Saturday, September 26, 2009

No Introductions Necessary

When I first moved to Canada just over a year ago, I started my new job within two weeks. I negotiated the terms of my new employment over the phone while I was still in the US with someone I thought was from the Human Resource department. After all, the person calling and offering me a job was not one of the people who had interviewed me when I had been in Ontario for my interview a few weeks earlier. I spoke with her about salary, and I also asked her about benefits. She said, “Well, you know, there’s a pension plan, and things like that.” I thought that was a pretty odd answer from a HR representative.

Shortly after moving Canada, a few days before I started at the new company, I met with this HR rep to sign papers and fill out various forms. I asked her about vacation days, sick days, hours of work, and any other perk that came to mind. The answers I got were vague and general.

I cannot understate my horror when I reported to work on the first day only to find that the person I thought was from HR was actually my boss. I was extremely embarrassed—I realized that, to her, I must have appeared to only care about the pay and benefits rather than any other aspects of the job. During our form-filling-out meeting, every time she said, “What other questions do you have?” I responded with more questions about benefits. A couple of months later, I ended up apologizing for coming across as uninterested in the actual function of the job when I first started.

Thinking about the whole thing later, I wondered what ever gave me the impression that my boss was an HR rep. Apparently it was a natural conclusion on my part because my boss had never explained when she called to offer me the job that she would be my manager. I’m not sure what else I would have been left to think.

Looking back now, over a year later, I see that this incident was only indicative of a larger pattern that I have encountered in Canada—Canadians don’t bother with introductions. They rarely introduce themselves to you, and even worse, they don’t introduce mutual acquaintances to each other. (Of course, this could just be something at my company or something in Southwest Ontario or something with the Canadian insurance industry, but I suspect it’s deeper.)

This issue has been additionally complicated for me, as I was one who was poor at introductions while I was still living in Michigan. While there, co-workers and family members would chide me for forgetting to introduce people to each other at work and social gatherings, and it was always a nerve-racking effort to properly introduce myself to others if such a self-introduction was needed. Well, wouldn’t you know it, I am the absolute specialist on introductions in Canada.

I’m not even going to recount the details of the numerous business meetings where I’ve had conversations with people who I had no idea who they were. I could have had lunch with the CEO of the company and not known it. Social functions have been little better, and again, I’ve found myself in heated hour-long discussions about Sidney Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin with people who could as easily have been a famous actor or a hardened criminal. (And going back to one of my most fundamental observations about the difference between Canadians and Americans, I’ve learned that it appears nosy and rude to ask someone personal questions such as “Who ARE you, anyway?”)

I’ve tried to determine the cause for this apparent lack of what I always considered a common courtesy in both business and social situations. I can’t imagine what makes it so difficult for Canadians to remember to introduce someone new to others. Of course, there are exceptions, and a few of the Canadians I work with are great about introducing me to others. Where I am from, it was ingrained that it is downright inconsiderate to not immediately introduce someone that you know to others you encounter. In fact, in most of my business and social interactions in the US, introductions were completed with immediacy, even to the point of interrupting to make the introduction so that the unknown party would not have to stand there feeling uncomfortable during a conversation. Even I, with my poor introduction skills, had to make this the first item of any personal interaction involving someone new. As well, in the US, I NEVER had to introduce myself to someone when a mutual acquaintance was present.

Knowing that stereotypes of Americans being loud and brash abound in Canada, I can get away with some behaviors that Canadians can’t. (More on that in a future post.) One of these allowances is introducing myself to others in business environments. Introducing yourself to others in the US, especially in business situations, is somewhat of a faux pas because it draws attention to another’s failure to introduce you. I’ve stopped worrying whether this is inappropriate in Canada because if I hesitate, the meeting starts, and no one knows who the heck I am—I can see it in their eyes when I first speak up.

I’ve decided that I can accentuate my US accent and introduce myself in a loud and friendly American way as soon as I realize no one else is going to make the effort. As uncomfortable and unnatural as that seems to me, I’m going to have to get used to it because otherwise I will continue to be that anonymous person who says “about,” “tomorrow,” and “dollar” funny. Polite Canadians won’t ask me, “Who ARE you, anyway?”

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