Work: How Canadian is your way?

By Mahtot Teka

Mind your non-Canadian ways.
They might be getting between you and your job.

By Mahtot Teka

If you are a newcomer, there is a chance that this is how you greet your colleagues at work: you go around the room and shake everyone's hands – perhaps every morning. And when you reach the guy who is wearing a headset, you tap him on the shoulder because he didn’t hear you come in. You stand very close to the lady who is making her morning coffee and ask her about her weekend. Oh, and the guy who came back from vacation, you give him a warm welcome and tell him he has gained weight – a lot of weight.
This is what you most likely would do if you were 'more Canadian': You drop the handshaking and the shoulder tapping. You say a verbal greeting to all, you stand a few feet away from the coffee lady and chat about the weekend, and you welcome your chubby friend without making a reference to his extra pounds.

This later version might help you tone down your “exotic-ness” because in this part of the world, it is the acceptable behaviour in the office. Unfortunately, you will have to go through some rough spots in your first “Canadian work experience” before you understand what the Canadian office culture and its nuances are. In fact, it might be quite some time before you even begin to see the awkwardness of your morning rituals.

What is Canadian office culture?

Dr. Nava Israel, former manager of Workplace Communication in Canada, a bridging program at Ryerson University – and current President of Fusion Global Education says, “The Canadian office culture is based on what Canadians regard to be their culture or their values. The Canadian office culture is an extension of the Canadian culture.” So are its subtle nuances or manners, that she says are difficult to “pinpoint”.

In fact, a study conducted in 2008 by the Institute for Research for Public Policy (I.R.P.P.) concluded that “Many  employers would be hard-pressed to describe exactly what an understanding of Canadian culture entails, but they assume (correctly, in varying degrees) that immigrants typically do not fully possess it.”

If you are a newcomer who doesn’t understand the Canadian culture, here is news for you. Your inexperience might be getting between you and your job.

How does ignorance of office culture affect you?

Dr. Israel says, “In a very collectivist society where a person is a part of a bigger machine and not an individual, people grow up knowing that you have to say “we” and not ‘I’. [In those other cultures] It is only idiots and vain people, empty people, who say ‘I’, because they don’t understand they are part of a bigger more important thing. When you come here, you have to start saying ‘I’.”

That thinking can have an effect on how you answer questions during a job interview such as, “What did you accomplish in your last job?” If you use “we”, in conformity with good manners from “back home”, you may not look like a desirable candidate. The Canadian employer, who is the result of an individualistic society, expects to hear “I accomplished this and that”.

Even if you ace an interview because you have taken newcomer workshops or have done mock interviews, the need for “Canadian-ising” your ways doesn’t end when you get the job. The lack of soft skills can still affect you. Stephen Beaupré, an employment counselor with Skills for Change, says, “There is the impression that some jobs are almost only hard skills. I think pretty much every job I can imagine involves quite a bit of both. Say you are excellent at the technical side of your job but you have trouble interacting with staff members or your supervisor or client. That may make a huge difference. People may notice that. You may not get credit for your good work on the technical side. People may feel uncomfortable interacting with you.”

Beaupré says, “Not many people work in isolation. You always have to interact with somebody. And the success of those interactions will make a huge difference.”

The I.R.P.P. study identifies misunderstanding in communication as a critical area that can lead to stereotyping and conflict. This can happen in day-to-day communication such as writing an email to a colleague. If you compose the email in your head in your own language and type the end result in English, the tone of your message could be misunderstood. Your colleague who is used to different kinds of wording might find it rude, demanding, unprofessional or something else you did not intend.

Being judged is another undesirable outcome of office culture misunderstanding. Dr. Israel explains, “Some of us come from cultures where time is fluid, time is not very important. In Canada, two minutes later is too late. If people are not managing their time in a Canadian way, they are perceived to  be unmotivated, they are perceived to be irresponsible, and unreliable, which is not necessarily the case. They just come from a different time-framework. If people don't understand how behaviors happen in the workplace and adjust to that, they will simply fail. They will lose their job or never be promoted.” She added that when people behave in a certain way, others don’t see that as a difference in culture. They tend to judge.

You may not be aware of it, but judging happens both ways. You perhaps judge the way your Canadian colleagues behave. You might discuss their ways in unflattering terms with other newcomers or with your family at home. You, perhaps, do your share of stereotyping too.
However, you are the newcomer. That is precisely why it will be in your best interest to adapt to the new office culture. Dr. Israel says, “We [immigrants] do bring a lot of wonderful things but if we only use what we brought from our own particular culture and don’t use the Canadian way, we will not be successful. That is the reality. For the same reason if you cannot speak English no one can understand you. When you come to a new place, you need to adapt to the new place…”

It is something like the saying “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” That kind of attitude, though not an absolute, can sometimes make your life at work a little easier.

How do you become Roman?

So what can you do to “Canadian-ise” your ways in the context of office culture?

Beaupré says, “I have heard it said, that many newcomers when they come to Canada, focus on improving their hard skills, even though many of them already have excellent hard skills. They actually need more improvement on the soft skills. Instead of getting new IT training [for example] they might take more workshops to develop their soft skills to balance it out a little bit.”

However, he adds that workshops or mock interviews are not a replacement for actual experience in the real  environment. As the cliché goes, practice makes perfect; in this case, practice makes you 'more Canadian'. You have to make your mistakes in the office culture, admit them, perhaps pinch yourself afterwards to ease the embarrassment, learn from them, and move on. If it is any consolation to you, he says that most mistakes are not that bad.

Mistakes are inevitable but how can you minimize their number?

Dr. Israel advises that you keep your eyes and your ears open and learn from others. She emphasizes the importance of knowing what you shouldn’t be saying more than what you should be saying.

On the other hand, Beaupré suggests you pay close attention to body language, facial expressions, and reactions when people are interacting with you. Be willing to ask people if you are not sure. He suggests that you have someone you can openly discuss things like this with; it could be a friend, someone at work, a mentor, or an employment counselor at social service organizations. And check with one of them first before you take big steps.

Beaupré and Isreal agree it will take you a long time to learn the culture in Canadian office culture.

Some companies might recognize things are done differently on your side of the world. Some of them have programs to help newcomers integrate into to the work place. However, Dr. Israel says the cultural competency programs are not sufficient, and only target newcomers and not their Canadian colleagues. In other words, the programs would be more effective if they were thorough and meant for both the newcomers and their Canadian colleagues. Your employers may not meet you half-way as you adapt to Canadian culture. After all, you are your own responsibility.