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Interacting with Americans and Canadians
Tips for international students and visitors


Tips for a warm reception

Most Americans and an even larger percentage of Canadians do not expect everyone to be alike. However, what is correct behaviour in some countries may not be acceptable behaviour in Canada and the United States.

Some of the following material may offend, but you should know it to enjoy fully studying or travelling in North America.


Being welcomed wherever you go — handling requests

The key to a welcome reception in Canada and the U.S. with rare exception is a friendly demeanor and the treatment of others as equals.

Every hotel and restaurant and retail store worker in Canada and the United States knows the words from the U.S. Bill of Rights, "All men are created equal." And, they know "men" applies to both men and women.

Approaching these service workers or anyone else throughout North America as if they are inferior to you will bring you trouble. Guaranteed without exception.

Instead of snapping, "Give me the key to room 208," smile and say, "Hello, I am Pierre Dejarnac. May I have the key to room 208, please?"

Be friendly. Say, "Hello" when a server approaches for the first time. In an informal cafe, especially in the U.S., say, "Hi. How are you?" or something similar. Do not begin by giving an order.

By the way, the answer to "How are you?" in all situations is "I am well. Thank you. How are you?" or "Fine. Thank you," or the more popular colloquial but grammatically incorrect, "Good. How are you doing?" or similar statements.

The questioner does not want to know your real state of health unless he or she is a doctor or nurse in a medical office. "My Bucolic Plague is getting worse, and I will not live more than a day longer," is not the welcomed answer in social or business situations. "How are you" and "How do you do" are polite greetings, not questions.

You should always relate to those who serve you by making it clear that you know they are doing you a favour by helping.

Even in the most formal service situations, you should be polite and pose requests as questions. "Would you please bring me some more orange juice?" "May I have the bill [check, tab], please?" Our words imply that they have a choice.

When you must complain, please see the tips in Handling complaints.


Avoiding body odour

Most Americans and many Canadians, especially younger and middle age Americans and Canadians who have not lived in an age without effective deodorants, are repelled—very repelled—by body odour, especially outside of exercise situations.

Using an underarm deodorant as needed is essential for most men and women in North America for social acceptance, especially after being outdoors in the summer or during and after periods of major physical activity.

Dr. Voyageur avoids deodorants that block sweating, a natural function to eliminate body poisons. Foot powders or baby powders, such as Johnson's, can help keep the feet dry and smelling fresh in shoes, if these are a problem when not wearing sandals.

Having at least one bath or shower each day and wearing clean clothes and socks are essential habits. Brushing and flossing the teeth to remove food and tartar that can produce odour and decay are national routines, as are keeping the fingernails and toenails cut and clean.

If you have bad breath, scrape the top and sides of the tongue with a plastic spoon in the morning, and avoid malodorous foods such as onions and garlic. Be sure to keep the mouth moist, as bacteria thrive when the mouth is drier. (Using alcohol-based mouth washes can dry out the mouth.) If bad breath persists, see a doctor, as this may indicate a health problem.

As readers can tell, travellers using coaches and trains are in a difficult position to stay clean and fresh, as is anyone outdoors for extensive periods on a hot day.

However, even in difficult conditions, make an effort to stay clean. While driving on long trips, for example, Dr. Voyageur will break journey to enjoy lakes and swimming pools during the late morning and afternoon. And, he carries an underarm deodorant with him on buses and trains (which he uses in private).

Not every American or Canadian bows to cleanliness. A small movement disdains it, but you will be well-advised to adopt local habits while visiting Canada and especially the United States.

However, not appreciated is pointing out the unclean habits that Americans and Canadians have, such as the overwhelming majority of people who do not wash their hands before eating (and then pick up items such as chips and sandwiches with their dirty fingers).


Using cologne and perfume

Dousing the body with cologne and perfume does not replace good hygiene.

American and Canadian men, for example, may wear small amounts of cologne, but this is usually in social settings, such as dance clubs. Wear too much and people may think that you have something to hide.

Most men do not wear cologne during the day, and most younger women wear little or no perfume during the day. The numerous advertisements you see for men's cologne in American and Canadian magazines are there because of its high profit margin and popularity as a gift, not because of its massive consumption.

Some teenagers and young adult males use Axe or other shower gels that leave a strong freshening smell throughout the day. That's okay. Just don't strengthen this even more by using cologne during the day.


Coughing correctly

Americans and Canadians, as do many people, dislike being coughed on.

