Thursday, April 1, 2010

Keeping Score with Canadians

My hockey league's annual end-of-season social was earlier this week. The cash bar was beckoning, and as I was buying a beer for myself, I noticed a teammate in line behind me. I seized the opportunity and told her I was buying her drink. I didn't think any explanation was necessary--after all, she was my hockey buddy! Besides, if I had a loonie for every time in our recently-ended season that she had made a perfectly placed and selfless pass to me that I flubbed up, I could have bought her a whole case of beer. What should have been a simple transaction, a straightforward gesture of appreciation, became an awkward situation where my offer was turned down more than the customary and half-hearted single declination I expected. In fact, in the amount of time we spent debating whether or not it was appropriate for me to buy her a beer, she would have been paid more than the cost of the beer in question had she been at work and getting paid by the hour. Eventually she gave in, but by that point, I felt more like a bully than a buddy.

This whole situation was not surprising to me, as one of my biggest struggles of late has been understanding what appears to me to be a cultural mindset that spurns acts of generosity. More specifically, Canadians seem to be obsessed with what I would call "keeping score." They do not want any favors unless they can repay you promptly and exactly.

I started noticing this trend about the same time I first started making friends in Canada. The first friend I made in Canada is my colleague Justyna. One morning, a few weeks after I had moved to Ontario and started my job, I stopped for coffee. I picked up coffee for her as well and brought it into the office. She immediately tried to pay me for it, but I insisted it wasn't a big deal--it wasn't. The next day, she came in with coffee for me. I wasn't used to having my unconditional gestures of friendship reciprocated so immediately, and I was almost insulted. It seemed to me as if she was indicating, "Yes, that is nice you got me coffee, but I don't want to owe any favors to anyone, so here is my repayment and now we're back to an even score."

Part of the problem may actually be me. I was raised by parents who are generous to a fault, and I've subconsciously adopted some of their behaviors. Yet, I can say with certainty that in my previous life in Michigan, I could go out with my soccer teammates and buy a beer for one of them and encounter, at most, one formality of a protest followed by a simple "thanks." That person then may or may not have bought me a beer at a later time--I don't know; I wasn't keeping score.

When Sarah and I lived in Michigan, we would sometimes go with friends to see plays, concerts, or sporting events. This usually involved one of the people in the group purchasing the tickets and we'd settle up later. If the tickets were $41.50 each, and I was paying a friend for my and Sarah's tickets, my friend would likely ask for $80, just for the sake of being simple. The first time we went to a sporting event with friends in Canada who had purchased all the tickets, we were told that we owed $126.47. There is nothing wrong with expecting to get repaid exactly what is owed, no more and no less, but it did seem to substantiate my belief that Canadians are very particular about making sure they are always even.

On another occasion, we decided to go to a Red Wings game with two of our closest friends in Canada. We bought four tickets and then began planning our trip to Detroit. I asked them what time we should leave, who would drive, etc., and was told that no details would be discussed until I told them what they owed me for the tickets. I responded that the tickets were Christmas presents for them and we were just glad they would be going with us. My friend then told me they absolutely would not be going at all unless we disclosed the exact amount they owed so they could repay us. Once again, I was a little baffled and unsure of how to interpret the situation. I felt as if my genuine and unconditional gesture of friendship was slammed back at me, as if to say, "We don't want to owe you anything, so we do not accept this gift."

My frustration with the "keeping-score" mentality reached its height just before Christmas. Two of my friends went on a trip to the Caribbean because one of them was celebrating a milestone birthday. I offered to pick them up from the airport on their return because I had the time and I knew it would make their lives easier. On the way from the airport to their house, we stopped for dinner--nothing expensive or fancy. At the end of the meal, I paid for dinner, because from my experience, most people are quite broke when returning from vacation. Besides, it was just before Christmas, and I was just grateful to be out with good friends at a time of year which can always feel lonely, but was especially lonely for me because Sarah was in England.

They were truly angry with me, and let me know it. In my mind, I was just being helpful. Unbeknownst to me, they had wanted to buy dinner--in their minds, that was a good way for them to repay me for the ride from the airport.

