Why changing countries can be such a challenge

English: Montage of 15 Canadians from 14 diffe...
English: Montage of 15 Canadians from 14 different ethnic backgrounds (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s an excellent, helpful blog post recently chosen for Freshly Pressed, written by one of my favorite bloggers, a Canadian woman who has since re-patriated:

I made the same mistake a lot of people make: assuming that moving to a “similar” culture is a cakewalk. Blaine is the first to admit he thought the same thing, and we’re not alone. A study published in the International Journal of Human Resource Management found that

“in the absence of complete information, expatriates may be creating stereotypes on the basis of language similarity. In particular, those expatriates who spoke the language of the host country expected an ‘easier’ experience…. In fact, these expatriates may need additional CCT [cross-cultural training] to help overcome their stereotypes or their inappropriate expectations.”

I know that several Broadside readers — like Conor in Korea, Katharina in Germany, Rian in Canada, Holly in Australia, Wanderlust Gene in Sri Lanka — are living far away from your homelands (Ireland, Ireland, the U.S., Canada and Australia.)

It demands a real re-boot of your notions of identity and belonging.

It’s not surprising to me that two of my closer friends here in New York, where I moved from Canada in 1989, are people who have moved around globally, like an American-born woman who met her French husband when they were both working in Tokyo. It helps to share international references with them — only about one-third of Americans even own a passport and many have no idea, (or interest in), how the rest of the world functions.

I left Canada in January 1988 to move to a small town in New Hampshire, (double culture shock after living in Toronto, Paris, London and Montreal).  I moved in June 1989 to a small suburban New York town, 25 miles from Manhattan — whose towers I can see, glimmering like Oz, in the distance.

I lived in Mexico at 14 and France at 25. But my adjustment to life in the United States has been tougher for me in some ways than either of those, for the reasons Maria so wisely analyzes:

People tend to fixate on language differences, but of course it goes much deeper than that — we often come up against values, attitudes, and behaviours that we mistakenly assume will be the same as ours. For Blaine, one of the biggest issues was the famous British reserve. “It’s true,” he says. “The stiff upper lip really does exist.”

“That’s funny,” says Aisha. “I find the Canadian veneer of politeness very difficult to penetrate. I find the British more direct — but maybe that’s just because I’m more familiar with the non-verbal cues.”

Canadians live, as many Europeans do, in a “nanny state”, a country where it’s normal to pay a lot of tax — income, sales tax, tax on gasoline and wine and beer, even stamps — and expect a lot in return: free health care and heavily subsidized secondary education, to name two most important. You can apply for government grants for all sorts of things.

Map of Toronto
Map of Toronto (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s a small country in population — 34.5 million — but enormous in size. Canadians tend not to move around nearly as often as Americans, for a variety of reasons. There are only a few major cities: Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary; if you don’t speak excellent French, Montreal and Ottawa can present difficulties.

One of the major  behavioral differences to adjust to between Canadians and Americans is their differing appetite for risk…Canadians hate it. They hate conflict. They hate confrontation. They’d rather simply ignore your calls and emails than say” “No, we’re not interested.”

Move to the United States and you’re in for some serious culture shock and some significantly different attitudes.

Standing up and speaking out carry risks. But in the States, people go to prison, (like entrepreneur Martha Stewart), and come right back into successful business, which still leaves me somewhat open-mouthed. But the good news is that if someone here thinks you can be professionally useful to them — i.e. make them some cash — they’ll take your call or email and might meet you. In Canada you need personal introductions through mutual friends to even get someone to take your call and even then they ignore you…

As a freelancer, that’s been a big — and happy — adjustment. But I’ve also learned, after decades in the States, to be both much warier and more persistent. Wary of huge initial enthusiasm, (professional and personal), which is very American, and too often quickly disappears, and being willing to make the 3rd or 5th or 10th email or phone call because so many people are busy and overwhelmed.

Martha Stewart
Martha Stewart (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Another difference is bare-knuckled American capitalism. We’re all simply units of labor. Employers can fire you for any reason at any time. One editor I know just left a job after four years, after being one of the founders of a thriving website. She got one month’s severance.

(Many Americans would consider her lucky to have gotten even that much. For a country that yammers on about liberty, American workers seem shockingly cowed and powerless to me.)

Instead of unions, Americans rely on the court system, (which operates by quite different rules than other nations), to try and obtain redress, if not justice. I routinely send — and pay for — lawyer’s letters to deadbeat, cheats and late payers, who abound in the world of publishing and journalism.

You fight for your rights here, and people expect it. It sometimes feels like a wearying game of “who’ll draw first” like cowboys reaching for their pistols in some 1860s saloon.

Many New Yorkers speak to you as if they’ve known you for years — strangers on the street or train (!) have complimented me on my hair color, legs, shoes and other items in ways I still find forward and impertinent, if charming. I’ve started referring to people as “you guys”, sounding more Mafioso than elegant.

My husband is both American and Hispanic, a double cultural difference that plays out in all sorts of ways. There are days he hisses: “This not the time to be Canadian!”

Then I quote a Brit, (and a TV character at that), the Dowager Countess Grantham: “Why does every day involve a fight with an American?”

