TORONTO – When Michigan-born author Kerry Colburn started dating a Canadian, her girlfriends had an immediate great impression of him — without even meeting the guy.
“They would say, ‘Oh you’re so lucky, you’re dating a Canadian. Those guys are so nice!'” recalls Colburn, who went on to marry the Canuck.
The fact he was Canadian seemed to be the only thing her gal pals needed to know, she chuckles, adding that her Edmonton-born beau is indeed nice, as well as charming and funny.
The notion that Canadians are extra nice is an enduring stereotype the Seattle-based writer wholeheartedly buys into, and it would seem a lot of Americans do, too.
Hollywood movie star Meryl Streep was the latest to invoke the cliche in her Golden Globes speech on Sunday, a barbed critique of U.S. president-elect Donald Trump that included a salute to Ontario’s Ryan Gosling — and Canadians in general — for being “the nicest people.”
“It’s so funny that of all the adjectives that she could use for the Canadians she says ‘the nicest,’ right?” says Colburn.
She teamed with her husband to co-write the tongue-in-cheek books “The U.S. of EH?” and “So, You Want to be Canadian?”
“Then (Gosling) proves it in his speech — could there have been a nicer acceptance speech from a man in Hollywood? It was all about his wife, who was working to raise their kids while he could make this movie and also caring for her brother, who had cancer.”
Like it or not, Canadians should embrace this persistent perception, mostly because it’s true, U.S. author and avid traveller Eric Weiner says from his home in Silver Spring, Md., just outside Washington, D.C.
“I get a lot of push-back from Canadians who say, ‘We’re really not that nice,'” says Weiner, a columnist for BBC Travel and former foreign correspondent for National Public Radio.
“I know Canadians will bristle and say, ‘We’re really just passive-aggressive,’ and I don’t think that’s really the case. There is an element of passivity, I think, in the Canadian character that comes across sometimes, but really I think the niceness is this politeness and this humility that we don’t have here.”
Of course, like any stereotype, the notion of the “nice Canadian” is not universally true, he adds.
Canadians are also regarded as very funny, which might be considered a paradox: “Humour requires a certain edginess, doesn’t it? It’s not always nice.”
Still, there’s nothing wrong with being nice, Weiner assures his northern neighbours. There are certainly far worse things to be called.
Self-conscious Canucks will fret nonetheless — we’re also famously plagued by an inferiority complex that will twist any so-called compliment into a slam. Indeed, the frequent corollary is that Canadians are boring, bland and dull.
A headline from the Guardian in the summer screamed, “Welcome to the new Toronto: the most fascinatingly boring city in the world.”
Author and screenwriter Ian Ferguson takes it all with a grain of salt, preferring to laugh it off as good-natured ribbing from our bigger, brasher neighbours.
And he’s quick to point out how mean Canadians can be behind closed doors, especially when Americans are out of earshot.
“We just had eight years of Barack Obama being president of the United States,” the humorist says from Victoria, where he’s working on a followup to “How to Be A Canadian,” co-written with brother Will Ferguson.
“We haven’t had an excuse to be really smug for a while. And now we will have nothing but smugness coming out of Canada.”
There really is no proof that Canadians are actually nice, although post-doctoral researcher Daniel Schmidtke and PhD candidate Bryor Snefjella are trying to apply some science to it.
The McMaster University duo is examining millions of geotagged tweets dating back to February 2015 to see if there are any “positivity biases.” So far, tweets originating in Canada do tend to be kinder and gentler, says Snefjella.
“They tend to be a little nicer than words that are distinctively American, a little more pleasant,” says Snefjella, adding that research is far from complete.
Predominant “Canadian words” include “great,” “amazing,” and “awesome.” Predominant “American words” include several curse words, along with “hate” and “damn.”
Whether that means Canadians are actually nice is still an open question.
“The stereotype exists and it’s very stable across Canada and the U.S.,” Snefjella says from Hamilton.
“The question academics are still having big fights about is why the stereotype exists. Whether it reflects anything real about us, or is purely mythical, is still really an open question and its effects are still an open question, right? Because a stereotype, if it’s good, might be a beneficial thing. Or a stereotype that’s bad might be detrimental, regardless of why it actually exists.”
Weiner, whose travel books include “The Geography of Genius” and the “Geography of Bliss,” suggests being nice is a survival mechanism, a way to relate to the overbearing superpower south of the border.
He points to late former prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s famous assessment of living next to the United States as akin to “sleeping with an elephant.”
“You have to be nice, or else,” Weiner jokes.
More seriously, he suggests Louis Hartz’s “fragment theory” is at play here: The idea is that countries with a colonial past consist of fragments of European societies, their old-world sensibilities intact. In Canada’s case, that includes a conservative, Tory streak which is more deferential than the feisty nature adopted by the U.S. founding fathers.
Ferguson, meanwhile, points to the mishmash of French, British and aboriginal traditions that struggle to coexist in the Great White North, an exercise in tolerance and politeness that admittedly doesn’t always succeed, but is continually tested.
Plus there’s the fact Canada is super cold. If you’re not nice, you die.
“If your car breaks down on the side of the road in northern Manitoba and the next person coming along doesn’t stop and help you, you’re in big trouble,” he says.
“We’ve found a way to sort of get along without having to embrace each other. We just sort of tolerate each other and politeness is part of that.”