Why I no longer say, “Canadians are so nice”

Is our obsession with ‘niceness’ keeping us from being real?

Why I no longer say, “Canadians are so nice”
Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

When I moved from London UK to Ottawa in early 2019, something happened that I didn’t expect: I felt more isolated and lonely than I ever had.

This was shocking to me because Canada’s reputation for niceness is as strong as London’s reputation for big-city rudeness. In the months prior to the move, I told myself I was looking forward to moving somewhere where it’s easy to make friends and talk to strangers. On the surface, people in Ottawa were much smiley and friendlier, but over time I found most people didn’t seem willing to connect in a meaningful way beyond surface chatter.

Here’s an example: after my daughter started daycare, I was hoping to connect with the parents I smiled at and saw at pickup each day. So I put a friendly note out to all the other families saying were were new in town and we’d love a playdate to meet new families. But I didn’t get a single response.

This feeling of isolation has really worried ever since, particularly because I am a privileged, white, english-speaking native Canadian. If I had a hard time with loneliness, I couldn’t imagine how difficult it must be to navigate this as someone without these advantages.

Unlike Canadians, Londoners are notoriously unfriendly, and everyone is honest about that. But the great thing about honesty is that when you are willing to recognize the problem, you can try to fix it.

London knows it’s unfriendly, so there are things in place to connect people and help overcome loneliness and social isolation. So, although it seems counter intuitive, I felt more connected to the people around me when I lived in London than I have since coming back to Canada.

Here are a few things that helped me feel connected to my community, none of which I’ve experienced since moving back to Canada:

  • NCT (National Childbirth Trust) connects expectant parents with others in their area —I made friends from this that were my lifeline after childbirth
  • In my daughter’s school, class ambassadors would make it their mission to connect with every parent in their class. They created group chats where we could ask questions, and organized meetups
  • The school as a whole would hold monthly “newcomer” coffee mornings
  • Our nursery would hold events for families to meet each other
  • And because car culture isn’t as big, I would meet and chat with neighbours while walking on the street regularly

I’m not saying Canadians aren’t nice. But I’ve started to think that the label of niceness isn’t helpful — we can’t default to “we smile at strangers” and think our job is done. Social isolation is a big issue that needs more than a friendly hello. We can no longer fall back on niceness; giving a smile or a “hello” on the street is not enough to overcome widespread loneliness.

So, let’s be nice to each other, but let’s also be honest about where our niceness falls short.