Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Canadian and American perceptions of "rudeness"

Thought experiment: you have a co-worker, Charlotte. You know from office gossip that she had a very messy divorce a few years back and she's been single ever since, but you've never spoken with her about it. You get along well with her, but you're not friends and you don't socialize with her beyond the occasional water cooler conversation. At one of these water cooler conversations, she says something cryptic that suggests she may now be dating Harold, a co-worker of the two of yours, but she doesn't elaborate any further. You are very curious about the details.

Which (if either) of the following responses to this situation would you consider to be more "rude"?

a) A question like: "Oh, are you and Harold an item now, then?"

b) Saying nothing to her, but later asking several other co-workers whether they've heard anything about Charlotte and Harold, and whether they know any more details than what you know.

I wouldn't stake my life on it, but from having lived in both the U.S. and Canada, I'm guessing that Canadians will consider a) more rude, and Americans will consider b) more rude.


Anonymous said...

Interesting. I would been more prone to do "B". A just seems a little nosy to me. I don't know if Americans feel that way. Sometimes they do strike me as a little forward.

Josh Gould said...

Again, I'd say (a) is more rude, simply because it's not really appropriate to ask personal questions of people you don't know well. Asking other co-workers whether they know anything is pretty innocuous, though gossip-seeking it remains.

Kuri said...

I'd consider both to be sort of rude, although which is worse would depend upon the circumstances. Unfortunately, that opinion wouldn't stop my curiousity so my reaction would be c) sit and wonder about Charlotte and Harold, and also be on the look out for any hints in their behaviour that they might be dating.

I have no idea if c) is particularly "Canadian" or not but perhaps this is why I'm labelled "quiet" at work.

Mike said...

IP, I think have it nailed as suzanne and josh indicate.

Josh Gould said...

It's true; I'd be more inclined just to be observant, but I'd still ask around before saying anything direct.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes you want to know because you don't want to say anything stupid the person involved. I remember one time I was working in an office and I suspected this pair was an item, but I felt a little dumb asking the woman straightforward. The couple kept it more or less "hush" but they were really friendly in the office, and they left together at the end of the day. Now, does it mean they were dating, or did they just carpool? You just don't want to be out of the loop. I was a receptionist at the time. A receptionist wants to keep on top not to be a busybody (I wouldn't gossip it to the whole office or anything) but sometimes you need to know to go with the flow and keep the discussion smooth.

Robert McClelland said...

Choose option c) Go ask Harold.

KevinG said...

If she'd wanted me to know she'd have told me. I'd consider both to be a little rude but I agree with your generalization. It's one of the things I liked about my time in the US: it's just more straight forward.

Anonymous said...

To me I'll choose option c)

Cancer Type

Deanna said...

This is why I'm always the last to know. I don't do a or b, though if other people were talking about it, I'd pay attention. I just wouldn't initiate that conversation.

I think it's mostly because I prefer people not ask me nosy questions about my personal life, since it's complicated and there is no simple answer.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

You know, you guys are saying exactly what I suspected you would say, and proving me right in the process. But I can find no joy in that because this aspect of Canadian culture drives me far too batshit. It makes me want to say things like:

If "a" is nosy, then "b" is JUST as nosy!

If Charlotte has hinted, then "a" isn't "asking personal questions," it's MAKING CONVERSATION!

If it's not appropriate to ask personal questions of people you don't know well, how the heck do you ever get to know anyone BETTER?

And most importantly:

HOW can it be considered LESS RUDE to GOSSIP ABOUT SOMEBODY BEHIND HER BACK than it is to ask her directly?!

*pant, pant* *grin*

Anonymous said...

Definitely A. Canadians would consider such an open discussion of something personal to be extremely embarassing and rude.

Anonymous said...

To answer your question b is less rude (to a Canadian) because it removes any possibility of direct conflict with Charlotte. We will do all kinds of iffy things to avoid direct conflict.

The JF said...

I'd go with Kuri's C. We Canadians are sneaky like that. :P

Niles said...

If I wasn't part of the lady's social circle, I wouldn't ask anyone. The only way it would be any of my business at work is if she and the fellow were stepping over the bounds of workplace professionalism with inappropriate intimate bonds (ie: one of them was a direct superior to the other and subsequent favoritism resulted).

If the couple were an intimate relationship otherwise, it would eventually emerge into the 'public' sphere enough to be visible, or it wouldn't. Their choice to not publicize it.

cdntarheel said...

Hi IP,


While I do not think that you're hypothetical problem necessarily depicts differences between Americans and Canadians, I see where you're coming from. It's rather difficult to articulate the difference precisely. It seems to lie somewhere in between the "direct" quality of option "a" and the "passive" nature of "b".

