Saturday, July 2, 2011

C for Canada

It has been almost a year since I finished my internship in Canada. I had a magnificent time learning new stuff, exploring new places and interacting with the Canadians. Now that I am feeling pretty nostalgic about my splendid summer in Vancouver, I feel like writing about something from that wondrous interlude which has been in my mind from long. Since I like making ‘in a nutshell’ things out of everything, I am putting forth something which will be the ‘take-home’ thing I learned from the Canadian culture.

Canada begins with a C. So does Courtesy.  And it is the Canadian Courtesy that I feel had the most significant impact on my personality when I interacted with people there. 
“Canadians are more friendly when they are being rude than most people are when they are being friendly.” – I-don’t-know-who
I found that Canadians go out of their way to be polite to strangers. It is not just being courteous to people you know or even foreigners in particular, but to totally arbitrary strangers, irrespective of their milieu. What I call public courtesy. Or what many in India would call plain foolishness.
Some examples of the Canadian public courtesy:
  • People thanking the bus driver when they depart from the bus. When a long queue of people gets down from the bus, one can hear just as long a series of Thank-You’s. Apparently people thank the driver for bringing them safely to their destination.
  • Random people smile at me in lifts and ask “How’s it going, mate?” In fact, at almost every occurrence of two people crossing each other in an isolated place, be it an elevator or a stairway or a hike in the woods, unknown people are bound to exchange smiles/greetings, or at least a polite “Excuse me”
  • People holding the entrance door of a building open for someone who is 20 feet away, and the other guy increasing his pace so that the door-holder is not inconvenienced by his politeness.  And obviously, he/she copiously thanks the door-holder when he reaches.
  • Shopkeepers apologizing profusely when merchandise in their store is out of stock. And more than that, they cheerfully guide you to another competitor store where you would get what you want.
  • People apologizing after asking you to do them the slightest favour, like in a crowded train: “I’m so sorry for disturbing you, but could you please move your bag on the other side so that I can cross the aisle.”
  • In a hotel or a shop, the waiter/salesman first enquiring “Hi, how are you” and then waiting for you to reply after which (s)he proceeds and asks you what you want. In fact, one can easily carry on a small conversation with them without actually coming to what one wants to buy.

To me, all this was a huge surprise. I had seen nothing of the sort in Mumbai, or for that matter, anywhere else I had been to in my life.  I noticed a harsh disparity as compared to the “for me and myself only” attitude of the public I had witnessed before. (Many times I have seen people fighting like kids for just a window seat in a train/bus). 
Contrast this with India: Most people I have seen in public don’t talk/smile much unless required. People are not too bothered with public politeness. It is not as though people are inherently discourteous or impolite.  However, our affection is limited to family/friends/acquaintances and it is not given to chance strangers. A person might be the most convivial person that his acquaintances have known and yet be totally boorish in public. Ironically, our public affection comes forth bursting like a volcano, in times of crisis (like people giving home-made food to arbitrary stranded commuters travelling afoot when the entire city was marooned on 26 July 2005).

While talking about courtesy, it is important to distinguish it from civil sense, which too, sadly, most public in India lack. Civil sense is found in most western countries and it is not specific to Canada.  Not following civil sense amounts to breaking the law in most cases, like jumping traffic signals. Whether one likes it or not, one has to do it, fearing the law. Au contraire, the absence public courtesy doesn’t break any law and it’s a matter of personal choice.

Maybe the impoliteness in India is a by-product of our more-than-busy lives (Obviously one can’t expect the guy at the crowded local train ticket counter to ask commuters “How’s it going, mate?”). Maybe it is a by-product of our living in a society having so many anti-social elements that cause one to breed distrust in strangers. Or maybe it is a by-product of the false ego that surrounds the elite and the genteel which causes people to think it below their status to help not-so-elite-looking strangers.

Whatever be the cause of the lack of public courtesy, I found that it makes one’s life more desolate. This is what I learned from the Canadian culture which has made my life a little bit easier. (Or as we geeks say, I had a delta increase in my happiness). Many of my friends took it to be just a quirk of the culture there, calling it ‘the Canadian way’ of living life. However, as I mentioned before, this public courtesy had a large impact on me. 

People were doing things to make others feel better, with some sort of a causeless, altruistic love, which I couldn’t completely fathom. It made me realize that the very fact that people around you smile at you and keep doing casual favours boosts one’s morale. And the smile is highly contagious. In Canada, I found myself observing how doing small acts of kindness/courtesy created a pleasant mentality. Travelling through any public place showed me how the adage “A smile is a curve that sets a lot of things straight” was so beautifully true. There is indeed some amount of joy to be found in the smaller things in life. And this is the thing I feel we all ought to pick up from the Canadian culture, to which I will be very grateful for making me into a slightly more public-courteous person than I was before.

Disclaimer: Whatever I have written above is from my personal experiences and judgement. I am not implying that all Canadians (or to be more specific, people in Vancouver) are polite in all situations and all Indians are rude everywhere. There are bound to be exceptions.  I am just pointing out the observed effect of a generalised trend on my daily life.


  1. I'm surprised by how alike our thoughts are (though yours are much more organized and fluid)...We should have hung out more in the last four years!!

  2. great post :) .. i'll never forget the "Canadian Courtesy"

  3. dude..a great one! Lessons learnt :) Remember we used to talk about it :) I also have learnt a little bit..sometimes rickshaw-wala gives such a look when I say thanks to him..!! I hope we too develop a sense of public courtesy in course of future!

  4. I think one reason for the same is the wide power gap in India. By that I mean, how superior a normal commuter is perceived to be as compared to a bus driver.

    Yes, lessons learnt - nowadays when an attendant holds the door open for me when I walk in/out of a restaurant, I make it a point to thank him. It makes them feel good about their job. Remember 'Jaadu ki jhappi'? :)

  5. "Maybe the impoliteness in India is a by-product of our more-than-busy lives". I don't think we, Indians, are as busy as we pretend to be. A clerk will push in to save 2 min until the next train, but will spend hours j***ing off in his office. An executive driving on the road will honk you to deafness until you leave him space, but will make sure he has enough gossip time with his female compatriot. A pedestrian will throuw garbage on the walkway when the dustbin is just a couple of metres off his path.

    Agreed that the standard of living is significantly lower, but really is the "difference of busy-ness" so much that we cannot be courteous !?

    PS: Nice article.

  6. Must read post from "The New York Times"

  7. Nice post dude. I agree 100% with u on all you points. Worst part is this, I come back to India and thank every auto-wala, shopkeeper and lift guy for their service in a natural sense and they stare back! They are like what the hell has got into him. One person was like, tu foreign se aaya hai kya ? Wahaan log artificially 'thank you', 'excuse me' bolte hain. lagta hai tujhe bhi woh bimaari lag gayi !

  8. Those people are awesome. The last time I held the door open for a bunch of people in the mech department, people just kept moving and I was left holding the door.

    PS: Nobody thanked me though :p

  9. cute canadian habits did bring a smile thru this blog !thank u

  10. hey..even in my Germany trip, I have learnt the same thing:-) They treat everyone with utmost courtesy!:-)infact when I came back to India I was irritated for few days because of the traffic!!