians are often too polite to show that they have been offended by your first question and will probably answer it reluctantly instead of causing conflict, but it does not mean that they feel comfortable with your probing.
Let the Canadian take the lead in determining how much personal information they feel comfortable sharing with you. We share according to our level of trust, and we also don’t place as much emphasis on whether a person is married, has children, etc. It is actually illegal for employers to ask such questions when hiring new employees, so Canadians do not put any such information on their CVs. Seriously, steer clear of being too personal too quickly.
Another thing to point out is that marriage and children are not as important to many Canadians as they are to people from some other countries. Many Canadians live with romantic partners without being married (same-sex or otherwise) and many others choose to remain childfree. Many people are not religious at all, and still others identify as being spiritual as opposed to religious.
2. The assumptions: Do not assume that just because a Canadian looks like you, he must think the same way as you do about religion, politics, etc. Canadians are a diverse and progressive bunch, and it’s impossible to know whether someone shares your religious or political viewpoint. For example, the colour of a person’s skin, the spelling of her name, or the neighborhood where he or she lives does not mean he or she is of a particular religious/political orientation. Such assumptions can lead to serious social and business faux pas (mistakes) that can tarnish your reputation for a long time to come.
For example, if you assume someone is a Christian based on her name and skin colour and then proceed to make a derogatory remark about another religion or ethnic group because you assume this ‘Christian’ must feel the same way as you do, you are in danger of being totally wrong and entirely offensive. This has happened to me a number of times in South Africa – people assume I am Christian and start making pointed comments about ‘Jews’. I am not religious at all, but I am ethnically half Jewish and I take offence at being spoken to in this way.
3. The flirting: Do not behave too affectionately with a Canadian’s romantic partner, no matter how well you may know the partner. Canadians are not really big on physical displays of affection, especially when it’s another person touching our romantic partner! A quick hug is fine, but otherwise keep your hands to yourself. Holding hands, rubbing legs or shoulders or repeated touching of any kind is sure to put the Canadian on alert and prevent a positive relationship from developing. Cut the flirting out and be respectful of the relationship until you get to know the couple better and are clear what their boundaries are. Also, excessively using words like ‘darling’ and ‘love’ and making non-stop kissy signs like xxxxxx when addressing the Canadian’s romantic partner in writing, whether on Facebook or in any other form of written communication, will be seen as a violation of boundaries especially if you do not know the Canadian partner very well or at all.
Now that I think about it, using gushy, lovey language with a new Canadian acquaintance or business contact of the same sex is also uncomfortable. We tend not to use the word ‘love’ unless we really mean it, and kissy signs (expressed as xoxoxo in Canada) are reserved for people we know well and care about. If you start referring to a new Canadian female acquaintance or business contact as ‘darling’ and signing all your correspondence with xxxx, don’t be surprised if you feel some distance. It’s just not how we roll.
4. The goodbye: Don’t expect the Canadian to always mean it when he says he’d like to get together again soon. Canadians are so worried about being rude that we have developed a language whereby we pretend to be interested in someone so that we can exit the interaction without tension, even if we don’t plan on developing the relationship any further. I do not defend this behavior at all and understand how confusing it can be to someone who does not know this, but it does happen.
That’s all I can think of on the topic of first meetings for now. I’m curious to hear other people’s feelings on this, both Canadian and non.