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House-Sitting in Canada: A Cross-Cultural Guide to English vs. French Canada

Welcome to Nomador's Cultural Differences & Housesitting series, an exploration of the cultural differences that affect our members’ housesitting experiences across countries and offer hands-on and practical tips to more effectively understand and communicate as a homeowner or house-sitter when crossing cultures. If you missed the first two articles in the series, be sure to read the series introduction and the first country guide, which focuses on French culture as it applies to housesitting.

This is the third post in the series, and is about the specific cultural norms and dimensions that might impact your housesitting experience in Canada. We’ll examine and compare both Anglophone and Francophone Canadian culture, specify how those similarities and differences could impact your housesitting experience, and provide tips for applying to and completing successful house-sits for Canadian homeowners and their pets.

An Introduction to Canada and its People

When it comes to culture, there truly are two versions of Canada, if not more. Take Quebec City -- the largest predominantly French city in the country. Described by one travel guidebook as “archetypically French,” Canada’s quaint and cobblestoned capital of Francophone culture couldn’t be more different from the glass and skyscrapers of the thoroughly-North-American Toronto, 800km and a world away.

With these two very different groups living under one roof, you’d be forgiven for wondering: what, exactly, does it mean to be Canadian?

As it turns out, it’s a question many Canadians struggle with themselves. Almost 50 years ago, Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan famously stated, “Canada is the only country in the world that knows how to live without an identity.”

Today, Canadian identity is still a point of discussion, with Canada’s current Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, recently calling for Canadians to coalesce around their non-identity. From the New York Times:

"Trudeau’s most radical argument is that Canada is becoming a new kind of state, defined not by its European history but by the multiplicity of its identities from all over the world…. ‘There is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada,’ he claimed. ‘There are shared values — openness, respect, compassion, willingness to work hard, to be there for each other, to search for equality and justice. Those qualities are what make us the first postnational state’."

Since before Canada was a country, English-French relations have been a key influence on Canadian culture and identity. But when you add in contemporary Canada’s close relationship to the United States, a policy of welcoming immigrants from all over the world, and the fact that Canada only gained complete independence from Great Britain less than 35 years ago -- roughly the same time Quebec’s quiet revolution produced the separatist movement -- it’s clear why Canadians have a difficult time defining an overarching concept of Canadianness.

Similarities and Differences Between French and English Canada

What does all this mean for someone trying to understand what it means to be Canadian, and how to act amongst Canadians? And how could it impact a house-sitters’ experience in Canada, from application all the way through to the completion of a successful assignment?

As with our post on understanding French people and culture, we’ve drawn on recognised academic theories to help explain how Canadians’ cultural norms, expectations and habits are different between the English and French parts of the country, and what this means for house-sitting.

You can read the post from end-to-end, or skip to the section you find most interesting. These are the main points covered in this article:

4 Theories to Better Understand Canadian Culture
- Power Distance
- Individualism/Collectivism
- Uncertainty Avoidance
- Monchromatic/Polychromatic
Tips for Applying to House-Sitting Assignments Across Canada
- Tips for All of Canada
- Tips for French Canada
- Tips for English Canada
Key French and English Phrases for Applying to a House-Sit in Canada
Final Thoughts

4 Theories to Understand French and English Canadians

Vancouver  (Photo credit wandertooth.com)

The theories we’ll use date back to the 1950s to 1970s, when cross-cultural researchers and academics developed systems and measurements to compare national cultures from one another. Today, the findings are still applied in research both in academia and in business, and largely hold up. And while it’s easy to find exceptions, of course, it’s important to understand when cross-cultural researchers talk about culture, they’re not talking about individuals, but rather behaviours that occur among most of the people, most of the time within a cultural group.

When it comes to many of these theories, we’ll see in general, French Canada has similarities to France, and English Canada has similarities to the Anglophone countries. Making the assumption that French Canadian culture is the same as French culture, however, is similar to making the assumption that English Canadian culture is similar to that of England.

Both of the two official cultural groups in Canada are unique, with similarities and differences that could impact a house-sitters’ experience.

Power Distance
Power Distance is a measure of how well people within a culture tolerate and expect an unequal distribution of power within society. Tolerance of hierarchy, class distinctions, and overt symbols of status all relate to a culture’s overall power distance score.

With a score of 39/100 (English Canada) and 54/100 (French Canada), Canada is an egalitarian society that generally functions as a meritocracy with limited hierarchy. French Canada is generally more tolerant of hierarchy and status, and English Canada is generally more suspicious of overt status symbols and distinctions between economic and social classes.

When compared to other countries, English Canada (39) is similar to the the United States (40/100), the United Kingdom (35/100), Ireland (28/100), Australia (36/100), or New Zealand (22/100). And while French Canada’s score of 54 is less than France (68/100), where hierarchy and following a strict social protocol is the norm, it is meaningfully higher than in the Anglophone countries.

As expected by these scores, we can summarise that both English and French Canadians are relatively casual in their communication style, with French Canadians relying somewhat more on set behaviours and norms that signal hierarchy.

