How to talk to Canadians

Canadians in their quaint traditional bird=scrubbing costumes.

It’s only a matter of weeks before thousands of tourists from around the world flock to Canada for the highly anticipated Victoria Day celebrations. And while much of the travel advice will be focused on the top places to observe the hatching of the scones and how best to avoid injury during the Running of the Victorians (general tip: well-lubricated bloomers), it’s important to remember that you’ll get the most out of your visit to Canada by interacting with colorful local Canadians — or as they so charmingly put it: “colourful.”

Here then is your guide on having conversations with Canadians.

Approaching a Canadian
History makes us who we are, and it’s important when talking to Canadians to remember their history of colonialism: they don’t have one. Canadians have never been colonized. (Yes, the First Nations people, but it’s very unlikely you’ll meet one of them during your visit because Canadians have made sure to keep them and their history very, very, very, very well hidden.)

Consequently, Canadians have no real concept of strangers. This makes them overly trusting. Without indication otherwise, they will likely assume you are a distant relation who wants to borrow money. It’s tempting to take advantage of this misconception until you discover that Canadians are the most indebted people in the world, so good luck squeezing a buck out of your average Joe Louis.

Instead, you should initially address Canadians at a distance so that they can’t make out for certain whether you have Uncle Archibald’s perpetually flared nostrils. Next, extend your passport and say, “I am visiting your country. It is very nice,” to which they will likely offer the traditional Canadian reply, “Don’t worry, dear, no one takes a good passport photo.”

Maintain eye contact
Canadians believe that the eyes are the window to the beer fridge, so it is important to maintain eye contact as much as possible throughout your conversation. Do not look a Canadian in the chin, as this implies you think they are from Hamilton, which is a great insult.

At this point, your new Canadian friend will likely address you with the traditional greeting, “Blessings and high-speed internet to you,” to which you should respond, “Your kindness is as great as a pot-luck broccoli salad. May you be overflowing with real bacon bits.”

Topics to avoid
You wouldn’t think it, but Canadians are quick to take offence. You will be able to tell you’ve offended a Canadian when you hear from a mutual friend three months later that your new Canadian acquaintance “wasn’t impressed.” This can also manifest itself in the Canadian purposely avoiding the aisle you’re in at the grocery store.

While it’s impossible to ensure you will never offend a Canadian (by federal law, Canadians must take offence a minimum 3.4 times per year), you can reduce the risk by avoiding these topics:

– The non-Canadian Great Lakes
– Lloyd Robertson’s alleged colorblindness
– Spandex
– Flathead screwdrivers
– Scone control
– Poorly bound paperbacks
– Interlocution
– 3 downs vs 4
– Politics and sex (at the same time)

Canadian vocabulary and dialect
For the most part, English-speaking Canadians employ standard North American usage, but there are differences in both vocabulary and delivery. For example, Canadians have no word for “train” and instead refer to it as a “wheel snake.” The word “beverage” means both “something to drink” and “that corner of the property you can’t see from the house.”

You also need to be aware of how Canadians incorporate body language into their speaking. For example, many older Canadians continue to employ the tradition of finger quotes when not in fact suggesting irony or figures of speech. This can lead to confusion for the unprepared when told, “I have to go home and [finger quotes] let out the dog.”

And while Canadians do all tend to have similar speech patterns due to the Great Homogenization of 1883, there are regional dialects. For instance, people from New Brunswick pronounce the word “butter” as “bathurst.”

Useful Canadian phrases
– “Don’t worry, I’m not from Red Deer.”
– “That is a surprising beaver.”
– “Excuse me, is this mukluk taken?”
– “Pleased to meet you, Bryan Adams.”
– “Waiter, may I have another moustache?”
– “I insist you repair my Diefenbaker!”
– “Où sont les caribous?”

Speaking of French, what about Quebec?
Victoria Day does not exist in Quebec.


About rossmurray1

I'm Canadian so I pronounce it "Aboot." No, I don't! I don't know any Canadian who says "aboot." Damnable lies! But I do know this Canadian is all about humour (with a U) and satire. Come by. I don't bite, or as we Canadians say, "beet."
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25 Responses to How to talk to Canadians

  1. I made a good impression many years ago while crossing the border. I felt emboldened by my 4 years of high school French to greet the Canadian border guard with a cheerful “Bonjour”. What followed was a complete embarrassment to my family. I couldn’t understand his rapid fire French and finally had to ask him to speak English. Little-known fact: you CAN irritate Canadians.

    • rossmurray1 says:

      Unless you absolutely butchered that “Bonjour,” he would assume you’re French. Even me, when I cross the border, make sure I say a hard-accented “Hello” (as opposed to “Allo”) so they know that what follows better be in English. The French/English thing in Canada is a dance on a tightrope.

  2. pinklightsabre says:

    Wheel snake is good. And the windows to the soul, or beer fridge.

  3. Happy Victoria Day! Great article!

  4. Great article, Ross.

    Out here, in the great unwashed northwest, “Victoria Day” is unknown. It’s May Long, a celebration of drunken inebriation and camping, whether it snows or not. You know you had a good time when you can’t remember a thing.

  5. Carrie Rubin says:

    Eye contact? For longer than a few seconds? Uh oh, we introverts might be in trouble.

  6. I don’t think we have this holiday in the U.S., is this for Victoria Beckham, the one that used to be Posh Spice? I recognize the guys in the picture as their backup singers.
    It’s a great post & please expand this into a comprehensive guide for tourists, I visit all the time and rarely have any idea what people are on about. I may have offended people by accidentally mentioning interlocution, since I don’t know it is, I assume it’s related to the politics/sex and spandex topics you touched upon. Love “Uncle Archibald’s perpetually flared nostrils” 🙂 🙂

  7. I met some Canadians in Kitchener and they didn’t seem dangerous at all. Perfectly charming. Then I saw Rush in Guelph. Same result.

    The Financial Post article was revelatory. Canada! Who’d a thunk? And Korea! Two seemingly sensible countries.

    I don’t see Burton Cummings on that topics-to-be avoided list. Burton! Who names their kid Burton!?

    I ran that last phrase through Google translate. Very useful info. Should it hide behind French?

  8. ksbeth says:

    good to understand the subtleties before my next trip across the line and i will plan to leave my spandex at the border

  9. In a strange bit of coincidence, I’m currently writing alt-text for a book on Canadian history. (who knew?)

    My project manager gave me instructions to change my Word doc to default to “Canadian English”. So far, I’ve noticed that my “colors” are now “colours” and “centers” are “centres”. I can handle that. But “gray” is now “grey”?! Has the world gone mad?? You crazy Canadians! (you won’t mind if I finally move up there after Trump’s reelection, right?)

  10. Pingback: What, me Murray? or how Mad made me | Drinking Tips for Teens

  11. cat9984 says:

    I am so glad you wrote this. All these years I’ve been visiting Canada (I grew up just outside Detroit), I had no idea I was being insulting. We’re probably OK in Stratford though, a lot of them speak in Shakespearese

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