You are expected to turn your head and cover your mouth with a handkerchief or cough holding your mouth to your shoulder. Many people still cough with a hand over their mouths in order to be polite, but this habit is being discouraged as it speads disease to the hand.

Moreover, you should not use serviettes (called napkins in the U.S.) in restaurants to blow your nose, and then leave these on the table for the staff to pick up. To do so is disgusting, although will often notice this.


Avoiding behaviour considered inappropriate in public

Putting a finger in your nose in public is considered disgusting, and picking at the teeth with the fingers or with a "toothpick" in public is also not accepted in most situations.

Touching the eyes or inside of the mouth or nose with the fingers has been found to encourage colds.

Any sort of personal grooming, such as applying lipstick and makeup, fixing the hair, cutting nails, or flossing teeth, is best done in private or in a public washroom.

Doing these activities in public places (other than washrooms) may not disgust others, but a public location is not considered appropriate by most people.

Breast feeding in public has become more accepted, but it should remain discreet.

Burping and farting are repressed in North America, even though attempts to control these may be somewhat unhealthy.

When you fart or burp, neither you nor the people in the area acknowledge what has happened. No one apologizes or comments, unless children (some of rather advanced age) are joking among themselves.

Excessive burping, farting, and stomach upsets are often the result of bad food, improper eating habits, or a combination of these. A long-term digestive problem may be due to illness.

Because digestion may become disturbed when you travel and lessen the enjoyment of your trip, see the "Being Healthy" lesson for possible solutions.


Wearing standard clothing

The Health and Safety lessons deal in depth with clothing, but obviously your clothes should be clean and fit your environment.

Even the most informal fast food places may demand that men wear at least t-shirts (and of course shorts or trousers) and have some sort of foot covering such as sandals. Some places may request that male t-shirts cover the armpits.

Some new to Canada or the U.S. see the great informality, but fail to see that there are differing standards of leisure clothing.

What you wear in the garden differs from what you wear to go grocery shopping, which in turn differs from the higher standards of "business casual" clothing found in many informal companies, especially on Fridays.

Styles, by the way, do not mix well. For example, when wearing jeans, men should not wear the type of formal shoes that they normally wear with suits.

In most cases, just being observant will lead you to the right choices.


Swimming with the fish

As most readers know, the United States is an assimilation machine.

Dine at a Chinese-style restaurant in a neighbourhood of recent immigrations, for example, and you'll see the parents eating with chopsticks and their children nearly invariably eating with knives and forks.

Deep in their hearts, Americans feel that behavioral conformity leads to national unity in this land of immigration.

In school and on the playground, children are pushed to conform.

Sometimes you'll notice cruelty, as when an Appalachian child from eastern Tennessee is made fun of for her English usage in her new northern neighbourhood.

If you dress and act like most U.S. residents, you will not attract undue attention.

This need not be a concern in Canada, which functions—sometimes dysfunctionally—more in keeping with its motto "Unity in Diversity." Americans, also, are getting more used to different cultures, as immigration has increased during the last three decades.

Needless to say, some groups resent the move to conformity in the United States.

Americans of Mexican descent, for example, may speak against moves to make English the official language and other attempts to quash their culture. After all, their ancestors did not say "bienvenito" (welcome) when the U.S. government moved in to control their lands.

On the other hand, even in the southwestern U.S., the assimilation machine rolls on.

Speak to a stranger of Hispanic descent in Spanish and you may be rebuffed. "Hey, dude, do you think I am not an American?"


Greeting and talking to others

People of both countries feel uncomfortable when persons stand too close to them.

If your spittle strews on them during conversations, you are standing too near in Canada and the United States.

Watch how close other people stand, and keep to this distance during conversations. Do not overcompensate by standing too far away, which also makes people feel uneasy.

When shaking hands, a man in the United States looks the other man directly in the eye, and grips the other man's hand very firmly. The grasp lasts until the end of the initial verbal greeting, as they say, "How to you do? It's great to meet you" or, "It's great to see you again, John" or some similar greeting. As was explained above, "How do you do?" is a greeting, not a question.

In Canada, the handshakes between males are less firm, and the grip usually does not last quite as long.

In the United States, males should not grip so long or so powerfully that the other person is made uncomfortable. Once you both have finished your initial greetings in the U.S., pull your hand away.

When meeting a woman, an American man will usually not extend his hand until the woman does. Not all women greet men by shaking hands.

In the U.S., females greet each other as the males above do—with a less firm handshake—or they may embrace, particularly if they know each other well.

Men do not embrace, unless they are very good friends, family members, or members of various ethnic groups.


