What is one of the most insulting things that you could say to a Canadian? No, it’s not pointing out that Nickelback sucks (we will agree) or asking if we ride a dog sled or have electricity in our igloos.
According to guidelines from the British National Tourism Agency, the worst offense you can commit when speaking to a Canuck is to mistake us for our neighbours from the south and ask us what part of the USA we are from.
These guidelines were created for the 2012 London Olympics and they were intended to instruct tourism staff on how best to communicate with the influx of travellers arriving from overseas. The workers were advised to avoid assuming that anyone with a North American accent is from the USA and to look for clues such as maple leaf badges or pins on backpacks and clothing.
CBC.ca did a survey and found out that two thirds of Canadian respondents would be very offended if they were mistaken for American. I can verify that this is true, as I have listened to international conversations in hostels all over the world and whenever this mistaken identity occurs it is always slightly awkward for everyone involved.
I personally don’t understand it. In my travels I’ve been mistaken for an American many times and whenever I make the correction and mention I’m from Canada, the person I am speaking to will always apologise profusely as if they have deeply insulted me. It’s an odd moment, until I reassure them that I am not offended at all.
When someone says to me, “So, what part of the States are you from?” I never fly off the handle with them, nor go into a long rant. I simply smile and say, “I’m from Canada” and then carry on the conversation.
Why? Because there is no need to be insulted, my fellow Canadians! Even though we take great pains to let everyone know how different from Americans we are, like pretending not to be related to your embarrassing sibling on the first day of school, we are actually quite similar at first glance.
We’re More Similar than You Think
When someone from another country meets you, they see a person who is speaking English with a North American accent, which is perhaps an accent that they are unfamiliar with. I’m sure you can tell the difference between a Torontonian and a New Yorker or a Californian and a Vancouverite based on subtle variations in accent, but to people from the other side of the world we all sound exactly the same.
To put it another way, could you tell the difference between an Aussie and a Kiwi accent at first listen? If you heard people speaking German, would you be able to tell whether they were from Austria or Germany? Unless you have spent time there yourself, you would be likely to get it wrong.
“So…” you might say, “If people can’t tell, then they shouldn’t guess!”
Who cares? What’s the big deal? It is important to understand that these people aren’t trying to be insulting; they are simply trying to start a conversation with you and find out more about where you are from. Some people will ask and others will be bold and hazard a guess. When you get angry at them for their mistake, they will be embarrassed and taken aback… even though they didn’t do anything wrong.
Also, when Canadians get super offended by being called American, it makes us look pretty hostile and prejudiced against Americans. Why is it so insulting to be merely mistaken for a Yank? Sure, our southerly neighbours have their flaws as a nation, but it’s unfair to characterise all Americans in a bad light. Every country in the world contains a fair mix of jerks and wonderful people – the USA is no exception.
Dealing With Misinformed Questions about Our Home and Native Land
When you travel outside of Canada, you will get all sorts of misinformed and confused questions about it. To most people, our country is a vast and mysterious frozen wilderness associated with moose, Niagara Falls and Justin Bieber. When people from other countries meet you they will very likely ask stupid questions about Canada, which is totally fine.
Countless people will tell you that they have relatives in Toronto, even if you are from Vancouver which is practically the entire length of Europe away. Don’t give them a condescending geography lesson right off the bat; they are only trying to connect with you.
When people ask you if it snows all year round, if you have seen a bear, or if you speak French, don’t roll your eyes and give a snarky answer. They are just trying to verify the image that they have of our country and gain an understanding of what it is like to live in.
So Canadian travellers, the next time someone mistakes you for an American don’t flip your lid. Instead, take the time to talk to people, answer their questions and tell them about your life in Canada. Help them learn about your culture and then ask them some questions about theirs. After all, isn’t that what travel is all about?