You have probably heard the old saying:
“When in Rome, do as the Romans do”.
It is a saying I personally live by. And, it has helped me tremendously as I navigate many social situations in Canada.
This a reference to something Saint Augustine said sometime in the 4th Century. Sometime between 387 to 390 AD, Saint Augustine moved to Milan from Hippo or modern-day Algeria. It was during this time when he learned the importance of acting according to a place’s customs and traditions.
With some help from Saint Ambrose of Milan, Saint Augustine was quick to see the value of “doing what the Romans do”… so much that, instead of committing it to memory, he decided to write it down on a piece of paper.
In short, the saying above is one that has stood the test of time. The saying contains a simple truth, one which people agree to until today.
Indeed, in Canada, there is no need to do what the Romans do. However, to make your life easier in the Great White North, you do need to “do what Canadians do”. This means everything from speaking (why else is the CELPIP or IELTS part of the application?), to food, and one aspect of life indispensable to Canadians- taking public transportation.
Taking public transportation is a practice ubiquitous to many societies today. Having done it numerous times, you would probably think that there is not much more to learn about taking public transportation in Canada.
Then again, this is how we end up offending people. We performed a certain action or forgot to observe a certain social norm. Little did we know of the consequences of these actions in that situation.
For this reason, it pays dividends to know how to conduct one’s self. In particular, knowing how to behave when taking the local rail transit in Canada is key.
The Bases Of Canadian Politeness
Before going into what you can or cannot do while taking public transportation in Canada, it might be helpful to see what social norms in the country are based on.
Canada is famous for many things. What definitely stands out is the politeness of the people. It underlies every interaction in all settings, be it at work or in casual situations. Canadian politeness is what you will experience first-hand in the country.
However, cultural integration is a two-way transaction. Hence, you need to respond in kind, if you know what I mean.
To practice etiquette in public transportation, you must first understand what it means to be polite in a general sense. So, what does it mean to be polite in Canada?
Canada’s social norms are based on the values the country has developed from its history. While there are many, we will focus on the ones that carry over to etiquette in public transportation.
In the simplest sense, egalitarianism is the idea that everyone should be treated with an equal level of respect and reverence. Indeed, many cultures and societies enshrine this value. Many even try to live up to it. Nevertheless, economics, culture, and political factors have a way of making egalitarianism difficult in practice.
Am I saying that all countries are not in a position to treat everyone equally? Perhaps, but that’s a discussion for another time.
One thing is certain, though. A country that comes really close is Canada. Interactions between people in Canada are generally casual and relaxed. It is seen in the government’s immigration policies. As well, it is present in the way Canadians talk to their peers. It also this way when Canadians speak to their bosses!
Simply put, it is normal in Canada to address people equally regardless of age (more on this later) and role in the workplace. Unlike many Asian cultures, Canadian culture has no use for honorifics. You won’t find words like “kuya”, “oppa”, or “maama” in Canadian speech- not because the languages in Canada are English and French but because of Canada’s egalitarian social atmosphere.
This is a social and cultural value that is fairly easy to relate to. After all, we as students, workers, and parents hate it when things are not on schedule.
People in Canada are no different. In fact, in Canada, you could say that time is about as important a resource as the oil sands in Alberta. Canadians value punctuality and frown upon tardiness. When it comes to being early, you might get mixed opinions.
Nobody enjoys being in traffic or at the mercy of a slow-walking co-passenger. However, some of us (like me) who come from South and Southeast Asian countries are more tolerant and accepting of this sort of thing.
Time-consciousness is vital to consider especially within the context of public transportation in Canada. The desire to be on time will affect how you ought to physically conduct yourself on a bus or train.
Unlike time-consciousness, this is a concept that seems to be unfamiliar in other cultures. Now, I am not claiming that it is always acceptable to touch someone in other cultures. But, let’s face it. Whenever we crowd in a train or get cramped inside a jeepney (if you’re Filipino), we get an idea that some cultures can be more tolerant of physical contact from strangers.
This may seem like a broad statement but Canadians are individualistic. For this reason, they value (and protect) their personal space. No Canadian appreciates unwanted physical contact in any form. Handshakes occur and so do hugs and kisses. However, in the context of public transportation, you are better off assuming that you will be travelling amongst strangers who might flinch at unwanted physical contact.
