How culturally different are Americans and Canadians?

Mistaking an American for a Canadian, or the other way round, may result in a discreet sigh or roll of the eyes; it’s just as much a faux pas as confusing Australians with New Zealanders, or the Scottish with the English. While Americans and Canadians share a long border, a language and many cultural traits, there are essential differences. Understanding these will smooth the wheels of business.

  1. Sociologists sometimes argue that differences and similarities between Americans and Canadians are regional, not national. So people from Washington State and Oregon may be culturally similar to those from British Columbia, while on the east coast, New Englanders may have a lot in common with their cousins north of the border. Meanwhile, there are big cultural variations within each country, so someone from Texas would have little in common with a native of San Francisco, any more than a French-speaking city dweller from Montréal would have with a farmer from the Canadian prairies.
  2. Canada has two official languages, English and French. While many Americans speak Spanish, they are not required to learn it. Canadians have to take either English or French as a second language in school, depending on which part of the country they are from. If you are doing business in Montréal or Québec, you will need to speak French, or use an interpreter. But if you are doing business in Miami, where Spanish is spoken by nearly 70% of the population, the official language will still be English. Having said this, an understanding of Hispanic culture is useful when doing business in Miami, just as an empathy with French cultural values is important when working in Francophone Canada.
  3. Both countries are multicultural and both are meritocracies; the concept of the ‘American dream’ applies just as strongly in Canada; the belief that anybody can be anything, regardless of background, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation. Neither country has a class system like that of the UK, although the university fraternity and sorority system is far more prevalent in the US than in Canada and does create common bonds that continue into business life.
  4. Americans and Canadians in general have different personality traits. Americans stereotype Canadians as boring and plodding, while Canadians mock Americans for being loud and crass. Neither is true, of course, although Canadians, very generally speaking, tend to be more passive than Americans, who will often speak loudly and aggressively to make themselves heard. Canadian meeting culture is more like the culture in Britain, with people speaking in turn. Meetings in the US, on the other hand, are often used as brainstorming sessions, where creating an impression simply by having your say, however valid your point, is important.
  5. Americans and Canadians have different work ethics. In Canada breaks during the working day, vacation time and maternity or paternity leave are dictated by law. In the US, all of these are up to the employer and tend to be far less generous. Americans work longer hours and have a reputation for being ‘addicted’ to their jobs, although this could in many cases arise from workplace insecurity. Many Americans fail to use up what little annual leave they have, for fear of being seen as a ‘slacker’.
  6. Americans like to get straight down to business, on the basis that ‘time is money’. Small talk is considered a waste of time. Canadians, particularly French Canadians, value relationships and politeness more and will take time to make small talk before discussing business. Harmony and consensus are more valued in meetings than loud argument.
  7. Americans constantly push boundaries in search of change, progress, profit and individual gain. Canadians are also open to change and progress but do tend to be more group-orientated. In US business culture, the emphasis is on the individual: taking responsibility for decisions, being accountable when things go wrong and taking the credit when they go right. The Canadian mentality, on the other hand, has evolved in part from physical hardship; from settling a country that is in large parts inhospitable, where cooperation with others was the most effective way to survive.
  8. As previously implied, Americans and Canadians have different approaches to communication. Canadians have a slightly indirect communication style; not to the extent of Asians, but with a tendency to the tactful and diplomatic. They may use self-deprecating humour to defuse a situation, although they will still say what they mean; there are no coded messages for the overseas visitor to interpret. Americans, on the other hand, are extremely direct. ‘No’ means no. ‘Maybe’ means there is a chance something will happen; Americans like to work towards a win-win solution. If someone disagrees with you, they will say so immediately, which many cultures will see as being overly direct and blunt.
  9. Canadians place great emphasis on value, at all levels. Individually (and very generally speaking), they have less disposable income than Americans and a higher cost of living, so want to feel that they are getting good value, a sentiment that translates into business. Canadian buyers will not hesitate to shop around. Americans are more inclined to make decisions quickly and take a risk. When selling to Canadians, focus on value. When selling to Americans, focus on the short term and the bigger picture.

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About the Author

Sue Bryant

Sue Bryant is an award-winning writer and editor specialising in global business culture and travel.

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