Last month I had the chance to visit my family in Canada, and as always, I felt both completely at home and like I was in a foreign country. Having lived in the US for a total of eight years, every time I go back to Canada it’s interesting to gauge how different things seem, or to put it more accurately, how much I’ve changed in the intervening years.
I do think my accent has shifted somewhat (plus I now employ California-lingo with ease), and I think I’m instinctively less patient with the slower pace of doing things in my old home city, although I find the change refreshing. It also seems the longer I am away from home, the more clearly I see what is unique about it. For example, this time I kept noticing a habit people have of trying to make strangers laugh in stressful situations, making silly comments to ease those awkward moments in public interactions. I’m sure it always happened when I was a child, but it was a revelation to me as an adult. I also noticed how drivers actually stopped in the middle of the block to let us pedestrians cross the street, and when we were in a car, how they let us merge ahead of them in traffic (one car even backed up into a parking lot to let us pass). I felt somehow restored by these actions, and more optimistic that human society is capable of gracious, civil conduct.
I guess I’m referring in a roundabout way to Canadians’ much-vaunted “politeness,” and as much as I feel I’ve changed, that is one quality I think I will never lose. I still say “sorry” when someone steps on my foot, I have trouble complaining when I’ve received poor service, and if someone is hostile to me, I’d much prefer making them laugh than returning their ire. While I think these are good practices generally, few things make me fume more than Americans making fun of Canadians for being “boring” or too polite. We do so have rough edges, gosh darn it.
But some small part of me has to admit there may be a grain of truth in this assessment, although I don’t think you can categorically make that claim about all Canadians. This admission leads me to an even more contentious question: Are there more introverts (as a percentage of the population) in Canada than in the US? Granted politeness and introversion are not the same thing, but I do think they have many similar behaviors, such as taking time when dealing with others, not raising one’s voice, and giving people their own space.
With thoughts of this blog on my mind, it seemed like my recent trip to Canada was also a research mission, a chance to prove or disprove my theory about Canada’s introvert population. Were the people around me introverts, or simply more reserved, more polite, than what I was used to?
Early on in the trip, I thought I had found an answer. Due to a delayed flight, we had to spend a considerable amount of time in one of the departure lounges of the Vancouver airport. When Joe and I first sat down, there were about ten people seated around us, and all were engrossed in reading or other silent activities. Joe even remarked to me, “It’s so quiet here. I like it.” I felt ready to pat myself on the back for being raised in a society that was so hospitable to introverts.
But then it started. Slowly, as I lay nearly dozing in the uncomfortable chair (our first flight had left very early in the morning), I noticed that the noise level had increased slightly. I looked around for the source, and saw that two men had sat down a short distance from us, and were now engaged in a spirited conversation. Spirited, that is, on the part of one of the men, who didn’t seem to take a breath as he rambled on for nearly fifteen minutes of nonstop chatter. Nothing could block it out: not my headphones, not my fingers in my ears, not even the baleful looks I kept directing his way. But then, just as suddenly, it stopped.
That’s when I noticed the squealing children and their loquacious mothers staking out the play area not far from us. And the long line of grumbling customers waiting to speak with the customer service rep about the delayed flight. And so on. My visions of a silent utopia were shattered, and I had to admit that we were indeed surrounded by Canadian extroverts. I realized, as I had probably known deep down all along, that while the general tone of public life in Canada may be more muted than in the US, it is only a matter of degree, not of substance.