Separated by more than just water

NorthSouthEastWest: Expat Dispatches    Welcome to the second four-way guest posting of NorthSouthEastWest! We are four expat bloggers who have joined together to rotate our monthly guest posts from the four corners of the world on each other’s blogs: Linda at Adventures In Expatland (North), Russell at In Search of a Life Less Ordinary (South), Erica at Expatria, Baby (East) and me at I Was An Expat Wife (West).

This month’s theme is how different cultures physically interact. I hope you enjoy this guest post by Russell Ward, a transplanted Brit whose blog  chronicles his search for a life less ordinary in Canada and Australia. Today on Russell’s blog, my post Lost In Nonverbal Translation is all about the trouble my expat hands have caused. You’ll find more on the subject of physical interaction from Erica and Linda as well.

And now, over to Russell, who has a few things to say about the differences between Australians and Canadians….

Separated by more than just water

Separated by more than just waterAustralians and Canadians speak a similar language, use a similar political system, and even share a Queen.

Australia and Canada have been linked in the world’s minds for the past century. Both countries share similarities in terms of their sprawling geographies and are resource-based, former British colonies with a common history and guilt-laden problems associated with their native people. They have also become two of the richest nations in the world.

Beneath these similarities gained through history, politics and language, there lies subtle differences in the daily interactions between the peoples of these two fine lands over and above the way their common language is spoken and different to those obvious cultural oddities you might encounter when trying to communicate in a non-English speaking country.

The infamous Australian hotel

Upon relocating to Australia five years ago, I immediately took myself down to the local bar to meet people. Used to the polite and amicable behaviour of Canadians watching the hockey game on the big screen, I was at once blown away by the sheer numbers of Australians, young and old, filling the hotels and reminding me of boozy nights spent in England during my youth.

With the late evening sun on my body and that heady feeling of long, drawn-out summers to be spent in the outdoors enjoying a drink with your buddies, it was clear to me that life down under was not just good but positively laidback and care-free.

There must have been several hundred people in this bar, laughing and drinking, set in for the night. Backs were slapped, jokes cracked, and a weekend ritual was underway, a habit not to be kicked, as mates — and mates of mates — appeared and joined in, passing schooners of beer all around with not a care in the world.

This was less reserved than my Canadian nights out, a celebration of good times and a declaration of Australia’s God-given right to work hard and party harder.

The sacred BBQ

Invitations to dinner in Canada are much like in the UK. Fairly formal in nature, the guests bring a bottle of wine and perhaps a house gift — a plant, some flowers, a little something to say ‘thank you’. The night is a welcome chance to catch up with friends and family but, when the bottle or two of wine is gone and the dinner table conversation dries up, it’s time to make your excuses and call it a night.

The sacred Aussie BBQ is much more than that. It is the altar at which all Australians worship and it is a standard to be met by any new Australian. You must bring a good number of alcoholic beverages to this altar — and leave behind those drinks you do not finish (for the host’s consumption at a later date). The men must immediately take up position next to the BBQ to stand tough, arms crossed, and maybe discuss a little sport or the local petrol prices. The females sit together and gossip at the table in a throwback to another time, when men were men, and when women cooked, cleaned and generally delivered.

Australia may have moved on economically and politically but, back at the homestead, the age of ‘caveman-ism’ is ever present. It is both confronting and eyebrow-raising to leave the ‘new man’ at the door and replace it with a more boorish persona, complete with rough handshakes and house reno discussions. Yet, at the same time, there is something easy about this attitude – you know where you stand and you know your place in the grand scheme of things. Life by the BBQ is more certain and less complicated.

The laidback office

Tasteless humour and practical jokes in the workplace are familiar to those of us who have worked in an office environment in both England and Australia.

I think back to a time when, shortly after commencing work with the Canadian Government, my playful side came out. My wife worked for a pharmaceutical company and her product was the rival to Viagra. Marketing material used at that time included a promotional card to be hung on the door of a doctor’s office, announcing that ‘sexual issues can be discussed here’.

Like waving a red flag to a bull, I couldn’t resist ‘borrowing’ one of these door hangers and placing it on the door of a Canadian co-worker. I retreated to my own office fully expecting to hear the roar of laughter and a retaliatory gesture from said co-worker but instead all was quiet on the Preston Front. Not a sound to be heard. An hour later, I crept past my colleague’s office expecting to bear the brunt of his humourous response, but the door to his office was open, the ‘sexual issues’ hanger long gone.

