At Toronto, ON’s Kensington Market, a thief snatched an orange from a sidewalk kiosk and slipped briskly away. Then, he was arrested as he waited at the corner for the light to turn green. This struck the friend of mine who watched this happen as definitively Canadian.
The story came to mind when news broke last week that a house in Edmonton, AB had been firebombed. It turned out the bomber had gotten the wrong address, and the owners received a letter in the mail apologizing for the error. (Police forensics experts promptly started scouring the letter for clues.) What kind of firebomber apologizes to his victim? A Canadian one.
Canadians are polite. It’s a cliché built on truth. We invented politeness. Actually, the Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman invented the idea of “face”—as in “losing face” or “saving face” and just generally being alive to self-presentation—on which politeness theory is founded. Most people think of politeness as ingrained good manners, civilized bearing, the “momma-brung-you-up-well” stuff. And true enough, Canadians have that kind of reflexive politeness in spades. I remember once as a younger man in a fast-food outlet catching myself saying, “You’re welcome” to the garbage can, which had “Thank You” stamped on the little swinging window.
But if that’s all politeness were about, then Canada would be a nation of guide dogs or a nation of HALs—impressively but inhumanly self-contained. Fortunately, we’re more than that. As these examples prove, the perception that Canadians are all blandly even tempered is misplaced. Our passions are plenty intense, they're just chased by this strong sense of decorum. Sometimes the decorum catches the emotion before it can even express itself, and sometimes it doesn’t.
Not long ago, a dozen or so of us were waiting for a bus in a driving rainstorm. The bus finally came, and the driver slowed down. We shook out our umbrellas and readied our change. And then… he kept going. Presumably, he thought the bus was full, but you could see there was plenty of room in the back half. “Bus drivers!” hollered one of the left-behind. “They’re all a**holes!” Then much more quietly, “At least some of them are.” That qualifier, to no one in particular, as if it came out of his own conscience directly into the universe: now that’s Canadian.
Politeness theory tells us there are two kinds of politeness: negative politeness and positive politeness. Negative politeness means taking pains not to put other people out (“I’m sorry to bother you, but I wonder if it’s not too much trouble if you could move your Hummer a wee bit forward or back—it’s on my foot”) while positive politeness is about actually trying to do some good. Negative politeness gets all the press, especially in Merchant Ivory films. It was the very fuel of the British upper classes, and Canadians did inherit their share of it, for better or worse. But positive politeness—actually trying to be genuinely helpful—is the real goods. Grown-up behaviour. This is the component of Canadian innate actions that sometimes gets forgotten, but is essential to understanding us.
Goffman, the Canadian who got politeness theory rolling, wasn’t himself particularly “polite” in the first way. He was crusty, and as a professor he could be insensitive. But he was polite in the best sense; he respected people enough to tell them the truth: “Those pants need a restraining order from that shirt.” Or, “You have the gift of the gab; maybe you should rethink this plan to join the Trappists.”
Real politeness doesn’t starch a moment with ritual and etiquette. On the contrary: it’s a face-saving attempt on someone else’s behalf, and if it’s done right, it puts everyone at ease in the bargain. There’s a maybe apocryphal story about a formal dinner held for the Duke of Edinburgh during his tour of Saskatchewan some years ago. The meal had just ended when a waitress swanned up to the head table and said, “Keep your fork, Duke, there’s pie coming!” That’s the kind of politeness Canadians can claim with pride, however Momma raised ‘em.