American writer Eric Weiner thinks it’s nice to be nice to the nice. And by “nice” he means Canadians. Writing for BBC Travel recently, he reported that our “niceness” hits him like a blast of polar-bear breath (the branded Coke variety; not the real thing that’ll rip your lungs out, Jim) just as soon as he approaches the 49th Parallel.
“We experience Canadian nice as soon as we reach customs,” he notes. “The U.S. border guards are gruff and all business. The Canadians, by contrast, are unfailingly polite, even as they grill us about the number of wine bottles we’re bringing into the country. One year, we had failed to notice that our 9-year-old daughter’s passport had expired. They, nicely, let us enter anyway. The niceness continues for our entire trip, as we encounter nice waiters, nice hotel clerks, nice strangers.”
What’s more, he observes, “Canadian niceness is pure, and untainted by the passive-aggressive undertones found in American niceness. It’s also abundant. Canada is to niceness as Saudi Arabia is to oil. Researchers have yet to analyse Canadian niceness empirically, but studies have found that Canadians, perhaps in an effort not to offend, use an overabundance of ‘hedge words’, such as ‘could be’ and ‘not bad’. Then there is the most coveted of Canadian words: ‘sorry’. Canadians will apologize for anything and to anything.”
Actually, Mr. Weiner, Canada is to oil as Saudi Arabia is to. . .well, oil. Except we’re colder, our streets are lined with glaciers and, occasionally, mud. And in the long, dark, winter night that is Fort McMurray, Alberta, I dare you to find one transplanted Maritimer riding the derricks of the tar sands who will say “sorry” for anything.
It’s all about frame of reference, Mr. Weiner, frame of reference.
For example, long ago an American tourist drove me off the road somewhere between Belleville and Cornwall, Ontario. He was in a hurry and, so in no time, I was in the ditch about 100 kilometers from where I once played pee-wee hockey and had once hurt the feelings of a juvenile competitor (from Buffalo, no less) by deriding his ill-fitting jersey.
The traveller stopped his car, railed at me for holding him up and kicked my tires. In return, I thumbed my nose at him, called him a “gosh darn yankee”, and phoned the cops for moral support and a tow. They obliged; no questions asked. (We Canadians are “nice” that way).
Once in Fargo, North Dakota, I met an official from the local tourism authority who refused to tell me the location of the mighty Mississippi River. I informed him that if he persisted with his typical American rudeness, I’d be forced to lodge a formal complaint with his supervisor. He laughed and queried, “What are you? Some sort of Canadian?” When I smiled and murmered, “sorry, eh?” he turned ghost-white and hired a limo to take me all the way to Brainerd, Minnesota, where the Old Miss begins as a mere trickle. I returned the favor by resisting the temptation to mock his midwestern accent. (Again, we Canadians are “nice” that way).
Still, Mr. Weiner does have a point. As he quotes my old acquaintance, Michael Valpy – a journalist, formerly with the Globe and Mail – our national politeness is a “defence mechanism” that “stems from inferiority and an awkward awareness that our clothes don’t fit properly and we always have bad haircuts and really don’t do anything great.”
Yeah, Mike, that’s “nice”, real “nice”. But let’s just keep that between ourselves from now on. I know where you live, pal.