Canadian Sorry

He hates you. 9 PM Mondays on CBC.

One of the little known, tragic parts of being Canadian is witnessing anglophones from other countries get increasingly angry at you for a kind of slippery, genteel arrogance. It sneaks into conversations in defiance of the popular notion that Canadians are nice people.

Why does this happen? Simple — Canadians are not really nice people.

I’ve talked about this before (tucked in the old livejournal somewhere) but it recently occurred to me that the best exhibit is the way we use “Sorry.”

Canadian Sorry is a tricky thing. Other anglophones use “Sorry,” to apologize for a wrongdoing or thoughtless act, or to sympathize with someone going through a hard time. Canadians do that too, though these uses are really the least common, and involve some testing of the waters before the other party accepts the gesture. If you say “Sorry” to a Canadian, he or she will probably retort with a terse not-your-fault or don’t-worry-about-it even when the word obviously isn’t an apology or you really should worry. That’s not what it’s all about. They’re testing you to see if you’re really engaging in the default use of Sorry: one of those hard to translate, contextual idioms like French-Canadian Catholicism-based swear words.

English Canada is dominated by gentle, liberal Protestantism instead, so we don’t get that inventive. We get “Sorry,” which I guess might be best translated as Leave me alone. Sort of.

See, one difference between us and other English-speakers is the way we address strangers and remote acquaintances. We don’t — I mean, Brits expect some kind of vaguely self-deprecating statement of status, and Americans sort of spar with you for dominance. Americans in particular talk about chatting with strangers on planes and buses as if this is something people ought to do, which to a Canadian is like saying you lick the face of the passenger beside you all the time –you can see some scenarios where this would be fun, but usually, it’s a whole lot of hassle that would just annoy the other person.

“Sorry,” and its cousin, “Excuse me,” are designed to acknowledge that another human being is present and that you do not wish them any harm, but whatever brought you into contact requires little further conversation. You may offer a courtesy — your place in the bank machine line, maybe — as a non-aggressive way to add a bit of extra distance. By word and trivial deed, you pay someone to go away.

This polite remoteness is a signature part of being Anglo-Canadian — so much so, that we have collectively applied it to Quebec, turning the complexities of rude British conquest into the aptly named Two Solitudes. It’s probably the root of our brand of socialism. If people get sick or suffer some kind of bias due to country of origin, religion or culture, we’re broadly compassionate not because we want to develop positive relationships, but because sick, pissed off people eventually require your attention. (Canadian racism, sexism and other biases often take this form too, freezing out marginalized groups from more effective participation in society. We practice punitive isolation, which sucks.)

Actual respect and warmth are somewhat rarer commodities. Up where I live, in rural Ontario, “chief,” and “boss,” are never used casually unless they refer to a specific position. If you say this to someone and they’re drunk enough, they might punch you, since these are usually ironic terms best translated as “fuckhead.” You deserve a form of respect based strictly on your relationship. Waiters will serve you competently, and not pretend to like you as a human being. You still tip them though — they need the money, and they provide the important-to-Canadians service of going away unless you stare into space, vaguely in their direction. (No hand signals or talking unless you can’t avoid it — you’ll look like you want to generally communicate instead of playing your part, and that’s rude.)

I’ve seen foreign friends and acquaintances go crazy over these codes. They eventually sense that Canadian Sorry and related customs aren’t designed to make them feel welcome, or honour them as human beings, but to get them to keep their distance and watch what they say. When they don’t get it, bad things happen. They strike up conversations, and after an angry glare (which a foreigner interprets as cautious interest) get into chats where Canadians say they hate your system of government and theirs — perhaps too frankly. After you break the Sorry barrier, Canadians are not really that diplomatic.

(My personal weakness is the Monarchy, which I regard as a useful, expensive semiotic strategy designed to keep Canadians from caring about politicians as exemplars of national values. Let me tell you that this goes over great with Americans, since that means I say the office of President is idiotic, and the British, who pay for most of what they see as a doddering symbol of classism.  But me, I think the Royals are awesome, because they make patriotism a kind of joke. I like to go on about it at length.)

We’re cold people. We need space. Most of us spend half the year shuffling through miserable weather from one headed box to the next, taking refuge in the circle of hollow gentility we build around us. And it works. We are mostly kind because cruelty is too personal. We are generous in administration and cheapskates at parties — BYOB, please. We live in a vast country, but most of it’s too hostile for any economic activity beyond the most brutal of industries. It mocks us with the promise of solitude, too far from the reality of hugging the border, tight against the winter. I think part of the Canadian soul hates that, and we’re sorry for it.

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10 responses to “Canadian Sorry”

  1. davebrookshaw says :

    Oh, God. I apologise for all the times I’ve called you Chief or Boss. To me, a Northern Englishman, it’s a gentle appreciation of your greater experience. Plus that whole self-deprecating thing where it lets me politely pretend to not be your equal.

    And I do it *all the time*.

  2. Roger GS says :

    Are there regionally different norms? I remember on a trip to London, Ontario I was amazed that the cleaning ladies in the hotel elevator were making small talk with me. Never seen that in the States.

  3. Philo Pharynx says :

    Wow, I never knew that I was Canadian!

  4. Levi Kornelsen says :


    Just: Yes.

  5. nickcr67 says :

    Having just spent a weekend travelling across Ontario, and spending time in 3 cities… I think that this article is definitely just one person’s point of view.

  6. Matt Thomas says :

    Very interesting; this reads to me as something really similar to what I’ve heard called the “Seattle Freeze”; people in this city are reputed (by newcomers from the rest of the US) to be superficially nice/polite, but very closed-off beyond that.

    My own reaction to that before I moved here was “Wow, sounds like I’d fit right in!” which was pretty much my response to this too.

  7. Helmsman says :

    I agree with the article from the perspective of an intellectual introverted Canadian. But I think you’re describing the guilt of the introverts. Introverted people are passive and dismiss people passively, and yes, sometimes we feel guilty about it sometimes. I know there are studies out there that show that geographic trends in personality do exist, and here up North people aren’t as obviously extroverted as people from South Carolina, and there are foibles about our uses of the english language that I think you’re validly describing. But I don’t think this makes Canadians sekret arseholes. It’s all the beers we drink that do that.

  8. Fred says :

    As a Canadian, I’d go a bit further and say that, in general, Canadians are selfish, impolite pricks. I find Americans more polite and friendly.

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