Manners: Parties Canadian Style!

by Dale Sproule

The reason we tend to socialize with those from our own cultural background is that everyone shares the same social conventions. If we all know the same "rules", we are less likely to do something embarrassing.

But as you settle in Canada, sooner or later, you will have to go outside of your "comfort zone".

If you are just now coming into western culture, you may well be worried about decadence and bad behaviour at social gatherings. After all, through the 1950s and 60s, the drunken man with a lampshade on his head became a symbol of westerners who party a bit too enthusiastically. But despite the recent bad behaviour of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, there is generally much less tolerance for public drunkenness in western culture today than there once was.

Legal and social pressure has mounted against people drinking and driving. The integration of other cultures and the push for political correctness have been calming influences. And when people can make movies with their cell phones, public drunkenness is no longer simply foolish, it's also risky. People are now losing jobs for how they behave at parties.

What can you expect at a Canadian shindig (slang for "a big party")?

Kids’ Parties

Kids’ parties usually take place during the daytime under adult supervision. The party invitation should tell you the time, location and phone number, so you can call the parents to get details. When you call, mention any food allergies your child may have. Be sure to ask questions like "what will the kids do for fun?" or "how many adults will be there?"

For birthdays, you should help your child select an affordable and appropriate gift (usually, a new toy or clothing). With careful shopping it is possible to find something good for under $10. Until age 12, you should take your child to the party and pick them up afterwards. Sleepovers can be trickier. As a parent, you may be understandably nervous about allowing your children to spend the night in the house of someone you don’t know well. If you refuse sleepover requests from school friends, you can make up for it by letting them attend sleepovers with cousins or the children of good friends. Another solution is to invite the friend to sleep at your home, so that you are in control.

Barbecue Bravos and Blunders

In the course of living in Canada, you will no doubt strike up conversations and friendships with neighbours down the hall, in the house next door – or simply people who live in the area and have children at the same school or on the same teams as your kids. You may even be invited to a social event such as "the backyard barbecue".

The Answers.com Online Dictionary defines barbecue as:

barbecue – n.

  1. A grill, pit, or outdoor fireplace for roasting meat.
  2. A social gathering, usually held outdoors, at which food is cooked over an open flame.

Dad in a barbecue apron is a common symbol of summer in Canada. It’s often the only time anyone in the family will eat (or openly enjoy) the food he cooks.

On a sunny Saturday afternoon, the air in the suburbs fills with the scents of flowers and freshly cut grass, and the smells of meat cooking outdoors. In cities, smells drift into open windows and down hallways as barbecues are held on patios and balconies below, beside and above you.

Most traditional summer parties in Canada are barbecues, with hamburgers, hot dogs, beer, pop (Canadian for soda) and icy beverages. Other popular items that can be grilled outdoors include chicken, sausages, veggie burgers, corn on the cob, potatoes and salmon – although almost anything that can be cooked can be cooked on a barbecue.

Sometimes your whole family will be invited, but sometimes it is just for adults. Sometimes it is just for a few people, other times there are dozens of people.

A good host should tell you in advance what is on the menu in order to ensure they won’t be serving something you can’t eat. But if you have any special dietary concerns, you should make this clear when you are accepting the invitation. Be straightforward and simply say, "Jose is allergic to seafood", or "We cannot eat pork or shellfish because of our faith."

Always ask what you can bring. Even if the answer is "just bring yourselves", you should bring a bottle of wine, or if you don’t drink alcohol, you can bring soft drinks or some sort of dessert.

If it is a party where there is a large number of people attending, you should follow these same rules – even specifying that, "We are unable to eat food cooked on the same grill as seafood."

In a party situation, you can expect others to drink alcohol, even if you cannot partake. It is possible you will encounter other substances too. Statistics tell us that almost 17 percent of Canadians between 15 and 64 admitted to smoking marijuana in 2006 (one of the highest rates in the world). But since it is illegal, you are unlikely to encounter it being used openly at neighbourhood or house parties where adults or families are the primary partygoers.

However, your teenager may encounter this situation and there may even be peer pressure to join in. The best way to influence your children at this stage of their life is to talk to them, openly and clearly. Tell them that you trust them not to be talked into doing something they do not want to do. They will appreciate your honesty, concern, good advice and your faith in their judgment.

Office Parties

You’ve probably heard the North American complaint that the influx of non-Christian immigrants has turned Christmas into the "holiday season". Don’t believe it.

When Santa comes to town, office workers across the country undo their neckties and take off their shoes and reception areas fill with pine boughs and twinkly lights.

For much of the month of December the taboo against drinking at work becomes much less strict. Of course, at some jobs, it’s never tolerated. Do we really want the guy operating the construction crane touching a drop while on the job, no matter what time of year it is? "Merry Christma…ooops."

But things are often different in office environments. Most of the year, if you come back from lunch a bit wobbly on your feet, supervisors will speak harshly to you about drinking during the workday and you could even lose your job. But when it happens in December, managers tend to just smile knowingly. Or they might even tease you.

By the week before Christmas you might see people getting bold enough to bring in bottles of Irish crème liquor, to "liven up" their coffee. Holiday gift exchanges often bring more liquor into the workplace.

If you’re from a non-drinking culture, this can be disturbing – but try to look at it as a confirmation that your culture’s resistance to this sort of temptation is completely justified, because:

  • Office production slows to a crawl.
  • It takes much longer than normal for clients and suppliers to return your telephone messages.
  • It becomes very difficult to get work done.

Some offices hold gift exchanges. It can be hard to tell the difference between a good choice of gift and one that will get a negative reaction. For instance, fragrant bath soaps are common gifts for women, but if you buy deodorant for a co-worker, they may take offence – thinking you are trying to tell them they have bad body odour. It is probably best to stick to something safe like a box of chocolates until you grow more familiar with Canadian party etiquette.

At many companies, a formal Christmas party is held. Sometimes it takes place at the office, although it may be held at a restaurant or banquet hall. Sometimes only employees are invited, but at larger firms, you are often free to bring a spouse or date.

Most people are well behaved at office parties, but if you go to enough of these events, you will probably be at one where the boss gets drunk enough to dance on a table or co-workers embarrass themselves. If you have stuck to your principals and remained sober, just remember Rule #1 of Christmas parties…to forget everything that happens at this party. Pretend that it did not happen.

If you have indulged yourself and do something embarrassing yourself, rest easy in the knowledge that everyone else at the party is obeying Rule #1 – except possibly your spouse who may never forgive you. Which makes the real Rule #1 of partying in Canada, the same as it is anywhere else in the world – enjoy yourself…but behave.

CNM