“Everything okay,” I asked him, a grin stretching across my face.

“Absolutely,” he replied. “I have a lot of work to do right now so let’s catch up later”.

And that was the end of that.

Here in Australia, it’s not unusual for well-dressed businessmen to bond by grabbing a couple of very early morning pints at the airport bar before hopping onto a commuter flight to Melbourne, and at an hour when Canadians wouldn’t even be serving hard liquor. It is an environment that is worlds apart from the great white north and the conscientious workplace.

Yet the camaraderie at the bar, the casual BBQ setting, and the light-hearted work environment all combine to create a “no worries, mate” attitude in the locals, inspired by a society that always goes with the flow without giving a damn what you might think of them. In Canada, you might get an “eh?” from a people keen to please and accept you in their home. In Australia, you’ll get a good backslap and most likely a pint from someone who will gladly tolerate you as their friend. The point of difference is that a Canadian will accept you whereas an Australian will tolerate you. If you don’t interact like a local, you won’t fit in — and my sense is they’ll want you out.

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About Maria

I'm a Canadian repatriate, former expat spouse, mother to two TCKs (and one yellow Lab), mentor to new immigrants, writer, reader, world traveller (grounded for now). I write about expat/repat issues and am still trying to figure out my place in the world.
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15 Responses to Separated by more than just water

  1. It’s interesting to see Russell how different cultures display their version of ‘easygoing’. While some may be more relaxed than others, your point about intent is well taken. You’ve captured a number of minute perceptions that can add up to real differences if we perceive them as such. Here in The Netherlands no one except family is allowed into one’s kitchen, yet that is often the hub of the party (male and female alike) in the US, unless it’s a dinner party with the boss.

    • Russell says:

      Hey Linda – thanks for the comment. It is interesting to see how others show their ‘easygoing’ side. I found in Australia that, whilst people will be forward and friendly, welcoming and informal, this is primarily what you see on the surface. Delve a little deeper and there is a sense of someone watching you, being a little wary, waiting to see if you are truly one of them before accepting you. almost as if you have to become a full Australian to live here and be properly accepted. You’re one of us or you’re not. Always fascinates me.

  2. expatriababy says:

    This is a really interesting post, Russell, and it has revealed a part of my personality that I sort of assumed was a characteristic native to me, but I guess is something shared by my country(wo)men!

    I’ve worked the majority of my adult life abroad, and I’ve always been pretty serious in the office environment, never feeling comfortable partaking in office pranks, or general silliness. I always thought it’s because I’m sooooooooo professional. Turns out it’s because I’m sooooooo Canadian! Ha! Thanks for the insight!

    • Russell says:

      Thanks, Erica. I certainly didn’t want to reveal Canadians as too serious a bunch so I hope it didn’t come across this way. I’d use the words ‘reserved’, but always ‘friendly’. More like New Zealanders rather than Australians. And I always liked this a lot.

      The guide for me in the workplace in Canada was Facebook or General Internet time. It was pretty much non-existent where I worked but that could have been the government environment I worked in. Compare that to here and I could count dozens of Facebook screens as I walk down the passageways in my office. A better Canadian work ethic perhaps or maybe you guys just need a couple more Labatts 😉

      Good on you for being soooo Canadian. Not a bad thing at all!

  3. Sine says:

    Great post Russell, and very good observations. The Aussie BBQ sounds much like a good old South African braai. In fact, from what you write it sounds like Australia is very similar to South Africa, though funnily enough when you talk to South Africans who’ve been to Australia (many emigrate there) they will mostly tell you that the Australians are way too uptight and regulated and that there are too many rules all around. Weird, huh?

    • Russell says:

      Hi Sine, thanks for your comment. I have also heard that the Australian way of life is very similar to the South African though I don’t think either place will admit to that (big rivalries on and off the sports field!).

      I would say there are a lot of regulations here but Aussies are so political ‘un’-correct and are such rule breakers (the ‘larrikin’ in them) that it’s never an issue for me. In fact, sometimes the deliberate rule-breaking drives me mad. A trip to the city in the car can be a near-death experience with people weaving in and out of traffic with no regard for others, sudden swerves, red light running, and general abuse hurled your way. It’s enough to drive you nutty!

