Understanding That Canadian Politeness


We say “thank you” a lot in Canada.   (Yes, and “sorry” too.)  I was once asked in a soft skills seminar, “Why do you thank people for everything here, even when they are just doing their job?”

Saying thank you is polite, but in a non-hierarchical place like Canada, I think it is also an important expression of equality, even if we don’t consciously think of it that way.

In a country made up of people from many places, with newcomers arriving constantly, hierarchy is shifting and blurred. People can change their economic and social status dramatically. They don’t feel defined by their current job.

In the work world it may be expected and assumed that a subordinate will fulfill your request. But a non-hierarchical mindset recognizes that in the real world you are equal human beings.  You don’t take for granted that an equal will do what you ask.  They don’t have to. So you appreciate it if they agree to do it.

A non-hierarchical mindset recognizes that your subordinate may have capabilities well beyond the job they happen to be doing right now.  Heck, it recognizes that the counter staff at Tim Horton’s likely have capabilities well beyond the job they happen to be doing right now, so you talk to them as equals. You are people on the same level outside the donut shop.

The indirect request that Mihami talked about in her great post on Canadian Experience is also an expression of equality.  It shows respect for the person doing the job to ask them for something, rather than give orders.  It says that, just because you have the superior job in this situation, you know that doesn’t make you the superior person.

The indirect request also leaves a bit of room for discussion.  For example, if you ask a subordinate to do a task, but they’ve also just been asked by the head of the company to complete an urgent request, the subordinate should feel free to give you that information and then work out with you when they can do your task.  In fact, a relaxed hierarchy means employees at all levels are expected to speak up (at the right time and place) when they have information or ideas, rather than just follow instructions and leave decisions to the boss.

Even though I was born here, my own default communication style can be too direct for some situations, and I have to stop and think about not just what to say but how to say it.  In one of my early jobs in an office, I had access to an administrative assistant for the first time.  I knew enough to use an indirect style when making requests, and to say thank you.  But after a couple of weeks, the assistant asked to speak to me.  She was a little upset with me because in my complete focus on “doing a good job”, I rarely stopped to talk to her, beyond making my efficient, polite requests. It wasn’t my intention, but it came off as disrespectful and cold, like I was above chatting with her.

Ah, small talk.

Small talk is very important to creating good work relationships.  It says that we care about contributing to a friendly, positive work environment.  It says that we see our co-workers as people, not just employees, and that we value and like them.

A non-hierarchical mindset applies in a job search too.  You have the chance to demonstrate it in your interactions with the company’s receptionist, the hiring manager’s assistant, and the person who brings you a glass of water.

Not to say that in other cultures people are not respected at work.  It’s that here, we really like to express it, probably as a way to promote harmony – another priority in the Canadian workplace that’s worth its own post!

What do you think?  Does Canadian politeness have its roots in equality, or is that digging too deep?!

Kim Koster