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Politeness: The Canadian Curse

Canadians are well known for being a particularly polite people. We hold doors, we say “sorry”, we kindly wave pedestrians across the street (even when we have the right of way). But today I want to share with you a stunning realization: politeness is, in fact, a debilitating condition that Canadians suffer through on a daily basis.

Let me elaborate.

Just this morning, I took a large load of laundry from my apartment down the hall to the laundry room. This is a weekly occurrence, and being a talented multi-tasker, I can handle the large basket and open doors on my own. However, this time, a neighbour a few doors down was leaving his apartment at the same time. With horror, I realized the situation that was going to unfold. I call it: The Door-holding Dilemma.

Being a polite Canadian, this neighbour held the hallway door open for me. But I, slower than usual with a large laundry basket, was still about 20 paces away from the door. He kept holding the door, and I started to feel the pressure. At my present walking speed, it would easily be another 10 seconds before I reached the door. He was too polite to let the door swing shut on a lady, and now I realized that I was too polite to leave him standing there for another full 10 seconds when he clearly had places to be! I picked up the pace, hurrying into an awkward speed-walk while still juggling an overflowing laundry basket, soap, fabric softener, keys … you get the picture. It wasn’t pretty.

And here’s the worst part. As I reached the door, a flurry of things I wanted to say flew through my mind. “You didn’t have to!” or “Sorry to be a bother” but I settled on the most polite option: “Oh, thank you!”. And he smiled and went about his day. But I knew (and I’m sure he knew) that we’d just endured a very awkward interaction caused solely by the sheer inconvenience of politeness. And, as you can tell, I have been plagued by this memory all day.

Maybe you’ve never been in this exact situation. Maybe you don’t have a door in the middle of your apartment hallway that you have to carry laundry through, and maybe you don’t have a very polite neighbour. Well let me give you a few examples that you may have encountered before.

You’re walking up to the door of your neighbourhood Tim’s. As you reach the door, another patron is just inside, ready to leave. Who will reach the door handle first? Will he push the door open and hold it for you, or will you grab the handle and pull it open for him? That moment of hesitation can be costly, particularly in sub-zero Canadian winters, when this door-opening dilemma is the only thing standing between you and your morning double double!

Or how about this: You’re driving down a busy street on the way to the kid’s hockey game. You arrive at a crosswalk at the same time as two pedestrians (bundled up + carrying Tim’s coffees of course). You, being a polite and responsible Canadian driver, wave them across the road. But they, being equally polite, realize that you probably have somewhere important to go, so they wave back - “No, no you first!”. You simply can’t take them up on this offer; as pedestrians they have the right of way! So you wave them across again, and the pattern repeats. You could be stuck at this crosswalk indefinitely! (I call this the Crosswalk Standoff)

Next time you find yourself in one of these situations, please think twice. Will you cling to your Canadian politeness? Or can you break the cycle and continue on without wasting time on these pointless gestures?

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