When meeting Canadians for the first time, there are a number of topics that can be touched upon. But the first question on first contact will be: what do you do? Work/occupation is important to Canadians, and it is also a social marker; it is what separates and defines a person in relation to another.
Local* Perspective - When meeting Canadians for the first time, there are a number of topics that can be touched upon. But the first question on first contact will be: what do you do? Work/occupation is important to Canadians, and it is also a social marker; it is what separates and defines a person in relation to another. Another related topic of conversation is educational attainment and/or professional experience.
Canadians are known for travelling and thus are curious about world geography and other lands. When meeting someone a conversation may also touch on places to visit, be it locally or overseas. They want to know about other places, including the food, customs, music, the political climate. These interactions may differ depending on how the contact is made. For instance, when meeting someone for business, the conversation may be confined to very safe and neutral topics. When meeting people through friends or associations, the connection may take a deeper level.
Canadians are keenly aware of "otherness", and consequently it is common to hear: where are you from? as a first contact question. Asking questions like this one is a way to assert identity, and establish the boundaries of belonging. This is a question posed to Canadians from other regions, and newcomers to Canada, as there is a strong sense in Canadian identity of what one is not. This relation is expressed often to mark the differences between provinces and also to assert their difference between themselves and their Americans cousins.
Humour should be approached with caution in Canada, as in other places, because the sense of political correctness is very strong in many social circles. Take time to learn the appropriate and acceptable limits of humour to avoid the risk of offending someone. However, it is important to note that humour is region and city specific in some cases. In the East Coast of Canada, for instance, humour can be self-effacing and people’s sensitivities are tougher with more tolerant limits. Similarly, Quebec has a different threshold for humour and limits on the topics used.
Topics to be avoided on first contact are money, salary, religion, and politics, especially the separatist movement. Newcomers to Canada can use the interlocutor’s cues for approaching topics or subjects during a first rendezvous.
* Local designates a person born in Canada as opposed to a person of Canadian origin
Canadian Perspective - Good topics of conversation are: work, studies, the weather (a good opener), one’s house, vacations, sports (especially hockey, American football, baseball, water sports and, increasingly, soccer/football) and other leisure activities. Generally, Canadians are not comfortable talking about salaries or personal finances and tend to steer away from discussing emotions. Asking questions about marriage or children can be interpreted as too personal by some.
Generally, it is good to keep conversation light and, if possible, funny. If people really want to know a lot about a given subject, they will ask questions; otherwise, it is best not to get too seriously into any one topic.
Appropriate topics of discussion will depend a lot on the crowd. Most Canadians know something about local or national politics, but many do not concern themselves with such issues. In any case, you will hear Canadians complain about politics and politicians but they are also very sensitive to how they are perceived by outsiders, so it is best to refrain from criticizing. Many Canadians have travelled abroad and have differing degrees of exposure to the ways of other countries. The more they have travelled, the more curious they are likely to be about the perceptions of foreigners; I would not recommend making this a main topic of conversation, however.
Canadians are often very proud of their natural surroundings, Canadian weather and their heartiness with respect to enduring the weather. Canadian musicians, writers, film producers and actors (comedians especially) are also a great source of pride. Men in particular are proud of Canadian beer and hockey, although women are increasingly a part of this sub-culture. Virtually all Canadians are eager to distinguish themselves from Americans.
The best way to impress most Canadians is to show what you have noticed is different from the United States, as there is a great deal of sensitivity and concern about being lumped in with our powerful neighbour. Most Canadians see themselves as humbler, funnier, more tolerant and/or less aggressive than Americans. I would not recommend overly criticizing the US, however. Canada depends on its neighbour and has strong cultural and historical ties. Many Canadians have relatives who live in the US.
Canadians tend to be very politically correct and concerned with fairness, although this varies from one region to the next and depends on the crowd. As the cherished image of many Canadians is of a tolerant society that is also more socially minded than that of the US, discussions of social classes, racial or other discrimination and private medical care are to be approached with care.
Generalizations about Canadians can also raise sensitive issues of regionalism. Central Canadians typically claim to speak for the country and Quebecois, people from the East Coast, the North, the West Coast, the West and the Prairies frequently differ from Central Canadians’ perspectives and are eager to point out the differences. A similar dynamic operates between Toronto and anyone outside of Toronto and there can be large cultural differences between other cities as well.