Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Culture: Canadian Politeness

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I have forgotten which comedian I first heard joke that Canadians apologize to their pieces of furniture when they run into them, as it's a fairly common gag. The only thing is--it's not really a joke. It's true. I have observed at least two Canadians apologize to a sofa or table after stumbling into them, and admit that this is what they had done.

Canadian politeness can be astounding at times, and it always makes me smile. One of my favorite such moments was observed from a TTC bus as I rode through what is regarded as one of Toronto's roughest neighbourhoods, near Jane and Finch. A rather mean-looking individual, someone I would suspect of gang membership even here, was walking down the sidewalk when a car pulled out of a strip mall parking lot and started toward the street. Rather than intimidating the vehicle or just staying out of its way, the man stopped and waved the car by, then kept walking after it cleared. The scene was just quintessentially Canadian.

My first special trip for railroad enthusiasts in Canada, last April out of Guelph, resulted in similar experiences. People offered each other window seats, apologized when they inadvertently got in others' pictures, and just generally seemed well-behaved. The contrast with some of the behavior seen at the Train Festival in Michigan in July could not have been greater, where one photographer ended up putting another in a headlock.

The streak of Canadian railfan politeness continued last night. Many of purist photographers were frustrated by the amount of people in their shots at the actual Canadian Pacific Holiday Train performance at West Toronto, and some of us ended up over at the Old Weston Road pedestrian crossing to try to get some obstructed shots as the train passed that location. Some arrived relatively late, and there wasn't time to coordinate a proper photo line. We did the best we could, but one guy shooting video couldn't take an especially wide shot because of people to his left, and I managed to get in someone's going-away shot because he had moved while the train was going by and I hadn't noticed that in the dark. When the train was out of sight, we all re-gathered at the crossing, and apologized to one another for making our shots more difficult than they needed to be and shared what was on our preview screens from the recent captures. A fight did not break out; in fact, friends were made.

The fact that we were following a Holiday Train designed to spread good cheer and had just watched an uplifting performance probably didn't hurt, but my experience indicates that the same thing would have happened if we had been following any train in Canada, any time of year. Canadian politeness is a powerful force, and it's a shame that it doesn't spread continent-wide.

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