Monday, January 12, 2009

Stupid Americans

When I first moved to Canada and started my job as an underwriter at a large insurance company, I found myself struggling daily to establish any credibility with my co-workers or managers. I have over six years of experience working in insurance, and over ten years of experience in training business writing, insurance education, and software skills. Yet, it seemed that nothing I did or said convinced my colleagues that I was an established and educated professional.

Any time I made any reference to insurance concepts, I was hastily dismissed with “Oh, well, that’s in the States. It’s different here in Canada.” When I developed reference spreadsheets that would also calculate premiums, these time-saving tools were not trusted as my co-workers preferred to look up all information in thousand-page plus manuals in three-ring binders. (Interestingly enough, some of the information in my spreadsheets was copied and pasted directly from the electronic copy of the manuals).

During the training class I attended for underwriters who were new to the company, I found that I was one of the only participants with any prior insurance experience. Yet, every comment I made was met with either blank stares or eye rolling. Quite often I would make a statement or ask a question and the person to whom I was speaking would stare at me for a few seconds and then carry on with their previous discussion without ever responding to me at all.

The feeling that none of my previous experience or knowledge seemed to matter here was very demoralizing. I came home from work every night feeling empty and missing the job I had in the US. I quickly realized that the differences in insurance between Canada and the US were minimal. I would say that they are at least 70% similar. It didn’t help that none of my designations earned from the Insurance Institute of America are recognized in Canada.

About three months into my new job, I hit rock bottom. I didn’t enjoy going to work. I didn’t feel that I had any respect or credibility at work. I was clearly seen on the same level as my early 20-something co-workers who were new to insurance, and in many cases, new to the workforce. But, after paying more attention to Canadian television and the other interactions I had outside of work, I started to realize that the source of my problems were much deeper and firmly rooted in the Canadian psyche than I could even imagine.

Basically, Canadians believe that Americans are stupid. I don’t know if I can blame the Canadians for thinking this. If you look at some of the people who have been elected to high office (GWB) or almost elected to high office (Sarah Palin) in recent times, you can start to understand the influences in the Canadians’ perceptions of their southern neighbors.

Also, Canadians really seem to enjoy deliberately setting out to humiliate Americans. Rick Mercer, an influential comedian and Canadian TV show host has basically created a name for himself by interviewing Americans and asking them simple questions. You guessed it—the Americans make fools of themselves with their ridiculous answers. Mercer will find Americans and tell them that the capitol building in Canada is an igloo and then get them to say, “Congratulations Canada on preserving your igloo.” Or, he will ask Americans if they think a presidential candidate will visit Toronto, the capital of Canada, if elected.

We don’t know how many people Mercer spoke with who said, “That’s not true—you don’t have an igloo for a capitol building” or how many replied, “Toronto isn’t the capital of Canada!” Such replies wouldn’t be as much fun to air. And, to be fair, American’s don’t know a lot about Canada because it doesn’t take as large a role in international affairs as other countries. Furthermore, Americans who live in states far from the Canadian border aren’t prone to visit Canada because they would rather travel to warmer climates. Growing up in Michigan, I did visit Canada often as it was only a couple hours’ drive.

I was speaking with a lady at the drugstore here in Cambridge. I mentioned that I had just moved to Canada, and she assumed (correctly) that I was from the United States. She then asked if I was surprised when I found out that Canadians don’t all live in igloos. I was almost too shocked to respond. Instead I said, “Well, I’m from Michigan. We’ve all been to Canada so we know what it’s like.”

A guy who was nearby overheard the conversation and then asked me if people in northern Michigan lived in igloos.

Apparently, a primary reason I have been having so much trouble earning respect at work is because I am American. Therefore, I must be stupid, right?

Another conversation I had was with my Canadian co-workers and
was about the man pictured on the Canadian five-dollar bill. I mentioned that he looks just like the evil Emperor Palpatine from the Star Wars movies. In response, my co-workers said, “Who is on our five-dollar bill?” Being the stupid American I am, I informed them that the bill pictures Wilfrid Laurier, one of the first Canadian Prime Ministers.


Another interesting conversation took place, as they often do, in the locker room before a hockey game. I don’t remember how exactly, but the conversation, unfortunately, turned to the Canadians’ favorite subject of stupid Americans. I learned about how many American students can’t find their home state on a map, etc., etc. I was also told about one of my teammates’ trips to Georgia where she encountered a man who, upon learning she was from Canada, asked if she knew his cousin in Winnipeg. I had to explain that I had been asked the same type of question once while visiting the United Kingdom. See, it’s not just Americans who are stupid.

On a different occasion, one of my co-workers decided it was appropriate to quiz me on my knowledge of current Canadian events. He said to me, “Do you know who is the Prime Minister?” I was so surprised that he would think I moved to Canada without even knowing this that I stammered for a few seconds while he smirked. Finally I blurted out, “Yes, I do! It’s Steven Harper. Before him, it was Paul Martin. And before him, it was Jean Chrétien.” My response resulted in stunned silence and I have not been quizzed about Canadian leaders since.

I’ve been trying to reconcile the Canadian obsession with “Stupid Americans” in my mind and the only justification I can rationalize is that Canadians have such an inferiority complex and so much frustration at their lack of global importance compared to the United States that they attempt to make themselves feel better by belittling Americans. However, I think this might be a bitter oversimplification. As others have suggested, it may be more like the relationship between two brothers—an affectionate rivalry. I really do hope this is the case, but I have picked up subtle hints of resentment towards Americans. I think the Canadian relationship to American counterparts is complex and I will continue to quietly observe before drawing any further conclusions. In the mean time, I’ve determined that it’s best not to draw any attention to the fact that I’m from the US. And, if I am asked, instead of saying I’m from the US, I just say I’m from Michigan.

But what do Canadians, and specifically Ontarians, know about Michigan? Apparently not much. More on that later. . . .

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