At a recent get together with an old group of friends, the talk turned to a trip we took to Canada more than fifteen years ago. One of the women recalled that we had caricatures drawn. I remembered the drawings instantly. It was always a bit of a mystery to me why the artist chose to draw me playing basketball. My more athletically inclined friend mentioned hers featured shopping bags and fishnet stockings. Since neither of these accurately portrayed our chosen hobbies or fashion sense, I'm thinking there was some kind of miscommunication. The judgment of street artists' aside, the extensive economic relationship between Canada and the US make us the world’s largest trading partners. We have shared the planet's longest border in relative peace and prosperity for more than two centuries. We also share a British cultural heritage and strong ties between our respective Francophone communities. With all that common interest there is a lot of communication crossing the 49th parallel. More often than not, the stakes are a bit higher than a fifteen Canadian dollar caricature; so here are a few things to keep in mind when it comes to communicating with your Canadian colleagues and customers.
Canada is bilingual: A few years ago my friend and I took a road trip to Montreal. Being an Arizona native turned Washingtonian it was her first trip to Quebec. I spent the weeks before advising her to practice her French, but she thought I was joking. About twenty or so miles over the border she expressed her amazement at just how "French" it was. Most Americans are at least vaguely aware that Quebec is the heart of the Francophone in North America but not everyone realizes that parts of Canada are bilingual. French is spoken in pockets throughout the country. Don't assume everyone will speak English.
The information does not flow both ways: I recently spent a day annoying everyone I encountered in downtown Boston by asking them to name the Canadian provinces and territories. Most people just laughed and admitted there was no way they could complete the task. A few tried but not one could accurately identify the ten provinces and three territories. Granted most Americans probably can't name the fifty states either, but this little exercise illustrates a point. Eighty percent of Canadians live within one hundred miles of the US border. They follow our news, our sports, and watch our local TV. They know a lot about how we live our lives down here. So before you get on a conference call or make a trip, return the respect. Read a Canadian newspaper or at least look at the map.
Canada is not the 51st State: I recently asked a friend in Ottawa what Americans do to annoy him and he brought up the sensitivity to local holidays. He says there is a general feeling among his American colleagues that Canadians celebrate all the same holidays on all the same days when in fact they don't. Canadians already celebrated Thanksgiving earlier this month but next year, remember no one appreciates a call from the office when they are trying to enjoy a day off.
No one likes a stereotype: I asked a number of Canadians what they thought were the stumbling blocks to good cross-border communications and almost all of them mentioned something about the "eh" and "aboot" jokes. Apparently, they also want us to know they don't wear plaid, are actually a larger country than the US, and are not socialists. So next time you want to bottle up the Canadian way of life with a few jokes about hockey, snow, and maple syrup think twice. Now I must confess that at least one of my Canadian friends will tell you I don't always practice what I preach. I've spent much of the fall joking with him about the great maple syrup heist. In case you missed it, apparently Canada keeps a strategic reserve of the breakfast staple and quite a bit of it went missing this summer. Mounties searching for missing maple syrup was just too tempting a joke to pass up. Joking with a friend poses less risk than a potential business colleague. Cross-cultural humor is easy to misinterpret.
Despite what people might think on both sides of the 49th parallel, Americans and Canadians do share a lot of similarities. Since both countries are vast immigrant melting pots, home to thousands of different geographies and lifestyles, sometimes our communication challenges have nothing to do with our citizenship. It's unlikely a banker in either New York or Toronto could tell the difference between a rancher from Alberta or Montana and vice versa. It's worth remembering that sometimes it's our lifestyle and not our passport that determines communication style. Getting back to the caricatures, I've concluded the basketball and fishnet stocking mix up came about because I'm six feet tall in my bare feet. Call it drawing the wrong conclusion.
Kellyanne Dignan designs and leads the media, public speaking and presentation training programs for Rasky Baerlein Strategic Communications clients. Prior to joining Rasky Baerlein, Dignan worked in broadcast and digital communications producing content for major media outlets. She can be reached at email@example.com or on twitter @kellyannedignan
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