They say that Canadians are polite. It’s part of our national image. Mostly, though, it’s Americans who say it, and it makes me wonder – does it follow that Americans are ruder?

Some people seem to think so, but I don’t notice much of a difference when we cross the border.

There isn’t much of an accent difference between the province of British Columbia and the state of Washington and the geography is pretty much the same. Then someone says something casually… and I see where Canadians and Americans differ.

“Pull the car closer to the curb.”

It was spoken by our Park-and-Ride attendant. We were getting ready for our trip to Vegas and flying out of Bellingham, Washington, which is about an hour drive from our home. The attendant was a young, friendly guy who looked like Jake Gyllenhaal’s less attractive cousin. He was personable and, yes, polite through all of our interactions.

But his directions felt rude.

Overall I do not find Americans ruder than Canadians, nor do I find Canadians noticeably polite. I see plenty of rude Canadians, and have encountered a lot of charming courtesy from Americans.

But Americans aren’t shy about giving directions to others, and I notice it.

In Canada, it is unusual to be given a direct order from someone, even a boss or family member.

The directions are meant as orders, but delivered in questions, usually preceded by “can you” or “would you” etc. Americans don’t seem to feel the compulsive need to turn everything into a question. This sometimes makes Canadians feel rebuffed. Is that really rudeness, though?

Americans are more likely to say “take that baby out of the stroller, please,” or “show me your ticket before you step on the bus” instead of “can you please take your baby out of the stroller?” or “May I see your ticket?”

But it’s not rude. They are simply delivering basic instructions, often in a cheerful tone of voice.

When I was pregnant in New York, I frequently found myself in tourist locations that offered absolutely nowhere to sit. The Met had surprisingly few benches, and there was not a seat to be seen on the top of the Empire State Building. Since my feet began to hurt me intensely after just a few minutes of standing, I often resorted to sitting on the floor to relieve my agony. Then a guard or an officer would order the foot-sore pregnant woman off of the ground without so much as a “sorry” or “please”.

A Canadian would be more likely to ask if I could get up off the floor, or simply say “sorry, people aren’t allowed to sit on the floor,” thus indirectly implying that I should get up. So whenever I was abruptly ordered to stand up, I felt hurt and rebuffed (not to mention annoyed – if they don’t want people sitting on the floor, maybe they should provide some benches).

Again, it’s not that the American guards were ever rude or hurtful. They just didn’t beat about the bush.

New York has a reputation for rudeness, but I didn’t find the people rude when we were there. They were bossy, definitely, but they were still being friendly. We were even ordered to “get back on the train!” by a subway conductor who noticed that we had stepped off at the wrong stop. Was he being bossy and direct? Definitely. But he was being nice.

Now here we are in Las Vegas, and again, despite the direct orders, which take some getting used to, I have not encountered more rudeness than back home.

I think a lot of cultures perceive informality as rudeness, as evidenced by travel and business advisors who warn foreigners not to mistake the American directness and informality for true rudeness.

I think it is this same directness which gives Americans a reputation for being rude abroad and I think it often results in rudeness being returned to them.

When my husband and I were in Paris, an American in line next to us at the Louvre complained that everyone in Paris was very rude to her. My husband and I had no such problem – we found everyone perfectly charming. However, the lady in line had that brash American directness about her, and spoke no French. When she got to the front of the line, her requests sounded like demands.

We, on the other hand, addressed everyone in French and were always apologetic. We didn’t demand – we requested. Perhaps the Parisian rudeness was merely in response to the American lady’s frank speech.

It all comes down to language, and how you interpret it. I know that my parents consider it rude when they thank a waitress and she says “no problem.” “Why should it be a problem? It’s her job!” they seethe. But the language is changing, and a younger person recognizes that.

“You’re welcome” is now used more as a formal response to a thank you that was really deserved. In a way, saying “you’re welcome” is beginning to imply that “yes, you SHOULD thank me, I just went really out of my way for you.” To me, therefore, “you’re welcome” is beginning to sound rude in a restaurant situation, while my parents are still fuming over a cheerful “no problem”.

Rudeness may all be in the ears of the listener.

Ultimately, I don’t think Canadians are more actually more polite. I don’t think they’re more likely to say please or thank you. They still talk on their cell phones in public atmospheres, cut people off on highways, and do all kinds of other rude things.

It’s just that we are a little less direct about how make requests or deliver instructions. Perhaps to Americans that feels excessively polite, just as their directness sounds rude to us.

Is informality mistaken for rudeness where you live? What do you consider true rudeness?

Ironically, the image of a Canada Goose used in this post was taken by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. It holds a Flickr Creative Commons attribution license.


Carol (Canada)

Carol from If By Yes has lived in four different Canadian provinces as well as the Caribbean. Now she lives in Vancouver, working a full time job at a vet clinic, training dogs on the side, and raising her son and daughter to be good citizens of the world. Carol is known for wearing inside-out underwear, microwaving yoghurt, killing house plants, over-thinking the mundane, and pointing out grammatical errors in "Twilight". When not trying to wrestle her son down for a nap, Carol loves to read and write. Carol can also be found on her blog, If By Yes, and on Twitter @IfByYesTweets

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