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The ‘sorry’ state of Canadian manners

There’s a joke that asks: “How do you get 200 Canadians out of a swimming pool?” The answer: “Please get out of the swimming pool.”

Canadians are famously polite — so much so that their reflexive use of the word “sorry,” even when their behaviour doesn’t warrant it, has become as closely identified with this nation as hockey, maple syrup and poutine.

Someone bumps into a Canadian on a sidewalk, and no doubt, the Canuck is apologizing for getting in the way.

Canadian actor and comedian Colin Mochrie poked fun at the stereotype in a satirical segment on the show This Hour Has 22 Minutes, apologizing to all Americans by saying: “On behalf of all Canadians, I’m sorry that we’re constantly apologizing for things in a passive-aggressive way, which is really a thinly veiled criticism.”

With little data to support the stereotype, however, is there any truth to the perception of Canadians as a nation of apologetic people — and if so, why are we all such a sorry bunch?

As a Canadian living in California, Stanford University psychologist Karina Schumann said she is often confronted with Americans’ perception of the profoundly “polite Canadian.”

“Everyone I meet is like, ‘Oh, I love Canadians! You guys are so polite. You say sorry all the time,’” she told Metro.

“They seem to notice it, while Canadians might comment on Americans being unapologetic, perhaps.”

While she’s unaware of any research to back up the stereotype, Schumann is an expert on apologies. As a doctoral student at the University of Waterloo four years ago, she researched gender differences in apology behaviour.

Through a study that polled subjects on hypothetical offence scenarios, she discovered that, although men and women reported the same proportion of offences, women felt more transgressions were deserving of an apology and would be more likely to say sorry.

In essence, women apologize more than men.

If the Canadian stereotype is true, Schumann said, the behaviour might be based on many of the same reasons that women say sorry more frequently than men.

“It could be that we’re focused on being polite, kind of brought up in that type of environment, and it goes along with other polite behaviours,” she said. “We’re all taught to say sorry from a young age. Our parents teach us when we’re babies to say sorry to other kids and to our siblings. It’s kind of ingrained in us.”

In her gender research, one of the study samples included Americans. Although she didn’t compare the sample with her Canadian data, Schumann said the same patterns emerged from both, suggesting that, if there is a difference in apology behaviour between the two nations, “it’s probably smaller than everybody believes it to be,” she said.

McGill linguistics professor Charles Boberg theorized that Canadians’ tendency to apologize too much could perhaps be traced to their British roots and a required “sense of accepting one’s place in the social system and being a ‘decent chap’ above all things.”

“The tendency to apologize probably fits well with the Canadian self concept because it suggests a polite, decent, self-effacing sort of person, similar to how many people think of the British or the Danes,” he said in an email.

“Whereas the Canadian stereotype of Americans is that they are, by contrast, brash, aggressive and self-important.”

Still, Boberg warned against reinforcing national stereotypes that have no research to support them. He said some stereotypes, like Muslims being more prone to terrorism, could be harmful for the way they distort perceptions of entire groups.

Boberg pointed out that it seems many national stereotypes, like Americans being “boorish,” Japanese “inscrutable” or Germans “domineering,” are often levelled at the world’s “most successful” civilizations.

“Is this just a manifestation of the jealousy of second-best cultures toward those who dominate them? Hard to know,” he said. “All in all, I think it’s hazardous to dabble in national stereotypes, even if the ‘victims’ of stereotyping are the world’s most powerful and successful nations.”

But Schumann counters that Canada’s reputation for being overly polite isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

“People make fun of us I guess for being overly polite,” she said. “I think most of the time we make fun of ourselves, but it’s better than being made fun of for being rude.”

If she had to pick one, Schumann said she’d rather stick to the sorry side.

“I’m proud to be Canadian,” she said. “Apologizing is ultimately a positive behaviour that leads to harmonious interactions and all kinds of positive outcomes.”

Now, if only we could stop apologizing for being so polite, eh?

Great moments in Canuck remorse

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford holds a press conference prior to the Big City Mayor's Meeting at Ottawa City Hall on Wednesday, February 26, 2014. Ford refused adamantly Thursday to apologize for a profane video rant against the city's police chief.

The Canadian Press

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford holds a press conference prior to the Big City Mayor's Meeting at Ottawa City Hall on Wednesday, February 26, 2014. Ford refused adamantly Thursday to apologize for a profane video rant against the city's police chief.

1986: MP admits “accidental” eavesdropping

In 1986, Tory MP Erik Nielsen, then deputy prime minister, apologized in Parliament for eavesdropping on Liberal party meetings in 1966. He explained during an interview in 1973 that “there was a method by which we knew every Wednesday what was said in the Liberal caucus, word for bloody word.” Apparently, crossed wires in an intercom system had allowed him to listen in.

2002: Chrétien government regrets aide’s diss against George W. Bush

“What a moron.” Those were the words from Jean Chrétien’s communications director, Francoise Ducros, that prompted the prime minister to publicly compliment the intelligence of his U.S. counterpart. “He is a friend of mine. He’s not a moron at all,” Chrétien said. A few months later, Carolyn Parrish, a staunch anti-Iraq war Liberal MP, was forced to say sorry after being overheard calling Americans “bastards” following a press scrum.

2012: Maple Leafs say sorry for another dismal season

Another year, another missed playoff run. In April 2012, at the conclusion of a season that saw the dismissal of coach Ron Wilson following a spirit-crushing losing streak, MLSE chairman Larry Tanenbaum published an open letter to fans, apologizing for falling “short of everyone’s expectations.” It worked (sort of): the Leafs made the post-season the next year but were eliminated by the Boston Bruins in the first round.

2013: Rob Ford cops to smoking crack cocaine, expects apology to suffice

“Yes, I have smoked crack cocaine,” Ford told reporters in November 2013, six months after denying using drugs. “Am I an addict? No. Have I tried it? Probably in one of my drunken stupors, probably approximately about a year ago. I answered your question. You ask the question properly, I’ll answer it. Yes, I’ve made mistakes. All I can do now is apologize and move on.”

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