Directness can be polite. And passiveness can be rude. In this case, I'd rather be accused of being to forward under option "a", than of gossip under option "b".

--Canadian Tar Heel

Matthew said...

As an American, I don't think that either is particularly rude. If she didn't want me to be curious about the relationship, she wouldn't have brought it up even tangentially.

To me, it's just as much about gender as nationality. As a man, I would tend to believe that Charlotte gave me a carefully measured amount of information and that probing her further wouldn't do much good at this moment in time, but that her girlfriends at work might be less guarded. On the other hand, I suspect that the dynamic might be different if I were a woman: there exists the possibility that she is offering a gambit to develop a work friendship and that not asking follow-up questions immediately would be refusing that offer. (At least that's what I carried away from reading Deborah Tannen. :)

Being me, I'd probably go talk to Harold about an office manager and find a way to work Charlotte's name into the conversation a few times just to see the change in his facial expression.

Josh Gould said...

If Charlotte has hinted, then "a" isn't "asking personal questions," it's MAKING CONVERSATION!

Yes, but there are bounds on that. Even if you were to ask Charlotte about Harold, it would have to be more of an open-ended question as part of a longer conversation. Approaching her and asking her outright what's going on is on the rude side of things - if she wanted you to know, she would have told you already outright.

If it's not appropriate to ask personal questions of people you don't know well, how the heck do you ever get to know anyone BETTER?

Well, getting to know someone takes time. If you just start asking direct questions about Charlotte's personal life, it sounds more like prying for gossip or details than trying to get to know her.

And most importantly:

HOW can it be considered LESS RUDE to GOSSIP ABOUT SOMEBODY BEHIND HER BACK than it is to ask her directly?!

Simply put, the directness is where the rudeness comes in. If you must satisfy your curiousity, asking other co-workers is better, though they may not be inclined to answer regardless of whether they know anything. Gossip has more a malicious quality, I think, than this sort of simple curiousity.

Now, if you want to get to know Charlotte better, you should be asking her how she's been doing since the divorce or something like that - a personal question which is more about empathy than getting the juicy details of her personal life. I suppose the issue is what motivates your curiousity - are you interested in getting to know Charlotte or are you just curious about the details for their own (somewhat gossipy) sake? If the latter, you shouldn't really be asking around at all, but that wouldn't be as rude as trying to get the gossip directly from her.

Olaf said...

I'm gonna vote b) is more rude, especially if she brought the topic up. Plus, in general, people like talking about their personal life at the office, and are absolutely thrilled when someone seems to care.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


I can see where you're coming from, but it's awfully hard for me to imagine reacting that way myself if I were in Charlotte's position. I mean, I loathe it when people try to figure out what's going on with me by asking behind my back. LOATHE it. It feels not just rude (incredibly so!), but cowardly. And at the same time, I can't imagine perceiving a direct question about my life as rude, especially if I've given my conversation partner an opening. I can certainly imagine circumstances where I wouldn't want to answer the question with a full-fledged answer, but even then I would never think of it as rude. Certainly not as rude as going behind my back and trying to piece things together with other colleagues!

I suppose there are ways I'll never quite be as Canadian as my non-immigrant fellow Canadians.


I should make a crack about it being true that Albertans are more American than everybody else, but I'm feeling more generous than that, so: yes!!! exactly!!!

Olaf said...


Indeed, and you're an Albertan by choice! I was indoctrinated here, and can hardly be held responsible.

West End Bound said...

As a US citizen aspiring to be Canadian, I would agree with Deanna's reply.

Does mean Citizenship and Immigration Canada will delay my Permanent Resident status???

Deanna said...

You're fine, west end bound. I'm sure there are a number of Canadians who fit in category c.

Good luck with your permanent resident status. :)

Stu Hood said...

I'm Canadian and I wouldn't consider either of them rude, but a) is a little more 'agressive', or should I say 'pro-active'...

I myself would probably resort to d): forget about it

L-girl said...

I'm late to this, but I agree with Josh Gould.

She brought it up. You ask a question directly, and it's up to her if she wants to answer it. She might be hinting and hoping you do.

But asking around behind her back, now *that* is rude.

L-girl said...

Oh sheesh, I read something wrong. It's not Josh Gould I'm agreeing with. It's YOU.

Direct = fine, behind-the-back gossip = rude.

My observations about Canadian discourse have been the same. It's very British in that respect (in my experience). I don't like it either.

Québécoise ambulante said...

Well... I don't know that you'll remember, but once a colleague of ours hinted that she was married (so brand new information coming out of no where)? I chose not to ask her to clarify and later asked you!

I guess that says it all...

I'm still reluctant to label my behaviour as being "rude", but I can't deny the behaviour itself!