What adjustments have you made as an ex-pat?

How did you feel about it?

Canadians May Be Boring — But Their Banks Are Solvent

Children in costumes with flags at Jones Park
Image by George Eastman House via Flickr

Yeah, yeah. Canada’s boring, So say many (snotty) Americans.

Boring is one aspect of being risk-averse. Risk aversion can also mean being smart, conservative, cautious, prudent.

Yesterday’s Financial Times has a terrific piece on this; as does today’s New York Times, with Paul Krugman’s column:

The New Republic famously pronounced “Worthwhile Canadian Initiative” (from a Times Op-Ed column in the ’80s) the world’s most boring headline. But I’ve always considered Canada fascinating, precisely because it’s similar to the United States in many but not all ways. The point is that when Canadian and U.S. experience diverge, it’s a very good bet that policy differences, rather than differences in culture or economic structure, are responsible for that divergence.

And anyway, when it comes to banking, boring is good…

Above all, Canada’s experience seems to support those who say that the way to keep banking safe is to keep it boring — that is, to limit the extent to which banks can take on risk. The United States used to have a boring banking system, but Reagan-era deregulation made things dangerously interesting. Canada, by contrast, has maintained a happy tedium.

More specifically, Canada has been much stricter about limiting banks’ leverage, the extent to which they can rely on borrowed funds. It has also limited the process of securitization, in which banks package and resell claims on their loans outstanding — a process that was supposed to help banks reduce their risk by spreading it, but has turned out in practice to be a way for banks to make ever-bigger wagers with other people’s money.

There’s no question that in recent years these restrictions meant fewer opportunities for bankers to come up with clever ideas than would have been available if Canada had emulated America’s deregulatory zeal. But that, it turns out, was all to the good.

What Krugman doesn’t address is one important and fundamental difference between snoozy Canucks and their southern neighbors — and it isn’t a government policy but a cultural norm. Owning your own home, whether you actually have the means to buy, maintain and pay your mortgage obligations in full every month for decades, is a deeply American fantasy.

There is no “Canadian dream” when it comes to home ownership. Canadians do not receive a tax deduction on their mortgage interest, an attractive pull into home ownership in the U.S. Whether you’re a banker, mortgage broker, realtor, buyer or seller, there is remarkably little Canadian sentimentality attached, at any point, to buying or owning a piece of property. Unlike the U.S., where everyone’s rooting for you to buy a house, condo, co-op, anything, or they once were, there’s no FannieMae or FreddieMac, these faux-people offering money for your cosy little cottage.

In Canada, you can afford to buy your home, or you can’t. However elitist and demanding, banks expect buyers to show up with a hefty down payment — none of these 99% mortgages up north — which means having been Canadian enough (i.e. boring, safe, sober, conservative) to save a lot of money before the privilege of buying your home becomes possible.

Owning your housing is not expected. It’s not a right. It’s not some shared fever “dream.”

Americans seek “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Now millions of them are in foreclosure, their home-owning reach having far exceeded their grasp — in part, thanks to buyers’ greed and ignorance, in part thanks to the easy/predatory lending by American banks.

Canadians’ constitution promises — zzzzzzz — “peace, order and good government.”

Boring, maybe. Solvent, yes.

Stop Smiling! Pessimists Live Longer (Or Maybe It Just Feels Like It)

Barbara Ehrenreich by David Shankbone, New Yor...
Author Barbara Ehrenreich, looking a little glum.Image via Wikipedia

In her latest book, which got fairly well savaged by The New York Times yesterday, prolific author Barbara Ehrenreich argues against the prevailing American culture of smiley-faced optimism, urging readers instead toward “vigilant realism.”

Her larger point — Americans have been hornswoggled into really believing they stand a good shot at their pursuit of happiness, even with six people now competing for every available job.

As someone who moved to the U.S. from Canada, from a smaller, more dour crowd into a sea of the perpetually, somewhat exhaustingly upbeat,  I’ve always found this relentless optimism a little puzzling. Up north, we don’t expect everything to be OK and much of Canadian culture supports this somewhat fatalistic point of view: it’s a lot harder to sue someone, awards are smaller and if you lose your case, you’ll probably pay court costs. So you might be bitterly disappointed that your prom date ditched you at the last minute — to name one American lawsuit that struck me as extremely bizarre — but you can’t haul their ass into court to make yourself feel better.

“Suck it up” might be our real motto instead of the Latin, literal “Ad Mare Usque Ad Mare” (From Sea to Sea, which is geographically accurate, if a little dull) Long, dark, bitterly cold winters, lower salaries and higher taxes remind Canadians that life isn’t all skittles and beer, nor are we raised to expect it to be. So, if a business person is sent to prison, say for malfeasance, they don’t really think they’ll come roaring back to the wide-open embrace of Wall Street.

Call us sourpusses, but sometimes I prefer that more measured outlook — Ehrenreich’s book cites a study suggesting a darker worldview is healthier long-term than optimism because pessimists take fewer risks and are less likely to fall into depression when things don’t work out.

Maybe it’s time to make Eeyore your mascot instead.