Moving to a foreign country brings multiple challenges, as anyone who’s ever done it knows well. An oft-overlooked one is identifying and adopting subtle cultural practices that may be common in your new home, but aren’t always seen or immediately understood.
Consider, for instance, the myriad of coping strategies and life hacks many of us lean on to comfortably endure the cold, snowy, and icy conditions experienced in the typical Canadian winter. But for newcomers, especially those from warmer climates, it’s not always apparent how to handle the inhospitable weather, particularly in professional settings.
If you didn’t know any better, what would you wear on your feet for a job interview on a wet and snowy day in January? Imagine trying to put your best foot forward as a job-seeking newcomer while also worrying about your winter boots, or worse, your soggy shoes.
Anyone born here, or anyone who’s lived in Canada for a while, isn’t likely to be too fazed about how to dress, or the safest way to navigate treacherous conditions. Still, while the solution might seem trivially simple to those in the know, the lack of understanding can be confounding to anyone without experience.
Career coach Jette Stubbs has dealt with these issues, both in her own life and in her work assisting fellow newcomers. Stubbs has had to pick up plenty of Canadian cultural lessons since moving from The Bahamas to Ontario more than a decade ago to attend university.
“Because I’ve been through it, I know all the nuances and the things that you don’t think of along the way as you’re trying to build out that career,” Stubbs said. “It can be really challenging.”
At her first full-time job in Canada after graduation, a colleague explained to Stubbs how she and many others keep an extra pair of shoes at work during winter months, or carry them along in a bag when attending a job interview or important offsite meeting.
Still, as Stubbs recalled with a smile, there remained the minor problem of packing a hefty pair of fur-lined boots around from time to time.
“I had to figure out where to put the extra bag,” she said. “If you’re commuting and you’re going into an interview and you want to change your shoes, you’re carrying your resume in one hand and then this massive bag with your big winter boots in the other hand.”
Beyond adjusting to the demands of winter, Clemence Leveau-Vallier is keenly aware that newcomers to Canada face “a lot of adaptation to the Canadian culture.”
Born in France and raised both there and in the United States, Leveau-Vallier and her husband settled in Toronto about a decade ago, choosing Canada after a worldwide search.
After years of informally helping fellow French newcomers adjust to life here, Leveau-Vallier now works as Head of Marketing at Arrive, an online resource intended to help newcomers from across the globe make a smoother transition to Canada.
Levau-Vallier said Canadian attitudes around obeying rules and regulations can be a cultural adjustment for some newcomers.
“Being truthful and following the rules is a cultural expectation in Canada,” Leveau-Vallier explained. “In some parts of the world there may be different standards of flexibility around following rules, but most people really play by the rules here. It’s important for newcomers to understand that because consequences can be serious. If you try to bribe a police officer or get caught cheating on a test, that’s going to get you in a lot of trouble.”
Most cultural differences are more benign, however. Both Stubbs and Leveau-Vallier point out how Canadians are generally friendly and helpful, which also means standards around addressing colleagues and superiors are typically more informal and relaxed.
“When I started working, even the president said, ‘Just call me by my first name,’” Stubbs recalled. “That’s not always culturally common in other places where you do refer to people as sir or ma’am as a sign of respect.”
Some newcomers are pleasantly surprised to discover Canadian workplaces generally offer a professional culture that values development, training, and employee well being.
“Some things that are available in Canada people wouldn’t dream of in other places, like to be able to take a stress leave,” Stubbs said. “Where I’m from, that’s unheard of.”
Whether it’s tips to handle winter or getting support with mental wellness issues, Stubbs and Leveau-Vallier agree the best way for newcomers to identify and break down cultural barriers is by connecting with people and learning from them.
“As a newcomer, you’re the one that has to go out of your way to create that relationship,” Leveau-Vallier said. “You’ve got to be proactive about going out there introducing yourself, creating a bond. You have to force yourself out of your comfort zone if you’re from a culture where you don’t speak unless spoken to, or you never question what someone in a position of hierarchy might say.”
For Stubbs, embracing a philosophy of openness around discussing people’s differences is the best path to cultural awareness.
“People try a lot to fit in and we don’t want how we are different to be noticed,” she said. “We want to assimilate, we want to feel like we’re part of the culture. Instead, I find it’s really helpful to just be open and ask questions. Instead of trying to fit in, we can talk about those nuances and start to understand each other better.”
Powered by Magnet, the Youth Newcomer Jobs Portal connects young newcomers to job opportunities and resources related to settlement, job training, and more. Learn more about this initiative and how to get involved at YNJP.ca.