Canadian society in general is considered quite egalitarian, and flat organisational structures are commonplace in Canadian businesses. Some multinationals might be more hierarchical in nature, but the opinions of employees are considered important by managers and team members of all levels are encouraged to contribute to decision-making processes. Organisations in Québec tend to be the exceptions – these are often more hierarchical than businesses in the rest of Canada.
In Canada, teamwork is key and people are used to collaborating on projects as a group. The role of the manager is to motivate their team and get the best out of the people around them. Staff members are expected to contribute their specific talent or skill set, and will expect their manager to give them the freedom to operate to their full potential. Individuality is valued, with more respect paid to those who express themselves than those who simply conform to the majority. At the same time, honesty is appreciated on both sides, so when opinions differ the point may be hotly contested, but only to reach the best possible conclusion.
Canadians are stereotyped as polite and unassuming, and while this is certainly a generalisation there is also an element of truth to it. People tend to be quite formal with strangers, so use titles and surnames initially then follow the lead of your hosts as to when to drop the formalities. If you are conversing with French-speaking Canadians, use the more formal ‘vous’ pronoun rather than the familiar ‘tu’ form. Unlike in the USA, people tend not to be overtly physical in a professional environment, so you should always respect personal space and also avoid over-the-top gesturing.
As relationships develop with your Canadian contacts, you will find that they become far less formal and more familiar. Trust is important, and honesty is vital in gaining and retaining the trust of your colleagues and contacts.
Written correspondence is important in Canadian businesses, especially as some are still required to write a letter of invitation to host foreign guests. Letters remain the most formal type of correspondence, but like verbal greetings emails should also initially be formal and then drop the formality as the relationship develops.
There can be some regional variation in dress code, particularly between Québec and other provinces. The majority of businesses describe their dress code as business casual, but interpretations of this directive are inconsistent. If in doubt, stick to the formal side – usually a business suit with shirt and tie for men, and a conservative dress or suit for women.
In most of Canada the common greeting is a handshake, although in Québec people may offer a continental style cheek kiss. After the greeting, you should withdraw slightly to respect personal space. Business cards are usually exchanged immediately after greeting, but with little or no ceremony.
In Canada people are expected at the agreed time, not early or late. If you are late, an explanation will be expected as a matter of courtesy. It is worth noting that some Canadians refer to fifteen minutes past the hour as ‘a quarter after’ rather than ‘quarter past’, which sometimes causes confusion for British English speakers.
Tact and diplomacy are important when conducting business in Canada. There is usually some brief small talk before you get down to business – often Canadians will ask about your job as work is important to them. Communications should be relatively low key as negotiations and aggressive sales tactics are not appreciated. Business decisions are usually made according to logic and rationale, so a well-constructed argument with supporting evidence is the best approach for success.
Remember that Canada is a series of provinces. Community and local identity are important to people. Always avoid confusing Canadian culture with American culture as the two countries have a complex relationship and usually neither will appreciate this kind of mistake. Taboo topics include politics and religion, and some Canadians will also avoid discussing their home or personal life with business colleagues.
Although English and French are both official languages in Canada, the two are largely separated by region. Many French speakers do understand English very well, but prefer to work in French. It may be useful to find out your contacts’ preferred languages before meeting so that if necessary you can translate written materials to respect their choice.