“What’s Your Background:” Cultural Differences Between Canada and the US

Growing up in the Greater Toronto Area, it was fairly common to meet people of different ethnicities and cultures. As a kid, when you’re first meeting someone — at least when I was growing up — one of the first questions (after learning someone’s name) was probably some iteration of: “What’s Your Background?”

Until I moved to mid-Michigan for university after high school, I didn’t realize that asking this question may have been a norm where I grew up and not anywhere else. I still remember when I first asked someone about their “background” when I arrived at university. They looked at me funny and so then I rattled off some possible answers, Irish, Italian, English, etc. The response I received was a stern: “I’m American.” I responded by saying I assumed that, but that I was also curious to know about their cultural heritage. The person reaffirmed that they were American.

And thus was the eye-opening experience for me — ingrained in a Canadian’s identity is that they aren’t necessarily from Canada or that they didn’t necessarily start in Canada. Canadians know that there was something before Canada.

At this point, I should clarify that it’s really not fair to make sweeping generalizations about all Americans or all Canadians. It’s probably not even fair to make generalizations about Americans from mid-Michigan or Canadians from the Greater Toronto Area. While I might hypothesize that something along the lines of what I just said in the above paragraph, my point in sharing this today is to highlight to you that there may be some “blind spots” that you’re unaware of, if you remain nestled in your own culture.

In fact, you may not even have to leave the country to notice your “blind spots.” Simply by taking up a new activity or popping into a different community, you may find that the way you think about something is vastly different from the way someone else thinks about that same thing. You may also find that your group’s “norms” are borderline blasphemous to another group (sidenote: while asking about someone’s background as a kid was normal, I learned that continuing to do this after moving to mid-Michigan was seen as ‘rude.’)

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