Points North: Polite to a Fault…

Points North

 By James Fife

As Marilyn and I stood by the cairn that we had been told marked the highest point in all Esquimalt (a lofty 71 metres in the clouds), we were unexpectedly addressed by a fellow view-admirer, whom we then engaged in an extended conversation. It was, we later remarked to one another, an encounter that would have had a very different feel and context in Home South, but was typical of our experiences and impression of Home North. We met again that natural tendency of Canadians toward unfeigned politeness.

It is the most commonly held stereotype applying to Canadians of a trait for accommodation and rule-following. Now, no one likes to be pegged and treated as the same as all other members of the group, so I can understand Canadians’ restlessness at having that Pollyanna label put on them by the rest of the world. But when one thinks about the various other (equally inaccurate) stereotypes applied to other groups (drunkenness, aggression, cupidity, haughtiness, etc.), having a reputation for being polite is not the worst fate to befall a whole people. After all, in Home South, we are currently dealing with an administration that seems hell-bent on stereotyping the whole world, labelling entire nations with the sobriquet X-hole countries, elevating Us-Versus-Them to an official religion. In light of some of the stereotypical American attitudes and behaviour being trumpeted around the globe right now, I cannot sympathize too much with Canadians' complaints that they are generally perceived as nice and fair-minded.

One of my favourite lines from Hamlet is “Nothing is either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Stereotypes are justifiably given a bad rap, because they are so often used to pigeonhole individuals on the basis of their membership in a group about which there are common beliefs. On the other hand, stereotyping has at its core a basic human skill  to abstract over differences and see the common denominator. It’s the skill that allowed our ancestors to look at thousands of different animal tracks running across the forest floor and deduce that this set of prints belongs to an elk and these come from a bear.

So stereotypes have some uses, though they are not entirely accurate once you come to individual tokens. Besides, anyone who is also open-minded and even a little bit reflective quickly realizes the limitations of standard stereotypes, and even of our own ability to construct them accurately. That is because we are always gauging others’ conduct by reference to what we already know and are familiar with. Certainly to Americans, Canadians seem much more civil, but that is partly because of where Americans are coming from—it’s relative.

For example, I lived and worked in Poland for a couple of years in the late eighties, and one of my impressions of Poles and Polish culture was the strange disconnect on the plane of politeness. If you are aware of the distinction in French between a polite  form of address (vous) and familiar (tu), Polish has that distinction on steroids. And Poles engage in all sorts of overt politeness conduct: the old-world, aristocratic act of kissing a woman’s hand on meeting her was alive and well in Poland in the 1980s (despite the levelling  Communist ethos), with none of the sarcasm and sexism we in the West would attach to that gesture.

But, despite all the formal signs of politeness, every time I went to a store, office, or market place, and had to deal one-on-one with people, they always astounded me with their uttering these polite phrases in the most aggressive and curt tone of voice that conveyed to me, as an American, the essence of rudeness. They were loud, pushy, and impatient, judging from their voice quality and body language. What I realized eventually was that for Poles, that sort of grouchy, New-Yorker type public persona was the norm, and so no one there perceived it as aggressive or offensive. I was used to the false friendliness of American retail personnel who smile and say, but in their own way are no more helpful or concerned or friendly than the lady selling beets in the Lublin market square.

So, I recognize that, when Marilyn and I perceive Canadians as being more polite and friendly than what we are used to in Home South, we are seeing it from our familiar, American starting point and that Canadians might not believe they are so polite to one another. Canadians are fully capable of being rude and obstreperous and petty—anyone who has attended a strata corporation annual meeting can attest to that. But we can only see ourselves through a mirror, reflected back by others’ perception of us. And though that reflection is influenced by what is ‘normal’ and expected for the viewer and is never applicable to everyone in the group, it can be a fairly reliable gauge at times.

The difference can be real and concrete, like the difference between treating all Haitians as degraded and corrupt, and choosing one to be Governor General. It's surely one of the many reasons we feel so comfortable in Home North that it is the second of these attitudes that characterizes the Canadian stereotype. It may not predict the views of everyone we meet in James Bay. But since, as Shakespeare said, thinking can make it so, we continue to label our Canadian neighbours as we wish them to be, and so often are.

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