With that in mind, knowing how much personal space is valued in Canada can prevent a lot of awkward situations inside the train or bus.
Etiquette When Taking Public Transportation In Canada
Now that you know what lies at the heart of Canada’s trademark politeness, we can now go over how to behave as you get from point A to point B using public transportation.
The internet is crawling with numerous “dos and don’ts” when it comes to this exact topic. Nine times out of ten, you will come across something that looks like an annotated to-do list of 20 or more.
I believe in a minimalist, principle-based approach when talking about social customs. Not only does it help with time but it also keeps things premised and reasoned.
You know the “principles”. These were the values of Canadian society in the previous section. In this section, you will see a list of behaviours to observe and avoid based on my experience and the values mentioned earlier.
Everyone who needs to take public transportation anywhere has an equal right to do so. Hence, the concept of waiting for one’s turn should not be a new concept to anyone.
Usually, the issue associated with queuing or lining up is a question of how tolerant a society is to those who jump the queue.
For instance, it has been observed that jumping queues is common in China. Although it is viewed negatively, the behaviour does not seem to be stifled or punished in any way. To learn more about this, here is a Quora thread on the subject.
Canada takes queuing seriously. This is based on the concept of egalitarianism mentioned in the earlier section. Everyone must wait for their turn, whether it is for paying for a ticket or getting on board the bus.
Stay Away From The Door
We have established earlier that Canadians value time. In other words, they hate being late and you probably do to even if you are not Canadian.
Whether you are on a bus or train, you need to mindful of this. Why? Because this is the reason for not standing at the door while you are inside a train or bus. Doing this can cause disruptions in passenger traffic as well as knock you over if someone is rushing to get in or out of the train. For this reason, you should avoid doing this in Canada. Do this, and you will be met with the same disapproving looks I received.
When I was in the United Kingdom for my bridging degree, I took trains frequently. Knowing that trains stop only for brief moments of time, I would sometimes stand right at the door before alighting. I saw other people doing the same on trains and buses so I assumed this was normal. In that part of the world, it is normal.
In Canada, I learned that it was different. A victim of ignorance of Canadian public transportation norms, I acted the way I did in the United Kingdom and got piercing looks from some of the other passengers.
Don’t Enter A Bus Or Train While Passengers Are Alighting
In Canada, it is considered rude to board public transportation before letting passengers disembark. This might just be common knowledge depending on where you are in the world. Nonetheless, in different parts of the world, it is acceptable and normal to enter at your whim. It does not matter so long as you do not bump into another passenger.
Doing this causes the same problems associated with standing at the door. It blocks the entrance and exits of buses or trains. This leads to travel delays, which in turn result in people being late to wherever they need to be. Once again, Canadians dislike being late or waiting for someone who is late.
Here is an example:
I was in Singapore for vacation. Trains are a popular and affordable means of getting around the city. As I looked at how people behaved when trains arrive, I observed that commuters simply entered the train as a passenger was going out. There was no chance of bumping into each other since the doors are pretty wide.
Well, the doors on Canadian trains are sizable too. Nonetheless, I noticed how passengers patiently waited for all the passengers of the train to get off. Only after the last passenger got off did the passengers and myself get on.
Never Stand Too Close To Another Passenger
For this, we go back to the idea of how Canadians value their personal space.’
When taking public transportation, this is one of those unwritten rules you ought to be familiar with. Unfortunately, depending on where you are from, the rules for this could be “fluid”, if you will.
If you live in Japan, it is perfectly normal to be so physically close to another passenger that there is literally no room to take out your phone. As well, you only need to ask a Filipino about how common it is to be “sardined” inside a jeepney with 17 other passengers.
By Canadian standards, personal space is about an arm’s length between one person and another. Since Canadian society has been conditioned to observe this, everyone still maintains distance even in a crowded situation.
One example of a crowded situation is a packed bus or train. In these instances, you can either:
- Try your best to maintain arm’s length distance between yourself and other people
Or (when the first option is not available)
- Apologize for having to stand too close
The second option may not solve the problem. Nonetheless, it does show that you are mindful of the other passenger’s right to protect his or her own personal space. I have had to do this numerous times and often it did not lead to awkwardness or the police being notified.
