by Marc Anderson

Cultural Awareness – When in Rome, Do Like the Romans Do

St. Peter's cathedral at night, Rome

Perhaps you have heard this expression before that “When in Rome, do like the Romans do”. It means that whatever country you are visiting (living, working, etc.), it is polite to follow the customs of that society. The first reference to this expression came from St. Augustine who in 390 AD wrote in Latin (the phrase below). It has since then changed to the widely used and accepted meaning described above.

St. Augustine: Cum Romanum venio, ieiuno Sabbato; cum hic sum, non ieiuno: sic etiam tu, ad quam forte ecclesiam veneris, eius morem serva, si cuiquam non vis esse scandalum nec quemquam tibi.

Translation: When I go to Rome, I fast on Saturday, but here [Milan] I do not. Do you also follow the custom of whatever church you attend, if you do not want to give or receive scandal.

When you go to English-speaking countries, it is important to understand the customs and traditions of that country. Canadian and American customs and traditions are very similar, but let’s look at a few differences.

When in Canada, do like the Canadians do

Accidentally bumping into someone or stepping on their feet

Canadians are usually extremely polite when it comes to mild physical faux pas like accidentally bumping into someone or stepping on their foot.  Both parties will apologize with the words “excuse me” or “I’m sorry.”

Waiting your turn in line

You need to wait to the end of the line for your turn. It is impolite to “cut into the line” or “butt into the line”. You need to wait until everyone is off the public transit before you get on. Pushing your way through is considered rude. When you drive your car and merge on the highway, vehicles from each lane take turns. When you walk on sidewalks or in grocery stores, you are to walk on the right facing the on-coming traffic.  You are also to stand to the right on escalators.

Smoking

It is most likely impolite to smoke indoors when visiting others unless you are invited to do so. Smoking inside most public buildings and places of work is not allowed. Many restaurants also forbid smoking.

Spitting or blowing your nose

It is considered impolite to spit on the ground or to blow your nose in anything other than a handkerchief or tissue.

Opening doors

It is polite to hold car doors and doors open for others.

Shaking hands

In Quebec (only), shaking hands with a woman in a casual context suggests distance. Holding each other’s shoulders and kissing each other’s cheeks once on each side is usually expected.

Tipping

An appropriate tip at a restaurant is 15% of the bill, and higher for better service.

Removing shoes

It is polite to remove your shoes upon entering someone’s house or at least to offer.

Knowing when to leave

When invited to someone’s house, serving coffee at the end of an evening is the signal that the evening is nearing an end and you should be going home shortly.

Speaking with strangers

Canadians are more reserved than Americans when speaking with strangers. They tend not to share personal information with strangers.

Calling a Canadian “American”

It is not polite to call a Canadian “American”.

Replying to a thank you note

When replying to a thank you, it is best to use the words “you are welcome” and not “uh-huh”. Using the casual response “uh-huh” may seem to be rude.

Topics to avoid in conversation

Canadian’s appreciate diversity in their country and typically do not express strong, negative opinions about groups of people based on their racial or ethnic background. Similarly, in most conversations except those of family members and close friends, it is not acceptable to assert a strong opinion from the rest of the group. Topics to be avoided in conversation include one’s salary or details of educational background and accomplishments. Also discussing Canadian politics is a sensitive issue and should be avoided. It is also important to show respect and to call the aboriginal peoples of Canada by their proper names: Innu, the Inuit and the Dene people, and the more southern people, The First Nations or Metis. It is equally important to be respectful of the traditional practices. It is never appropriate to tell jokes about this population of people.

When in the United States, do like the Americans do

Since the United States is quite large and diverse, some of these rules will change based on the people, setting and location within the states.

Looking people in the eye

It is important to look people in the eye when you speak to them and when being spoken to. It is also important to look at a guest speaker of any size audience in the eyes, too. Looking down or looking about the room is viewed as being inattentive and rude.

Tipping

It is important to leave an appropriate tip of approximately 20% at a restaurant that has tablecloths and not a self-serve restaurant.  In the case of the latter, a tip is not necessary.  It is also recommended that you tip for barbers and beauticians, pet groomers, taxi drivers and porters, delivery people who deliver fast food to your home or place of work, hotel staff who clean your room, etc. Tipping in this case is a certain amount ($3-$10) rather than a percentage. It is also polite to tip newspaper delivery people and mailman at the holiday season.

Topics not to discuss

It is never polite to ask how much salary a person makes, but it is polite to ask their line of work. It is equally impolite to ask someone if they are married or divorced, and if they have a boyfriend or girlfriend upon being introduced. It is also not polite to talk about weight or ethnic/racial or sexual orientation.  It is not in good taste to discuss sexual topics or bodily functions.

Covering your mouth and nose, etc.

It is polite to cover your mouth and nose when sneezing and if you are eating, to turn away from the table. It is not polite to blow your nose at the dinner table; you should ask to be excused to do so.  It is also not polite to eat with a hat on or without a shirt on. When someone sneezes, it is customary to say “God Bless You” or “Bless You” or the German word for health “Gesundheit”. If someone says “Bless you”, you should reply with “Thank you.” It is not polite to swear on broadcast television or radio or in formal situations.

