How Do Canadian Social Norms Reflect Their Cultural Values?

Say, you and your friend, Canadian Jim, go for a coffee.

You arrive at the Tim Horton’s door at the same time.

“Oh, sorry,” he says, as he jumps ahead to open the door for you.

“Sorry?” you think. “What is he apologizing for?”

Canadians are known to be polite and to apologize for the slightest infringement. This is their social norm.

In fact, a McCaster University geo-linguistic study regarding the differences between American and Canadian language on social media found that Canadians are much more upbeat and polite in their language even online.

For nine months in 2015, PhD Candidates Daniel Schmidtke and Bryor Snefjella compiled upwards of three million tweets. Aside from “hockey and “eh”, “disproportionately ‘Canadian words’ included ‘great’, ‘amazing’, ‘beautiful’ and ‘favourite’,” while most of the American favorites were unprintable and/or negative, like “‘hate’, ‘hell’, ‘tired’, ‘hurt’ and ‘annoying’.”

This begs the question…

Why Are Canadians Polite?

What is at the root of their behavior?

The values of kindness and courtesy are.

The director of Canadian Studies at the University of Toronto, Nelson Wiseman, theorized why these values are so embedded in Canadian culture:

“John A. Macdonald called Canadians a subordinate people. That’s in part because we’ve had a strong tradition of centralized regimes, with the French, and then as a British nation.”

European settlers, particularly the conservative British Tories, imparted these values unto their ancestors.

“Although Canada is no longer a British nation,” Wiseman said, “these tendencies replicate and perpetuate themselves like a gene.”

The non-confrontational tradition carries on. Apologizing before things get out of hand – even for nothing approaching insulting, like failing to open the door for someone – is the visible part of their culture (a baobab branch), while common courtesy and conservatism are the invisible parts (the roots of the baobab).

The fact that Canada doesn’t have the same imperial history as America may also factor into why Canadians are considered friendlier when compared to those south of the border.

Understanding the Cultural Baobab

When you enter into a culture that is not your own, familiarizing yourself with their cultural baobab will always help you come to terms with differences. The norms that you see are often deeply rooted in values that lie below the surface.

And it’s only when you examine the components of this tree of life that you start to understand the rationale of a culture.

You may not agree with it.

You may not like it.

But in understanding it, you may accept the culture’s values as they are.

Cultural Values: What Divides Us? What Defines Us?

Values are at the core of cross cultural research.

In the 2011 abstract, The Value of Values in Cross-Cultural Research, authors Ariel Knafo, PhD, Sonia Roccas, PhD, and Lilach Sagiv, PhD, note that, “The centrality of values in cross-cultural research has more than doubled over the last three decades.”

This, according to their review, is because values are what define us, individually, and shape us, culturally.

“At the individual level,” the authors write, “values express broad, trans-situational motivational goals, affecting individuals’ interpretation of situations, preferences, choices, and actions. At the national level, values reflect the solutions groups develop in response to existential challenges and relate to the way social institutions function.”

And this is what distinguishes each individual’s values and each nation’s values from any other.

What Divides Us?

In cross cultural research, cultures are often divided according to particular sets of values.

Need an example?

Picture1

This world map, compiled by Ronald Inglehard and Christian Welzel in their article, “Changing Mass Priorities: The Link between Modernization and Democracy,” differentiates the values of secular-rational vs. traditional values and survival vs. self-expression values.

What are these value sets?

  • secular-rational values – prioritize autonomy, secularism, rationality, and cosmopolitanism
  • traditional values – prioritize religion, obedience, national pride, and respect for authority
  • survival values – prioritize survival, due to its insecurity
  • self-expression values – prioritize free choice

This illustrates, as we’ve discussed in past posts, that not only do nations and individuals have sets of values, but other tightly-knit groups or subcultures – e.g. Catholics, Protestants, Confucians, Muslims, English-speakers, etc. – share core values, as well.

While many nations fit within these groupings, they slide on a spectrum of core values, depending upon how strict or lenient they are regarding secular-rational vs. traditional values and survival vs. self-expression values.

For instance, Spain and Croatia are pretty much smack dab in the middle of both crossroads. And as you might notice when visiting these two countries, survival and self-expression values coexist fairly harmoniously, as do traditional and secular-rational values.

However, if you visit any of the Nordic countries (particularly, Sweden), you will find their cultural values are on the far end of self-expression, as well as secular-rationalism. Someone from a nation with traditional or survivalist values – like Zimbabwe, Morocco, or Pakistan, for instance – might have a hard time integrating into cultures on the extreme end of self-expression and secularism.

What Defines You?

So, how much do our nation’s values influence our own? To what extent do the values of the subcultures we belong to impact us? And what values are we choosing individually?

We’ve discussed how important parental values are in defining the values of children during the stages of primary socialization. These are often some of the most deeply-rooted within a human being. Parents are the moral compasses of a family – and, essentially, of a society.

Cultural values might reinforce this compass or distort it, depending upon whether a child’s parents go with the tide or against it. But, essentially, an individual’s value compass is magnetized at home, after which the magnetic pull of their culture and subculture may offset it from due north. In this way, each of us is a unique cross-breed of family and society.

And this is what defines us.

Next week, we’ll talk about one of the standards by which these values are magnetized: cultural norms.