Ask About The Vacant Seat
Again, we go back to the concept of personal space. Besides standing too close to another person on a train or bus, assuming that you could just occupy a vacant seat should be avoided. Doing this is also considered rude in Canadian culture.
If you really need to occupy a seat and someone is sitting adjacently, you only need to ask if the seat is occupied. It does two things:
- It shows someone your awareness that you may be violating personal space.
- You will know if someone is occupying the seat.
Whichever outcome you experience, you will have prevented embarrassing yourself.
I found that in places like Hong Kong, Johor Bahru, and Singapore, this was not a big deal. In Canada, I learned the hard way that I should ask a passenger before I occupy the seat next to her.
Avoid Bringing Bags Or Objects That Take Up A Lot Of Space
No Filipino becomes irate when a person brings three sacks of rice into a fully-occupied jeepney or bus. Though not necessarily welcomed, Filipinos are typically forgiving of such behaviour.
Nonetheless, it is reasonable to think that effectively, that person occupied most of the jeepney even for the same fare other passengers paid.
It is for this reason that bringing large objects onboard public transportation is discouraged and viewed as uncouth. To understand the reason for this, we just need to take into account Canada’s egalitarian mindset and society.
Remember, everybody on the bus or train you are on has an equal right to space. Your fare entitles you to a place to stand or sit. Nothing more. If you need to bring something, make sure that it is small enough to occupy the same space you are in. Backpacks, messenger bags, and a small box fit this description perfectly. Three sacks of rice or anything similar will likely draw looks of disapproval.
Besides, doing this might also negatively affect how passengers will move as they board or disembark. Hence, not only will bringing oversized cargo seem “privileged”, but it will also cause people to be late to their destinations. Again, nobody wants that in Canada.
Refrain From Any Boisterousness Or Profanity
In some cultures, talking loudly is perfectly acceptable. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen a loud person speaking on the phone in China, Singapore, and the Philippines.
In Canada, speaking softly is a sign of respect for other passengers. Everyone pays the same fare (more or less) and is entitled to the same benefits that come with that fare. Nobody in Canada pays to get on a bus or train to eavesdrop on telephone conversations.
Also, you could say that Canadians have an (almost) zero-tolerance policy when it comes to foul language. Hence, when taking public transportation, be mindful of your language.
I did say earlier that everyone is viewed equally in Canadian society. However, there are exceptions.
Canadians seem to have a high degree of respect for the elderly. For this reason, everyone is expected to treat senior citizens with respect and some degree of preference. When it comes to public transportation, you could do this by allowing an elderly person to:
- Take your seat
- Move ahead of you
- Go ahead of you if you are in a queue
The same is true when you encounter a person with a disability.
I see high reverence for these two groups of people in different places. Be that as it may, I think it would be naive to believe that all countries have this.
This has little to do with any of the Canadian values mentioned earlier. Observing this has more to do with simply “doing as the Romans do”. As well, this is a rule not observed in many countries so it may be worthwhile to include this.
In the context of Canadian public transportation etiquette, to “keep right” means to stand on your right so that others can walk on the left side. This rule is observed not just in Canada, but also in the Philippines, Japan, South Korea, and the United States.
In Singapore, parts of Malaysia, China, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom, the opposite is observed.
Keep It Clean
In other words, just avoid littering. There are stringent penalties for passengers who dispose of their litter inappropriately.
Canadian transport authorities require buses and trains to have waste receptacles. Hence, throwing away garbage properly should not be a problem.
As the old saying goes:
“Manners maketh man”.
The way we conduct ourselves in our day to day lives gives people an insight into who we are as individuals. With every polite gesture we extend, we bring to the fore our sensibility and intentions. Although this is an aspiration shared by many, the practice of etiquette changes with every culture and society it is enshrined in.
Indeed, proper etiquette depends on culture. To successfully act mannered, one can commit to memory a list of behaviours deemed civil and proper. However, some behaviours change, others disappear, and new ones may appear.
The list of customs to observe in Canadian public transportation can grow or shrink with each generation. Nevertheless, you need not navigate the intricacies of Canadian etiquette in a state of helplessness or confusion.
An understanding of Canada’s social and cultural values gives you a stable point of departure in deciding what is appropriate and what is not- even before you buy that bus or train ticket.