  4. expatlogue says:

    It sure sounds as though I might find Australia a little restrictive if the “Caveman” & “General Dogsbody” gender roles are still in use! Did you notice if the women have reacted in the same way many British females have, and become Ladettes?
    You mentioned something at the tail of your post that I thought was very significant. If drinking copious amounts is not your bag, you felt that the tolerance initially afforded to you as newcomer will be rescinded. It’s their way or the highway! This is something I have noticed, albeit probably to a lesser degree, in Britain. As a muslim I don’t go out binge drinking, although I may have a drink at a social event and enjoy the bonhomie as much as the next person, but as those around you become more drunk, they seem to feel uncomfortable if you are not at the same level of inebriation and slowly gravitate more towards those who are. Like Misery, Intoxication likes company, and you can soon find yourself out in the cold if you don’t (over)indulge.

    • Russell says:

      Hey expatlogue, I haven’t seen the ladette thing here which is a GOOD thing. The women are independent and know what they want but they are also a tad subservient to their menfolk and, in the older generations, the women definitely play the housewife role and the guys play the breadwinner role. A sign of a good man here is one who can build a house, fix a car, and landscape the garden. There isn’t quite the attention placed on intellectual ability that you might find in other Western countries.

      The drinking culture is definitely a big thing here and I think you would, to a small degree, feel a little alienated if this wasn’t your thing. However, if you like your coffee, you might find an alternate way to blend in – good coffee is a huge habit in Sydney in particular.

  5. underthecurrent says:

    It’s funny – as a Canadian I have long noticed I more easily bond with Kiwis and Saffas, but have always felt like the Brit and Aussie cultures were just a little different from what I was used to. I have frequently contemplated why I have always felt so at home with South Africans and I still don’t have clear answers, but I know many are still reasonably conservative and I think the reserved-ness is familiar to me (ex. you absolutely do not use “the Lord’s name in vain” in most households I’ve been to regardless of how religious they are and what the cultural background is).

    • Russell says:

      Underthecurrent – I think the ‘conservativeness’ is possibly the clincher. And the cultures have simply developed differently. The Kiwis and Canadians have ‘grown up’ in close proximity to bigger and brasher neighbours, and with smaller populations. Add in the different history and politics – and you have chalk and cheese. One of the other differences I noticed upon leaving Canada and arriving in the land down under was that I no longer had to leave my shoes at the door when visiting a friend’s house. I always found that to be an adorable trait/behaviour in the great white north.

  6. hanelene says:

    My first reaction was “how South African!”

    South Africans may be more conservative in some ways (not using the Lord’s name in vain is a classic example) but in other ways the braai is exactly as described – men doing “Manly Things” around the braai while women talk about kids, housekeepers, cooking, sewing, and who knows what – even in the city where most women have careers to rival their spouses. And South Africans are probably more non-conformists and non-cooperators (is that even a word?) than rule breakers.

    • Russell says:

      Hanelene – I’m going to have to try out a braai. What meat would you typically cook? The same as here i.e. steaks, sausages and risoles or something more adventurous – some crocodile, emu or other large mammal?

      I mentioned women being a tad subservient to men here in one of my earlier replies to a comment and that was probably unfair. They’re not subservient, more that there are defined gender-based roles, particularly around the BBQ, that people here are quite happy to carry out – and, as with South Africans, even when the wife possibly has a career to rival or surpass her husband.

      • Sine says:

        Boerewors. That is what South Africans put on their braai. Huge sausages rolled up in rings or other shapes, and the selection at the supermarket when shopping for those is mind-boggling. But there is also lots of lamb, pork, beef (I love when South Africans offer you “fillet” which rhymes with “millet”), chicken, ostrich, and yes, Kudu and other big game. There really isn’t a meat South African’s won’t eat.

  7. Kym Hamer says:

    I think this is spot on Russell. There’s a definite undercurrent of either playing by the ‘no worries mate’ rules or find yourself on the bench!

    • Russell says:

      Thanks, Kym. That said, I don’t mind playing by the ‘no worries mate’ rules at all. It just took a bit of getting used to when I first arrived. Now I’m a proper occa Aussie (well, not really but I can pretend)…

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