Greeting strangers

Strangers in America are generally friendly with greetings and often engage in informal conversation.

Allowing personal space

You need to give someone space when you are talking to them. Unless you are close friends or the situation is crowded, you should provide a personal space of about one foot or one arm’s length away from those you are speaking to.

Odors and smells

Odors and smells due to lack of hygiene, diet or perfumes is not acceptable.  Burping is not polite. You should say, “Excuse me”.

Asking for assistance in restaurants and stores

It is not polite to shout out to a waiter/waitress or sales clerk to garner attention. It is better to try to gain eye contact or raise your hand casually about shoulder height and have your index finger extended up. In the case of shopping, it is best to find a sales clerk and greet her/him with “Excuse me…” Then you can ask specifically for their help.

Formal attire

In the case of formal attire, women should wear dress pants, a skirt/dress or suit. Men should wear dress pants and a button-down shirt with/without a tie and with/without a sports jacket. A dress sweater could also be worn. Dress shoes are preferable to sneakers or sandals.

Waiting to eat

It is polite to wait until everyone is seated and everyone is served before eating. If you are dining out and someone is served their food first and it will take some time before everyone else is served, it is polite to say to the person, “Please eat.”

Handshake

In business situations and places of work a firm handshake is an acceptable greeting. If you are seated, it is important to stand and greet those who are shaking your hand.  It is also important to extend a handshake at the end of a meeting with the words, “Thank you” or “Nice to have met you”.  If you are greeting a woman, it is acceptable to stand from whatever you are doing and to pull their chair out for them.

Invitations

When invited to someone’s home for dinner or to celebrate a holiday, it is polite to bring flowers, a bottle of wine or to ask ahead of time if you can bring something. It is also polite to ask if the host needs any help when you arrive and later on for clean-up.

Greeting with titles

It is appropriate to greet someone who is older than you or in a formal situation with the correct title: Mr., Sir, Mrs., Ma’am, Madam, Ms., Miss. If the person invites you to call them by their first name, feel free to do so. Otherwise, you should use the title. Likewise, when you are writing a formal letter, you should use the appropriate title.

RSVP, RSVP-regrets only

When invited to a party or function, and the host asks you to RSVP, it is important to do so by the date indicated on the invitation. If the wording states, “RSVP – regrets only”, then you only need to contact them if you can’t attend. It is not polite to bring uninvited guests (without asking first) to a function you have been invited to and in some cases, it is not polite to ask if you can do so either. If you are invited to a wedding, then the number of invitees is clearly marked on your invitation as “To so and so” or “To so and so and Guest”. It is equally polite to acknowledge gifts with a written thank you note, in additional to verbally accepting the gift upon receipt. Thank you notes should be sent in a timely manner.

Chewing gum

It is not polite to chew your gum loudly in public or to spit it out when you are finished chewing. You should not chew gum while giving presentations at your work setting, etc.

Asking for seconds

It is not polite to ask for seconds, it is better to wait and be asked if you want seconds when at someone’s home. If you are at your own home or a very close friend or relative, then you could ask for more helpings. It is never polite to take the last of an item on the table unless directed to do so. You should also not take such large quantities from your serve yourself dinner (i.e. sit down family style) that there is not enough left over for the others.

Littering

It is not polite to litter garbage, cigarette butts, gum, etc. on the ground. You should wait and dispose of the unwanted items in a waste basket.

Talking on your phone, text messaging, etc./Getting up from the table early/Reading at the table

It is not polite to have your phone on and to be talking or text messaging while eating at a guest’s home, out at a restaurant or even at a sit-down dinner at your own home.  It is polite to stay seated until everyone in your party has finished eating opposed to getting up and just leaving the table. If you have sat long enough and engaged in sufficient conversation or if you have an important consideration (i.e. homework or other work that must get done) you can ask to be excused at the table with the expression, “May I be excused, please?” Then you wait until someone acknowledges your request with a “Yes”, or a “Please do” and you reply with “Thank you.”

Have you discovered additional customs?

Please write to me and let me know if you have come across any other Canadian and American customs that you think are important to share with others.  Or maybe you have a story to tell about one of these customs that is listed. Some of the best advice I can give is that if you are unsure of what to do, be patient and look around you. You can learn a lot by observing. If you have a close Canadian or American friend, then you can ask them directly about what to do in whatever situation you are wondering about. The more you get out and see how a particular people live, the more you are apt to understand and replicate that custom.  Just remember “When in Rome, do like the Romans do” and you will be moving ahead in your Canadian and American English cultural awareness.

Couple in Rome reading guide book by the Coliseum

About the author:

Marc Anderson is the co-founder and CEO of TalktoCanada. Since founding the company in 2006, he has grown it to over 25 staff with operations in 50 countries. Marc spends his time outside of TalktoCanada travelling, playing with his son and working on new business projects.