Practical tips for applying for a house-sit in French Canada:

  • Use the greeting Bonjour, rather than the overly-familiar Allo or Salut.
  • If available, use the member’s surname or online alias when sending a letter of introduction/application (Bonjour Alias). If it’s not available, a simple Bonjour will do.
  • When introducing yourself to a French Canadian homeowner, use the formal version of French, choosing the ‘vous’ form over the more casual ‘tu.’ In all likelihood, a French Canadian will give you the go ahead to use ‘tu’ immediately, but use ‘vous’ until they do.
    Common expressions include:
    - Ne me vouvoie pas STP. Tu peux me tutoyer. / Please do not ‘vous’ me. You can ‘tu’ me.
    - Peut-être qu’on peut se tutoyer / Maybe we could ‘tu’ each other from now on.
  • Err on the side of being more polite and formal when communicating with French Canadian homeowners than you would when communicating with English Canadian homeowners, but know that French Canadian culture is less formal than that of France.

Practical tips for applying for a house-sit in English Canada:

  • Note that titles and honorifics (Sir/Ma’am) are rarely used, and English Canadians are more comfortable with informal and casual communication styles, even in formal and professional situations.
  • Address the homeowner by their first name or online alias (Hello Joe / Hello Homeowner 123).
  • Feel free to be more familiar in your tone while still being polite. Canadians use please and thank you frequently.
  • Share some personal information, and be more friendly than you would in a professional job application.

Individualism/Collectivism

Individualism references whether members of a society consider the ‘I’ or the ‘we’ to be the base unit of the society, and the extent to which individuals have responsibilities to the collective wellbeing. As a general rule of thumb, western societies are more individualist ‘I’ societies, and eastern societies are more collective ‘we’ societies.

Both English and French Canada are individualist cultures, scoring 80/100 and 73/100 respectively.

When compared to Canada’s English and French-speaking sister countries -- United States (91/100), United Kingdom (89/100), Ireland (70/100), Australia (90/100), New Zealand (79/100), and France (71/100) -- we again see how both English Canada and French Canada somewhat mirror their language twins, but are quite close to each other as well.

In collectivist societies, we’d expect to see more effort spent on building and maintaining relationships, a focus on fitting in by following the social rules of what’s acceptable, and more indirect communication, and this is indeed one difference between the communication styles of English and French Canadians:

  • In English Canada, expect to spend a minute or two on small talk before getting down to business. In French Canada, more time is spent on relationship building at the outset and throughout a relationship, and relationships are expected to last longer.
  • English Canadians are somewhat indirect, similar to British people. While they will say what they mean, they’ll do so diplomatically. French Canadians are far less direct (although still more direct than the French), and you’ll be expected to read between the lines more.
  • If you come from a country where very direct communication is the norm (the United States or Germany, for example) try to soften your tone. It’s common for English Canadians to simply use more words to make something less direct and diplomatic. Consider:
    - I don’t like this idea.
    - I can see your point of view, but have to say that I don’t completely agree, and would like to consider additional ideas.
  • Expectations of personal space are also related to individualism/collectivism, and English Canadians expect more personal space and less touching during conversation than French Canadians.

Uncertainty Avoidance

Uncertainty Avoidance is the degree to which members of a culture tolerate and attempt to minimise uncertainty in their lives, and the extent to which uncertainty causes anxiety. While it’s tempting to equate uncertainty avoidance with risk avoidance, it also relates to openness to new ideas, a willingness to try new ways of doing things, and tolerance of ideas and opinions different to one’s own.

In general, Canadians are quite open, with English Canada (48/100) being somewhat more uncertainty tolerant than French Canada (60/100), and both groups generally being quite tolerant and flexible.

  • You’re more likely to get (and be expected to give) precise details from a French Canadian than an English Canadian, who may take a more laid-back, wait-and-see approach to communication.
  • If you prefer precise details and schedules, it’s appropriate to politely ask for this information.

Whereas in France creating schedules and specifying the types and frequency of communication with the homeowner is ideal, in both English and French Canada this likely isn’t necessary. Be sure to ask the homeowner, but Canadians are relatively good at ‘going with the flow.

Monochronic vs. Polychronic Cultures
Different cultures have different conceptions of time, including its value and the best way to spend time and manage it.

People in monochronic cultures view time as linear, complete one task at a time, make strong distinctions between work time and social time, and value punctuality. Professionally, people from monochronic cultures invest time to make money.  

People in polychronic cultures have a fluid view of time, and frequently integrate relationship-building with tasks. Punctuality is far less important than relationships. Professionally, people from monochronic cultures invest time to build strong relationships (which leads to making money).  

Monochronism and polychronism lies on a scale and is subjective. As noted in the book Cross-Cultural Management: Culture and Management Across the World, to Germans (very monochronic), people from Quebec seem polychronic, but to Mexicans (very polychronic), people from Quebec seem monochronic.

As this applies to housesitting, members from the United States may find all Canadians to be less focused on punctuality than in the US, and members from France may find all Canadians to be less focused on relationships than in France.

