Life in Canada: a guide to understanding local customs

Group of multicultural friends walking through Victoria, Canada and laughing

A guide to understanding local customs and life in Canada.

Knowing how to fit-in in a new culture is one of the hardest hurdles to overcome.

Every country has its own set of unspoken rules and customs. It can take newcomers years to figure out the right formula of behaviours that will be accepted by locals. If you want to find out more about life and local etiquette culture in Canada, read on!

Don’t worry… in general, Canadians don’t offend easily. We’re pretty easy-going and known for being polite, respectful and unpretentious.

We also value empathy, open-mindedness, sensitivity and humility in our interactions with others and try to respect people’s individuality and need for privacy.

There are exceptions to every rule, but in general these are the values Canadians aspire to.

Here are our top tips on Canadian etiquette to keep in mind while you’re living in Canada.

Be polite and respectful

Demonstrating good manners will always win you the praise and respect of Canadians. While it’s certainly a stereotype (and exaggeration) that all Canadians are polite and accommodating, there is some truth to the generalization.

Here are some basics to keep in mind:

  • Hold doors open for strangers.
  • Smile and be polite to people who serve you (wait staff, bartenders, cashiers, bus drivers, etc).
  • Always say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’.
  • Say ‘sorry’ if you accidentally bump into someone.
  • If someone sneezes, say ‘bless you’.
  • Avoid pointing at people you’re talking with. This is considered quite aggressive.
  • Always give people an arm’s-length of personal space. Canadians like a lot of personal space.
  • Use ear buds when listening to music or watching videos on public transit.
  • Always offer up your seat to an older person or pregnant woman on the bus.
  • If you need to get a restaurant server’s attention, try saying ‘excuse me’ or make eye contact as they pass the table. Never wave or snap fingers to get attention… this is considered rude.

Canadians also generally try to behave with humility. Bragging about accomplishments or flaunting wealth and power are considered very distasteful. Your new pair of Nikes or Rolex watch really won’t impress Canadians.

Always tip your servers

Tipping wait staff, baristas and bartenders is an absolute must in Canada!

It’s customary and expected to tip your wait staff between 15 and 20% on the total of the bill, every single time. Hairdressers, taxi drivers, bell boys and other service staff usually receive 10 to 15%. Part of this is because a large portion of your servers pay comes from your tips!

If you’re wondering why you’re not getting great service at a bar, it’s probably because you didn’t tip the first time around. Servers will remember! Always tip your servers!

Be on time

Canadians are very punctual. We value our time and expect others to do so also.

What does that mean?

Don’t be late for appointments. Don’t be late for class. Never be late for work. If you’re meeting a friend for coffee, try to be there as close to the agreed time as possible. Canadians find it very disrespectful when people are late.

Conversely, it’s considered somewhat rude to show up early at a friend’s house or if you’re invited somewhere for dinner. It’s okay to arrive 15 minutes into a party, or get together at someone’s house. ‘Fashionably late’ is okay!

Treat everyone as your equal

Regardless of age, gender, sexual orientation, social status, colour, nationality or language – we believe all humans should be treated equally. It’s a fundamental belief that has shaped the very foundation of our identity as a nation and a right that most Canadians will openly fight for on behalf of others.

That’s not to say that racism and sexism don’t exist here, but they certainly aren’t given much tolerance to cultivate. If you plan to fit in here, leave your intolerances at the door!

As a fairly egalitarian society that encourages individualism, lines of social hierarchy can sometimes be blurry. In other words, Canadians will not change their behaviour much to please others. This even includes bosses and people in places of authority.

If you’re not sure how to behave, just be polite as possible and you’ll be fine!

Shake hands and make eye contact

Just like Americans, Canadians always introduce themselves and shake hands when they first meet someone. This is true in both professional and social situations. A firm handshake when departing is also customary.

If you find yourself in Quebec, you may be greeted by a kiss on the cheek when meeting a friend of a friend. This is a very common way to greet friends and family in Quebec, but generally it isn’t done in the rest of Canada.

Making eye contact is also very important when talking to a friend or colleague. Canadians are sometimes offended if the person they’re speaking with doesn’t make eye contact. They might think you’re distracted or not listening.

Anything else to know?

Here are few quick (and somewhat cheeky) Canadian traditions to remember:

  • Avoid comparing Calgary to Vancouver. We know, we know…Vancouver is awesome. But we’re pretty proud of our city too!
  • Canadians are extra polite. When getting off the bus, make sure you thank the bus driver!
  • Small talk is common in Canada. Expect total strangers to start up a conversation with you at the store or in an elevator. Don’t stress too much. It’s usually just about the weather.
  • Line up for everything. Canadian love to line up, but whatever you do, don’t cut in line! If you do, a normally polite Canadian will turn into the Hulk.
  • Always wait for commuters to get off the train or bus before you get on. This is a major ‘pet-peeve’ for most Canadian.
  • If you’re walking on a pathway, stay to the right. Bikers take themselves very seriously in Canada and if you’re in their way you’ll most likely be chastised loudly by the passing biker.

If all this information on etiquette and life in Canada has you more confused than ever, just remember one simple rule: BE POLITE. You can never go wrong with kindness and respect, no matter the country or culture.

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