March 29th, 2020

Viva Vitality: Navigating cultural norms as a newcomer or visitor

By Tina Meggison on February 14, 2020.

tina.meggison@ahs.ca

As my husband and I prepare to embark on a holiday to Cuba, I am reminded of the many different cultural norms we run into every day.

With technology and social media today, we are able to research and prepare for any cultural differences we may encounter on our vacation.

When we go to Cuba, we can ask the locals what is customary there and what to expect, and we also have the benefit of a Facebook group of people who have already been there, and can give us the benefit of their experience.

But this convenience is not something our Low German Mennonites or other cultures necessarily have access to when they come to make a life in Canada. And sometimes, as my friend just experienced, we can be given misinformation which in this case gave us a good laugh!

Here’s what happened – my friend heard somewhere that Cuban men would never wear pants in the city. When she asked about it in the Facebook group, she learned this was humorously false!

Frustrations are common as we try to learn other cultural norms, and it can be frustrating as well when others don’t understand ours. It can be seen as rude or ignorant when actually, it is usually not intended that way.

I recall as a teenager struggling to understand the cultural ways of Canadian life. For example, when do you tip? Do you tip the gas station attendant who is filling up your car on a cold blizzardy day? Or do you tip at the salon when getting your hair done? On one such occasion, after getting a pedicure for the very first time, I was embarrassed to later learn that I should have tipped the salon employee. And although we didn’t eat out very often, especially not at a fancy restaurant, we also had no idea that tipping the server was expected.

This is not as common in Mexico, and when it is, it’s a smaller amount. Another example would be that in Mexico, bribes are not only normal, but often expected from service providers such as police and doctors. This however is not acceptable in Canada and can cause misunderstandings frequently.

So how does one navigate the cultural norms of a country when language is a barrier? By building relationships with other Canadians and by watching others “do life.” When we first moved to Canada more than 30 years ago, we had no idea what was expected of us and most likely unintentionally offended or upset others around us as a result.

Not only were there new laws to follow but the social rules were just as important to some. It is my hope that those reading this article will have a new appreciation and understanding of other cultures around them and the difficulties they face. So build relationships with those around you from different cultures and learn their ways as you impart the Canadian cultural norms to them. Here in Alberta, culture is as vast and varied as our weather, so you won’t have to look far to make new friends!

Tina Meggison is a Community Health Representative with Alberta Health Services, and can be reached via e-mail, tina.meggison@ahs.ca

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