Two days after this incident, I went to Michigan for Christmas, and feeling lower than a snake's belly after my recent reprimand, had a lot of time to think on the six hour drive. Was I trying too hard in my efforts to make friends? Did I appear desperate? Was I making it too easy for others to take advantage of me? Was this really a MJB problem rather than a cultural difference? The next few days gave me a clear answer to that last question.

My first full day back, I went for burritos and beer with my friend Beth. She paid for lunch. That night, I went to dinner with several friends from my old company. They paid for dinner. The next morning, I went to drop-in soccer. I knew the cost was $5 per person, but when I tried to pay, the organizer told me that I was a guest and need not pay. After soccer, I went out for breakfast with my friend Connie. She paid.

In all cases, I did put up the customary protest and offered to pay, but in the end each time, I graciously accepted their generosity and was quick to thank them for it. Do I feel like I owe them? No. But within that very short time span, I began to reconsider whether the problems I was having in Canada were due to my own character flaws or due to a significant cultural difference.

Maybe Canadians just aren't used to getting something for nothing. The score-keeping mindset could be related to larger cultural conditions, such as the fact that everything is quite expensive in Canada. Not only are the prices on everything just higher in general, but so are the taxes. I've read that Americans donate more to charity, on average, than Canadians, and the speculated reason for this is that Canadians pay so much in taxes with a large portion of that tax revenue going to social programs that they don't feel as inclined to donate additional money to social causes.

The differences I've noticed go beyond pure monetary gestures. If I have an item that I am not using and don't foresee needing, I will happily give it to someone who can use it. Again, while in Michigan at Christmas, I was telling my friend Beth about how I was having trouble keeping the dogs in the back of the Jeep on the trip from Canada, and I was concerned about similar difficulties on the return trip. She immediately took me into her garage and offered me a special dog barrier designed for SUVs. I noticed it had a price tag of $15 from when she was trying to sell it at her garage sale. I offered to pay, but she insisted I just take it.

I remember once when a co-worker in Michigan was telling me that his mattress and box spring were on the floor of his room because he didn't have a bed frame, I gave him a bed frame I had and wasn't using. Why wouldn't I? Recently, a co-worker at my company here in Ontario was lamenting the same thing--mattress and box spring on the floor. I didn't have another spare bed frame to offer. However, someone else in the office did--she would sell it to him for $50.

I am not saying that Canadians are stingy with money any more than I am saying Americans are frivolous. And, to be honest, I'm still not convinced that my struggles aren't due more to an MJB vs. The World than a US vs. Canadian mindset. I do know that I am not one to keep score, and I should be able to buy a friend or a teammate a beer without having to feel like I've committed some social transgression. I also know that tomorrow morning, I'm planning to buy a coffee for Justyna. And, I also know that as sure as the sun will rise the following workday, she'll come in with a coffee for me, just to even the score.


MSEH said...

Fascinating. As always, thanks for the great post.

Let's see... We have friends here, from Toronto, to whom we've given a lot (and I mean, a lot) of clothes that our son has outgrown. This includes a lot of LL Bean clothing, including a winter jacket, jeans, flannel shirts, and a fair amount of stuff that he barely wore before he outgrew it. They haven't offered to pay and we wouldn't think of accepting such an offer.

We've given a lot of toys - a lot - to our neighbour and after school care provider. She has been very thankful but, again, no offer of payment (or discount on fees), but we wouldn't have accepted anything.

We have had various friends stop in and take care of the gerbils while we're traveling. We always bring them something; e.g., nice chocolates or something from the US we know they like. They've accepted it without complaint. We also bring things back to our dog sitter (our dog goes to her place), in addition to the fee, and she's accepted it gratefully.

I can't think of a situation we've encountered such as you describe and, yes, we've eaten out with folks a few times. I can think of a few times when someone picked up something for the kids while on a day trip and there was no dilly-dallying about payment, etc.

So, what can I conclude? I haven't a clue! One of those intangible differences between the Maritimes and elsewhere in Canada? I don't know. Not all of these folks are native to this part of Canada.

I'll have to chew this one over! It's rather interesting.

Take care!

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Ziad said...

Btw, keep in mind that Canada is a sort of Belgium, where two cultures live side by side never knowing each other, Québec and the rest of Canada.

Québec's culture is much more close to Europe in the fact that they will accept your gift and they will not be keeping scores. You should try to go to the province of Québec and see how it's different from the rest of British Canada.