Canadian for the perplexed

Inspired by a post in The Economist‘s Johnson blog entitled “Portuguese for the perplexed,” which was in turn inspired by a 2011 post in the same blog to help foreigners understand British English, I have decided to put together a short guide to Canadian English. Because underneath our polite demeanor, we’re actually sort of mean.

What Canadians say: Hi! How are you?
What foreigners hear: I want to know how you are doing.
What Canadians mean: Hi! Please do not tell me anything about your life unless you want this conversation to end swiftly–that was only meant as a polite and insincere greeting.

What Canadians say: Sorry! (After you’ve bumped into them.)
What foreigners hear: I apologize for getting in your way.
What Canadians mean: I’m sorry that you’re too stupid to look where you’re going.

What Canadians say: Absolutely!
What foreigners hear: Yes! Most definitely!
What Canadians mean: No, not a chance, never in a million years!

What Canadians say: What makes you say that?
What foreigners hear: What is your motivation for making that statement? Please explain yourself so I can see it from your point of view.
What Canadians mean: You are completely wrong and nothing you say next will change my mind.

What Canadians say: You’re hilarious!
What foreigners hear: You are very humorous.
What Canadians mean: I fear for my safety when you are near.

What Canadians say: It’s not a big deal/don’t worry about it.
What foreigners hear: It’s not that important, it won’t be a problem.
What Canadians mean: It is a big deal and I’m pissed.

What Canadians say: That’s really interesting.
What foreigners hear: I am fascinated by what you’ve told me.
What Canadians mean: That’s weird/stupid/annoying/messed up/boring/insert any adjective with a negative connotation here.

What Canadians say: He had one too many.
What foreigners hear: He drank a little bit too much.
What Canadians mean: He had to go to the hospital to get his stomach pumped.

What Canadians say: That’s understandable; not everyone follows hockey.
What foreigners hear: To each his own; we can totally be friends even if you do not like hockey.
What Canadians mean: Get away from me immediately, you piece of human garbage.

What Canadians say: Yup.
What foreigners hear: You have made a statement with which I agree.
What Canadians mean: No shit, dummy. (You have made a painfully obvious statement or you have said something I wish weren’t true.)

What Canadians say: I’ll call you.
What foreigners hear: I will make an effort to speak with you on the phone soon.
What Canadians mean: I probably won’t talk to you ever again. In Canada phones have not been used for speaking with others since 2005.

What Canadians say: I feel like there’s something you’re not telling me.
What foreigners hear: I am gently asking you if perhaps there is something you’ve left out to spare my feelings.
What Canadians mean: You are a liar. (You’ve really made him/her angry–it doesn’t get more confrontational than this for most Canadians!)

What Canadians say: I’m disappointed that…, It’s disappointing that…
What foreigners hear: I have been let down in some way.
What Canadians mean: I’m mad as hell that…(You better hope the disappointment was not caused by you. If it was, the Canadian will assure you it’s not a big deal then promise to call you. You’ve just lost the politest friend you could ever hope to have.)

What Canadians say: No worries, no problem (usually after they have done some favor for you).
What foreigners hear: I was happy to do it.
What Canadians mean: It was a huge inconvenience and I won’t be doing you a favor again after the scant gratitude you’ve shown.

What Canadians say: It’s so cold out today!
What foreigners hear: The weather is very cold.
What Canadians mean: I am attempting to engage in a cultural bonding ritual with you. If you do not agree wholeheartedly and enthusiastically with my statement about the weather, I will feel betrayed and disengage myself from this social situation. (At this juncture it is usually a good idea to mention something about how the wind or humidity makes the cold even worse. Don’t screw this up–a bungled weather conversation is a hard thing from which to recover. The Canadian will love you forever if you casually mention that you’ve been to Siberia and it was like Hawaii compared to Canada.)

Canadians are simple creatures–we bond over weather, and hide our rage behind a thin veneer of politeness. It may not be healthy, but it’s very civil and quiet. In fact, the loudest thing in Canada is probably Don Cherry’s suit.


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