Dealing with pushy or nosey people

Generally, Americans are a friendly people, so expect lots of questions.

"Why did you decide to attend USC?" "Being from India, are you a vegetarian?"

However, all too often, these questions become too personal.

"How much [money] do you make as a doctor in Brazil?" We're not kidding. You'll hear this type of question all the time.

However, you never have to answer these types of question in social situations. Just say, "Oh, I wouldn't feel comfortable telling that." If the person persists, just continue the same type of quiet reply until they give up.

Suppose someone offers you something to smoke at a party that you don't want to use?

Just say, "Oh, no thanks." You don't have to tell them you don't believe in it. You don't have to tell them you have asthma. You don't have to explain your decision.

However, what if they insist? What if they push you to accept? "Why not? It's really good stuff. Try it."

Just continue in the same quiet way, "Oh, no thanks. I don't care for any," or some variation until they give up.


Using older people's names

Younger travellers should be careful about calling older folks by their first names, unless the older person makes it clear that he or she expects this, as is the practice, for example, in very formal service situations.

First name use varies by location.

In California, for example, people are much more likely to use the first names of older people they have just met. On the other hand, in Ontario this would be very unusual and might be resented.

When in doubt about a person much older than you or about a person such as a police officer who outranks you, use the last name, as in "Hello, Mr. Baker" or "Good morning, Ms. Garcia". They may say, "Oh, call me Maria." It's their choice.

In universities, first name usage has become very common especially in the United States. Do not be shocked if you notice students addressing much older professors and university administrators by their first names. When in doubt, stick with the more formal usage until the older person says "Please call me Helen" or whatever.

Also see "Using 'ma'am'" next.


Using "ma'am"

One can divide the U.S. by the use of "ma'am" [a variation of madame].

Southerners use this term when speaking to women, including to those who serve them, as do many people in the Southwest. "Ma'am, may I have another cup of coffee, please?"

In the large northern cities, the term is nearly extinct.


Using curse words

Younger visitors and others should know that many older people and religious people of all ages and others may be very offended by the use of certain swear words, e.g., f--- (and its various variations, the most offensive words), s--- (and its variations, the next most offensive), etc.

If you wish to use these words, it is best to wait until you hear the other person say them. Also, wait until no one else in the area can overhear and be offended.

Swear words may refer to religion. Many people, for instance, are offended if religious names, such as Jesus, are used to show anger or impatience.

"Curse words" are commonly used by young people and others in every day conversation, but not by all.

"F---" and its various derivatives are so very offensive to some people that they are not spelled out here. There's no desire to offend without good reason.

That should be your attitude, too.

Persons whose mother tongue is not American or Canadian English or Canadian French should be particularly careful using swear words.

In fact, it's highly recommended that people who were not born and raised in Canada or the U.S. should not use any American or Canadian English or Canadian French profanity, until they are completely fluent in both the local language and customs. It is much too easy to offend.

Friends may talk to each other using these words in good humour (Hey dude, you f---er, what's up?"), but used incorrectly these types of terms can have grave insults.


Sitting down

In Canada or the United States people do not care which way the soles of the feet are pointing, in contrast to some other cultures.

Canadian males tend to cross their lower legs when sitting in a chair. Americans may consider this somewhat effeminate, unless lying or sitting on a floor or sitting in a chair in a very casual position with the body stretched out straight.

When they cross their legs, many American men will rest one ankle on the knee cap of their other leg. This is fine.

Others will place the thigh of one leg on top of the thigh of the other leg, but not everyone likes this. Always acceptable is having both feet planted on the floor.

Women from other countries do not need instruction in how to sit in North America.


Smoking

Smokers have become pariahs in much of North America, with their habit banned in many public places, including many restaurants and retail stores, some parks, all domestic flights, and most coaches and trains—and in some private places such as many hotel rooms. Even smoking in pubs (bars, taverns, cocktail lounges) is illegal in places like California, and violators may be fined.

Young people who are active in the club scene are more likely to smoke, but the majority of Americans and Canadians no longer smoke.

If you smoke, you should always ask permission of those around you before lighting up, except when walking along the street.


In summary, the key to a warm reception in Canada and the United States is a friendly attitude and the treatment of others as equals, as described above, and the avoidance of various behaviours that gross out people, including several eating habits, which are mentioned next.

Go to >> Dining with Americans and Canadians

For more discussion about interacting with Americans and Canadians

Go to >> Making friends

Go to >> Handling complaints

Go to >> Dealing with prejudice

Go to >> Avoiding sexism

Go to >> Settling into North American life

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