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Canadian Work Culture – Practical Tips for Doing Business in Canada
20 January, 2020
GUIDE TO CANADIAN BUSINESS CULTURE 3.JPG 1 min

Ice Hockey, Maple Syrup, Justin Trudeau: you’re already familiar with Canadian pop culture but that isn’t enough if you want to make a big impact in the business environment – you need to be able to close sales, impress clients over dinner, and maximize the productivity of your Canadian project team. 

At the core of achieving these goals is effective English communication and understanding the cultural differences that influence the Canadian approach to business. 

These practical tips and insights for working with Canadians will help you mind the culture gap.

Tip 1: Read the communication style: French Canadian vs English Canadian

There are different styles of communication depending on where you are in Canada, with most Canadians identifying strongly with their region:

  • English-speaking Canada – people are reserved and respect each other’s personal space, much like the British. They shake hands when being introduced for the first time, and are generally less emotionally expressive than their American neighbors. In meetings, disagreements and interruptions are delivered very diplomatically.
  • French-speaking Canada (Québec) – the reverse is true. People tend to greet one another with kisses on the cheek, and use lots of hand gestures in conversation – much like their European friends. Also, talking over one another in meetings is more common place.

Sometimes it’s difficult to tell whether someone is French Canadian or just Canadian, as there are a range of accents and levels of English proficiency in Québec – so it’s usually safest to observe and replicate.

Tip 2. Know that equality and diversity govern business everywhere

Whether you’re in Québec or Toronto, inclusion and equality are guiding principles for the business environment everywhere.

Canada is considered a much more liberal country than America, and Canadians pride themselves on the country's record of tolerance and fairness. Such attitudes are reflected in the workplace and have started to influence business structure as well – traditional hierarchical structures are shifting towards flat management systems, in which more voices and opinions can carry weight.

Keep this in mind when negotiating and seeking approval, because it’s not just the leadership that you need to impress. Directors will have the final say, but often they will consult with their subordinates first.

Tip 3: Mind Your Ps and Qs (be polite at all times)

Canadians are notoriously polite, to the point that their southern neighbours joke about how much they love saying "please", "thank you" and "sorry". Studies show that Canadians use these words in conversation and in emails many times more than Americans or Australians do. 

So if you want to be well received in Canada, follow their lead. Consider the following scenario as an example: If you’re delegating to your Canadian team via email or in person, remember to emphasise your gratitude and take time to consider the tone. 

In practical terms that means paying particular attention to how modal verbs and questions marks change the nuance of your instruction: ‘Would you mind dealing with this issue?” or ‘Could you possibly arrange the meeting at 10 am?” is more polite than ‘Please deal with this issue” and ‘Arrange the meeting at 10am”, which are very direct. 

These small adjustments can dramatically impact how your personality and management style is perceived. 

Tip 4: Avoid these conversation taboos  

  • Political affiliation – For a country known for its liberal and calm political climate, you might be surprised to learn that, in general, politics is considered a very private matter. It’s common for party preferences to remain secret even between friends – so it’s definitely not an advisable conversation topic for a business lunch. Subsequently, the question “who did you vote for?” can be be seen as very presumptuous and uncomfortable.
  • “Canadians and Americans are the same” – One of the most important things that Canadians want people to realise is that, well, they aren't American! There is a tendency to merge the two countries together as one "North American" whole, but Canada is very much its own country, with its own proud traditions of language, culture and customs. 

5. Tip generously 

What American and Canadians do have in common is big tips. Failing to tip (or under-tipping) is considered extremely rude and will be immediately noticed. Whether you agree with this on political level or not, in a business relationship where perception of your character is key, avoid a cultural blunder and always tip at least 15% of the total bill at restaurants and bars. Other services you’re expected tip for include hotel porters and taxi drivers. 

Want to impress clients with your business English and cultural acumen?

The Language Grid methodology is built around the principle that language is intrinsically linked to culture. That’s why you work with different trainers over your course. This exposes you to a range of backgrounds, from Canadian and American, to Australian and English – ultimately helping you develop an understanding of the cultural nuances that prevail in cross-border business. 

Zoe Flaherty, Founding Director of The Language Grid

Learn more about how The Language Grid gives you the English you need for successful cross-border business.

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