Canada is bilingual, with two official languages, English and French. However, only the province Québec, parts of New Brunswick and several areas of Ontario, on the Québec border, are predominantly French-speaking.
Canadian English is enunciated very slowly and clearly. Many people think it sounds American. The cadence heard in a few regions, such as the south coast of Nova Scotia and in Newfoundland, is reminiscent of the British or Irish accent. Other than that, the regional differences in the English spoken on the east and the west coast are less marked.
Nevertheless, just like the New Zealanders, Australians and Americans, the Canadians have adopted a number of peculiarities in their English. For example, it seems like every second sentence in Canada ends in “eh?” Feel free to imitate this habit: the Canadians are tremendously proud of it. You can even buy t-shirts saying “Canadian, eh?”
Canadian French poses far more problems for the untrained ear. The separation from France in the 18th century means that pronunciation in Canada has developed very differently from that in France. As a result, it often sounds unfamiliar if you only remember the French you learned at school.
Should your business trip take you to the province of Québec, especially outside the big cities, you are advised to check beforehand what language your business partners expect you to speak? French plays an identity-defining role for the Québécois. If you are able to conduct your business in French, this will receive very special recognition among the Canadians. Otherwise, it is best to take an interpreter along. In general, however, Canadians are very open-minded and will go to great lengths to help if they notice that they are not being understood.
The communication style
The Canadian style of communication is clear, precise and direct. Although nobody objects to fair and constructive criticism, Canadians prefer a combination of reserve and harmony. Perhaps you are accustomed to having to fight for your position at business meetings in the US; at any rate, this is best avoided in Canada. The direct approach is appreciated when doing business in Canada. Nonetheless, despite their candour, Canadians invariably endeavour to maintain a certain decorum regarding courtesy and reserve.
You will notice differences in the communication style between the anglophone and francophone parts of Canada. French Canadians are wont to express themselves in a more eloquent, animated way, yet are a great deal more indirect than English Canadians.
Facial expressions and gestures
Non-verbal communication plays a relatively minor role in Canada. Canadians rarely use sweeping gestures. Furthermore, they tend to insist on their personal space when in public, keeping interlocutors at arm’s length at least, in order to feel at ease. In fact, physical contact is only encouraged when shaking hands in greeting. If you accidentally bump into somebody, you must always apologise, regardless of whether it was your fault.
However, it is crucial that you look your partner in the eyes when talking. Direct eye contact is equated with sincerity and frankness in Canada.
Moreover, it is considered extremely bad manners to blow your nose at the table or to beckon imperiously to the waiter at a restaurant.
Canadians engage in small talk to reinforce the relationship aspect. Generally speaking, this casual conversation only lasts a few minutes.
A simple “I am very well, thank you” should suffice as an answer to the opening question “How are you?”. It is merely a pleasantry and does not require a detailed reply. By the way, you should always react to a Canadian “Thank you”, by saying “You’re welcome”, for example.
Apart from the weather, which can be extreme in Canada, especially in winter, travelling, hobbies and sport are good topics for small talk. Ask for an update on Canada’s national sports. Ice hockey holds the number one spot, as Canada is reputed to be the home of modern ice hockey. Furthermore, curling is an important winter sport in western Canada. The most popular summer sports are American or Canadian football, along with baseball and basketball.
Exercise particular caution with English Canadians when approaching the topic of Québec. The francophone province’s calls for independence have repeatedly led to unrest in Canadian society in the past. If you have business in Québec, you may not be able to avoid this topic altogether. However, you should be exceptionally prudent and restrained when discussing your views.
Comparisons between Canada and the United States are also a minefield for the unwary. English Canadians, especially those in the south of Ontario or in the Atlantic provinces, identify more closely with the British than the Americans in cultural terms. Do not make the serious mistake of regarding Canada as a poor imitation of the US. Even if many things seem to be extremely American at first sight, Canada differs substantially from the United States. Canadian society is a great deal more liberal and social than its American neighbour. In terms of its moderate foreign policy and social health system, far more parallels may be drawn with Europe than the United States. And while the US is frequently referred to as a melting pot of cultures, the Canadian Constitution stipulates that every ethnic group shall be entitled to conserve its identity. This is termed a cultural mosaic.
As a result, political correctness figures prominently in Canada. For example, it is not appropriate to ask somebody where they are from unless the person volunteers this information. Furthermore, you will often hear the more neutral greeting of “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas“. Accordingly, you should remain impartial when engaging in small talk with Canadians.