In addition to the heavy lifting involved with finding startup money, deciphering regulations and actually running the business, immigrant entrepreneurs have the added pressure of learning and adjusting to Canadian ways. As in any other country, residents here naturally expect anyone new to this land to do their best to understand and honour our cultural preferences – no matter how odd those preferences may seem.
If you’re new to Canada, and invited to a business meeting, what do you do when the meeting host asks you to pick up “a beaver tail and a double-double”? You head to the BeaverTails franchise in your area to pick up the hot sugary pastry before stopping by a Tim Hortons restaurant to order a coffee laced with two creams and two sugars.
Or, if that meeting was held in Quebec, you might be shocked when the meeting participants kiss each other on the cheek.
And what exactly are you supposed to provide when someone suggests that you “bring a toque for the walk”? That person is suggesting you bring a brimless, stretchy woollen winter hat for warmth.
Doing business in Canada may be natural for people born here, but to about 40,000 newcomer entrepreneurs starting businesses each year it can be perplexing to understanding our behaviours, expressions and habits.
The way Canadians approach a business conference may be different from what you’re used to.
For example, Canadians like their space and prefer to be at arm’s length when speaking to you (don’t take it personally). We expect eye contact when engaged in a conversation. And it’s polite to briefly examine the business card you’ve received from a Canadian before putting it into your case or pocket. (Here’s a tip: if you’re doing business in Quebec, consider printing one side of the card in English and the other in French.)
Shake hands when you greet someone and make sure your handshake is firm but does not linger (Canadians shy away from intimacy). If you are interacting with someone in Quebec, you might greet each other by lightly kissing on the cheeks (once on the left cheek and once on the right).
Don’t expect to find out too much about your Canadian contact during a first meeting, as some people are reluctant to discuss their personal lives with business associates until a relationship is established.
Canadian businesspeople (and Canadians in general) dislike outrageous claims, bragging or boisterousness – that’s American behaviour! Present your professional accomplishments in a self-deprecating style. We like humility and understatement.
It’s okay to address a new contact by his or her first name, but safest to use the surname until you are invited to do otherwise. Canadians tend to move to a first-name basis quickly.
Discussing price is acceptable during certain business interactions in Canada. Business-to-business sellers expect to discuss price, but may not engage in aggressive haggling. “Can you do any better on the price?” is the typical request of a buyer. Be polite and offer a small discount or extended payment terms so the buyer can save some face.
In certain retail situations, however, price negotiation is quite common. Owner-operators selling grocery produce, handcrafted goods or wholesale electronics within open-air markets typically expect bartering. Car dealerships, electronics retailers, home-renovation tradespeople and furniture sellers will entertain counter-offers to the sticker price. Name-brand retailers (such as The Gap or Staples) will typically not haggle over the price of their goods.
Always start a business meeting with a little chit-chat. Canadians consider it rude to launch into business talk without the obligatory rapport-building session, otherwise known as “making small talk.” It’s best to stick to safe subject matters such as the weather (“Cold out today, eh?”) and business news (“Did you see the price of RIM stock?”). If you are up to date on sports, you may discuss last night’s hockey game, but never favour any particular team for fear of alienating your colleague.
Canadians have strong allegiances to their region of the country, so understanding some differences among regions may help you to better interact with businesspeople in those areas.
Although, of course, not everyone fits the following generalizations, here are some differences you’re likely to encounter. In the Atlantic provinces (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland & Labrador), you may find people are somewhat reserved and place a high value on tradition. In Ontario, people can be very business-like and conservative. People in the prairie provinces (Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta) are open, friendly and relaxed. British Columbians can be more open-minded and creative. In Quebec, French Canadians enjoy a unique and distinguished cultural identity where independence and traditionalism are prized. Northern Canadians are strong, independent and possess a refreshing pioneer spirit.
Understanding these and other Canadian-isms will naturally take time. Fortunately, we are also a forgiving bunch and won’t hold any missteps against you while you learn the ways of this great land – providing you are the one buying the Timmies.
Roger Pierce is the founder of NewcomerStartup.com, co-author of the book Thriving Solo: How to Grow a Successful Business and one of Canada’s top experts on starting up. Pierce helps others get into business by sharing what he’s learned from launching 12 companies.
New to Canada? This is Part 4 of startup expert Roger Pierce’s 7-part series on how to make your venture a true Canadian success story.
Read Part 1: Essential Immigrant Startup Guide: Know This Before Launch, outlining important tools for entrepreneurs
Read Part 2: Essential Immigrant Startup Guide: There’s No Barter at The Gap, which explains how to manage the distinctions between Canadian businesses and those back home
Read Part 3: Essential Immigrant Startup Guide: Where to Go for Help , offering four resources to help you get your business off the ground