Rantings

Canadian nuances – Part 1: The abrupt silence

You move to another country. This means many of your possessions and friends have been stripped away. You’re thrown into a whole new culture. Everyone may still speak English like you do although the longer you sit and soak up the language of a new country, the more obvious and bizarre their differences seem to be.

I’ve been in “canuck land” for a little more than a year now, and I’m starting to realize that the little things matter. I remember in the first few months I arrived I would listen to a conversation and many brand names or names of places would just zoom over my head. In a previous job of mine, one of my managers said something like “There’s nothing better than going with your family to White Spot and getting your money’s worth.” He carried on talking for a while but then I interrupted him and asked him “What is White Spot?” He had this look on his face like someone had never heard of KFC before…utter disbelief. I then found out that White Spot is a buffet style restaurant (also a franchise) that has apparently been around for years. That reminds me…do you know what else has been around for years? Assumption.

Certain things seem to annoy the crap out of me, some differences make me laugh, and then others just piss me off. I thought I’d start to write about them in the hope that I can shed light on certain things other South Africans struggle with (or maybe you’re a Canadian immigrant who can identify?)

If you talk with enough Canadians, sooner or later there’s going to be an “abrupt silence”. This is how it happens… You speak English, but with a different accent. You may be talking to a waitress at a restaurant, or some guy from Fido asking you about your cellphone account. There will be a part in the conversation where they don’t understand the what you’ve said (partly because of your accent). Instead of them asking what you mean, they will simply stop talking.

When it first happens it feels really rude. I’ve been brought up that if I don’t understand what is being said I “reach out” and say “Sorry could you explain what you mean by that?” or “I’m not quite sure I understand what you said.” Keeping quiet on the spot is just rude. This is what I thought initially but then I came to realize that even people who were fairly well mannered in other parts of the conversation also did the same thing. The exact same thing.

Here’s a simple illustration. My father and I where sitting down at a pub, having a meal fuelled by a few beers. We were trying out different ones. (The place is called Bier Craft, it would be a way too mundane to just guzzle the same stout all night). We were half way through the meal and had just ordered another two new beers.

The waitress returned with two more, and we had a brief little chit chat with her. I can’t recall the exact words I said, but I remember complimenting either the food or the beers we’d just drank. I passed a comment like “This is one of the best stouts I’ve had for miles.” She clearly didn’t understand my pronunciation of “stouts” or “miles” and couldn’t make sense of the sentence and just kept quiet on the spot. Just like that. After she left the two of us started discussing this. We were still puzzled by the fact someone keeps quiet immediately without asking us to explain what we really meant.

A few months later in, I was in a sales job and something unexpected happened. I was speaking to a customer over the phone and they were asking me for some information on one of our products. I understood the majority of what they were saying, and then they said something I didn’t understand at all. Guess what I did? Yup, it was my turn to give someone the abrupt silence treatment. I simply stopped talking. What followed was a pause in the conversation and then the same customer saying “Hello, hello…are you still there?” Fortunately I managed to save the conversation, but afterwards I felt a little embarrassed. I had unconsciously absorbed a part of the Canadian culture that infuriated me so much in the beginning.

Putting the feelings you experience aside, you start to ask yourself a more obvious question…why the hell do they do it? After I had dished out the same treatment to someone I did a little bit of introspection and realized why it happened. If you ask an immigrant why it happens, they won’t know but their closest guess will be “Well, they probably scared to say something because they are scared they offend you.” It is true that many Canadians are very politically correct, although I think the real reason goes deeper. The abrupt silence happens because the person you are talking to at the time, believes they are being considerate. Confused? Allow me to elaborate…

If you are ever in a public park, a local community centre, an ice rink and so on you have probably looked at signs that explain all the rules of the certain area. What you will often notice is that is there almost always a reference to “Please be considerate” or “No speeding. Please be aware of other skaters.” Now think of that time when you are about to enter a restaurant. There’s a stranger trying to enter at the same time as you. What happens is you both hover at the entrance doing (what I call) the dance of gentlemen.

“After you.”
“No no no please after you.”
“You were here first, you go on ahead.”

To understand the abrupt silence enigma, you have to apply this situation to a more verbal one. How I see it is…you’ve just said something a Canadian doesn’t quite understand. They pause and say nothing because (in their mind) they are being considerate and waiting for you to explain what you mean. I’m not quite sure they understand the flip side and think that keeping quite is coming off as rude. In their mind the pause they give is, in fact, giving you space to say what you’d like to say.

The other reason I’m writing this is to give advice to others for experience this silence in a negative way. Or perhaps I just want to grab my former self by the shoulders, shake them, and say “Try not to be offended, they are just waiting for you to explain what you were saying.” If you’ve been in Canada long enough, your ear learns to listen to those pauses in the conversation and to just repeat what you’re saying until you see the light bulb of recognition fire up in the other person’s eyes. Sometimes, it’s the only way.

 

PhilosopherPoet

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