To shake or not to shake: Canada edition

Business travel is on the comeback but the rules have changed. AirPlus is taking a virtual trip around the world to see how business etiquette has adapted to pandemic. This week in the series: Canada.

Before we start our journey, a word on safety. Travel during this sensitive time is subject to greater precautions and restrictions than usual. The insights we offer can equip you for better business, but the developing global health situation is in constant flux. When you travel, follow guidelines to stay safe and informed. Find up-to-date information on travel restrictions from as many credible sources as you can, such as here on IATA’s travel center site.

It’s in their nature


Canada is the world's 2nd biggest country and its 10th largest economy.[i]

We start our journey in the Great White North. And we mean great. Everything about Canada is on a scale beyond. Its 9.9 million km2 make it the 2nd largest country on Earth. It has a park the size of Denmark, an island bigger than Spain, more than half of the world’s natural lakes, and enough coastline to wrap around the world six times.

And while the nature of the north is draw enough for many, Canada is increasingly known as a great place to do business. Despite a population smaller than that of Poland, the country’s economy has grown into the 10th largest in the world.


European formality with a vibrant touch

Though North American and long independent, Canada remains part of the British Commonwealth and has a rich Old World heritage. This mixture of discovery and tradition has forged a unique spirit of global identity. Few countries have set a greater mandate on celebrating diversity. For Canada, that means the history of its indigenous First Nations peoples, a long and colorful legacy of migration, and some of the most vibrant, multicultural urban centers on Earth.

Canada has weathered the Covid-19 crisis with admirable solidarity and international cooperation. The country looks well positioned to rebound post-pandemic.

If you’re partnering with a Canadian company, expanding into the market, or on business in Vancouver or Halifax, here are some tips on how to prep for success with Canadian culture, from navigating social distance to closing the deal over drinks.



Nicknamed the Maple Leaf, the Canadian flag pays homage to the fact that Canada holds 9% of the world's forests.[ii]


Natural social distancers

Canadians value distance. They have a lot of space, after all. (Spain-sized islands, remember?) Shaking hands when meeting is usually the norm, but social distance policies are hardly disruptive to social needs. Unlike in cultures where physical contact is much more critical for establishing comfort and trust – even among strangers – Canadians regularly keep sufficient distance. That includes emotionally: The question “How are you?” is a regular greeting but shouldn’t be mistaken for prying into your personal life, nor should it be answered with too much reflection. Whether it’s a sign of respect or just an expected social gesture, akin to a Japanese bow or a Mediterranean kiss on the cheek, you’re best off going with the flow.


Smartly dressed and punctual

Don’t let the gracious greetings and nonhierarchical social norms put you too much at ease. Though some regions and industries will be more casual than others, both women and men are widely expected to maintain a professional appearance at all times. In Canada, that tends to mean modest. Respect is the name of the game.

Another tip to keep in mind: Remember appointments made well in advance! Canadian business culture is assiduously organized, and friendly reminders of approaching meetings or deadlines are well received and appreciated. When it comes time for the meeting itself, punctuality is by all means expected.


Diplomats of the business world

Though Canadians value straightforward speech and getting to the point, that’s never an excuse for bluntness. No amount of honest revelation can excuse a damaged relationship, and maintaining healthy working relationships is what Canadian business culture is built upon. That means regular small talk and adherence to social pleasantries. And while constructive criticism is welcome, its delivery must be governed by the strict laws of diplomacy.

Out-of-office dinners and after-hours conversations with Canadian business partners are fertile ground to develop relationships. But take your time and stay reserved. Friendly relations are paramount. Avoid discussing politics, for instance: Quebec’s relationship to the rest of Canada is off the table. Politics is widely viewed as private, and encroaching that in a work-related setting could be taken as insensitive or even offensive. Disturbing the peace is Canada’s cardinal sin.


Parlez-vous Français?

While British Columbia and the Maritime provinces still exhibit strong English and Scotch-Irish roots, Quebec is thoroughly French. For that reason, the entire country is officially bilingual, with French-immersion schools common in English-speaking areas and all government documentation printed in both languages. As language is very often a core element of cultural identity, best not to assume your Canadian counterpart is an English native speaker. And while experienced professionals from French-speaking regions will of course speak English, a few words in French from the outset will set a completely different mood.


torontoToronto is North America's 4th largest city.[iii]


Toronto: Canada’s economic heart

If you’re in Canada on business, chances are good you’re in Toronto. Canada’s largest city is the 4th largest in North America. The city’s proximal location to New York City, Chicago, and Montreal has made it an accessible destination for the rest of the world.


50% of the US population lives within a 90-minute flight of the Toronto airport.

The financial hub is home to the country’s five large banks, a globally competitive convention center, and 36,000 hotel rooms. In other words, a business traveler’s paradise. But more importantly, the city is a microcosm of perhaps Canada’s greatest value: diversity.


A culture of the future

With half the population born outside the country, the tapestry of language and culture demonstrates what has established Canada as a multicultural capital of the world.

Conducting business with Canadians means respecting this unique sensitivity to cultural diversity. Multiculturalism has become a culture in itself for Canadians, and their businesspeople often seem to see themselves as ambassadors of tolerance and civility. This pride in respectfulness rises above and beyond the call of professionalism and is often what makes business with Canadians so rewarding. There are few better examples of commitment to global cooperation.


[i] Photo by bantersnaps on Unsplash

[ii] Photo by Hermes Rivera on Unsplash

[iii] Photo by Mwangi Gatheca on Unsplash

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