  • All Canadians generally value punctuality, and it’s important to be on time for Skype appointments with a potential Canadian homeowner.
  • French Canadians are more likely to invest time in building a relationship with you than English Canadians, including mixing social conversation and ‘to the point’ discussions about the house-sitting assignment.
  • English Canadians are more likely to get directly to the point during a call, after perhaps one or two minutes of pleasantries.

Tips for Applying to House-sitting Assignments Across Canada

Now that you're familiar with some of the key similarities and differences between French and English Canadian culture, consider these tips when preparing your next house-sitting application.

Tips for All of Canada:

  • Don’t assume an English Canadian speaks French, or a French Canadian speaks English. The Canadian educational system is managed by the provinces (not the federal government), and not all Canadians learn the other language. In western Canada, you may be more likely to find people who speak Asian languages than French.
  • If you’re a non-smoker, mention this outright in your application. Smoking cigarettes is much less tolerated in Canada than it is in many European countries, and is generally frowned upon by many Canadians. This includes e-cigarettes, which are subject to similar controls as regular cigarettes.
  • Many Canadians treat pets as a member of their own family, and are emotionally invested in their pets’ well-being. Show you care by mentioning the pets by name, asking questions about the pets needs and personalities, and explaining why you love caring for pets.

Tips for English-Speakers Applying for a House-Sit in French Canada:

  • Begin your message in French, and then ask if the homeowner speaks English. While Nomador is a bilingual platform, many French Canadians don’t speak English. See the list of key French Canadian phrases for help.
  • Use formal French, beginning your message with Bonjour, and using the ‘vous’ form of French until you’re asked to use ‘tu.’
  • Start your message with general pleasantries before explaining your house-sitting experience and key information.
  • Explain why you’re interested in visiting Canada.
  • Keep your communication relatively formal. Only include the kind of information you’d likely share in a professional job interview, and use a profile photo that isn’t overly casual.

Tips for French-Speakers Applying for a House-Sit in English Canada:

  • Begin your message in English, and then ask if the homeowner speaks French. While Nomador is a bilingual platform, many English Canadians don’t speak French. See the list of key English phrases for help.
  • Don’t use overly formal language. Beginning your message with Hello First Name or Dear First Name is the norm.
  • Start your message with a general pleasantry before explaining your house-sitting experience and key information.
  • Explain why you’re interested in visiting Canada.
  • Keep your communication polite but friendly. Feel free to share personal information, such as your blog or work, or details about your family or life.

Toronto (Photo credit wandertooth.com)

Key French Canadian Phrases for Applying to a House-Sit in French Canada

  • Enchanté(e) de vous rencontrer / It is a pleasure to meet you
  • Je m'appelle (your first name AND your last name), et je suis (your nationality)/ My name is [so and so], and I am [nationality].
  • Je vous écris en réponse à l'annonce parue sur Nomador. / I am writing in response to your advertisement posted on Nomador.
  • Je suis désolé, je ne parle pas français. Peut-être parlez-vous anglais ? / I am sorry I do not speak French. Do you speak English?
  • N'hésitez pas à me contacter si vous avez d'autres questions.  / Feel free to contact me if you have any questions.
  • Cordialement vôtre/ Best Regards OR Au plaisir d'entendre de vos nouvelles / I hope to hear from you soon.
  • Your First and Last Name (Sincerely, Name).

Key English Phrases for Applying to a House-Sit in English Canada

  • I hope this note finds you well, and you’re enjoying a lovely [autumn] in [city].
  • I am writing to express interest in caring for your [pet] and home this [month].
  • I am sorry I do not speak English. Do you speak French? /  Je suis désolé, je ne parle pas anglais. Peut-être parlez-vous français?
  • I’d be happy to speak with you about this over a Skype call if you’d like.
  • Thank you for your time, and I look forward to hearing from you soon.
  • Sign your first name.

Final Thoughts

As we noted in the first guide about France, it’s difficult to avoid generalising cultures and groups when speaking about cultural differences, especially given the fact that Canada is one of the most culturally-diverse countries in the world.

In this post, we’ve tried to outline the concepts and guidelines that are generally accepted across Canada, but individual difference, age, and personal preference will certainly impact homeowner expectations.

And, of course, if you try these techniques yourself, we would love to hear how it goes in the comments!


A note about sources

This guide was written with the input of the Nomador team, and drawing upon my education in Intercultural Communications. However, I also consulted the following sources:

geert-hofstede.com
thearticulateceo.typepad.com
www.euroafrica-multiculture.com
www.international-business-etiquette.com
Cross-Cultural Management: Culture and Management across the World, ed. Jean-François Chanlat, Eduardo Davel, Jean-Pierre Dupuis


Katie Matthews
Wandertooth.com

As full-time travellers, Katie Matthews and her husband Geoff frequently housesit as a way to gain a deeper interaction with different cultures, meet like-minded people, and spend some time with furry animals. They have been housesitting since 2013, and spend their days spoiling pets, creating travel-themed adult colouring books, and writing on their blog, wandertooth.com. Holding a Master's of Arts in International and Intercultural Communication, Katie has a keen interest in how culture shapes communications.

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