A tale of two cultures

Mason Olds’ first impressions of Canada are frozen in memory – literally.

Olds, an American and vice-president of the imaging systems group at Canon Canada Inc., transferred from New York to Toronto on March 1, 2003.

“It was something like 35 below zero,” Olds reminisces. “I’d sent my son off to school in a sweat suit and the teacher sent him home, saying ‘You gotta get that kid a winter coat.’”

Ever since that cold day in March, Olds has been playing armchair sociologist, observing the quirks and quarks of Canadian behaviour.

“The first thing that struck me was the tenure of people at Canon Canada – there are so many people who’ve been with the company over ten years,” says Olds. “I think it’s because people have a more balanced approach to life in Canada. In the U.S., your work life is more important than other parts of your life.

So, if you’re 20 per cent dissatisfied with your job but it means 100 per cent to you, then you’re a more mobile person. Here, if you’re 20 per cent dissatisfied, but other things are going well, then people look at the glass as half full.”

Andrew Dixon, a Canadian and director of marketing for Windows server products at Microsoft Canada, recently returned to the Mississauga office after spending eight years Microsoft’s Redmond, Washington corporate headquarters. He found few differences in the business cultures when he transferred in 1997.

“Microsoft has global operations and quite a diverse workforce, so there are many Canadians in the Redmond office, and many Americans in the Mississauga office. There weren’t major differences in the business cultures,” he says.

But Dixon did see some subtle differences.

The American office, he said, tended to be more process-and-role-oriented when tackling projects, whereas the Canadian office leaned more towards building consensus.

Olds echoed this observation, adding that American workers are apt to be more individualistic in general, and more concerned about managing their own careers in particular.

Olds also noticed cultural differences in marketing efforts. “With American ads, we’re quick to say, it’s the best, and people accept that you want to point out how great your product is. In Canada, it’s more subtle, there’s a certain humility here. It’s not necessarily the best thing to go in and point out how good you are. It’s more a show me, don’t tell me attitude,” he says.

On the political front, recent tensions between the two countries haven’t really manifested themselves in business dealings.

“My being Canadian was not an issue in the Redmond office,” says Dixon, beyond providing his colleagues the opportunity to tease him about his peculiar Canadian pronunciations.

For Olds, the situation is a bit more complicated.

“Due to Canadian friendliness, people aren’t coming up to me and saying, ‘Gee, we hate your president.’ After being here for a couple of years, I don’t want to say you turn Canadian, but you learn there’s certain cultural ways you should be if you want to fit in and get along with people.

“The initial thing about you is always, he’s the American, good or bad. But over time that becomes less important, and you just become a guy you’ve worked with for a couple of years, and then people get more outspoken about politics,” says Olds.

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