HOW TO TELL THE ENGLISH FROM THE FRENCH IN CANADA
What are the subtle differences between two peoples who have shared the same country, and in many cases, the same streets for two to three centuries? Why is it that waiters, cab drivers, hotel clerks and airline hostesses know, at first sight, when to say, “Good morning, sir,” and when to say, “Bonjour, monsieur”? Malden's asked Lea Petering, a perceptive young French-Canadian writer. The piquant language is her own. So are the provocative answers
A FRIEND AND i were sitting at the swimming pool of a fashionable resort hotel in a Quebec City suburb. Groups and families had staked claims and were forming islands on the lawn. The company looked poised, distinguished and well-mannered.
A couple, with a boy around fifteen, came out from a motel unit nearby. My friend looked at them closely. He said:
I asked what made him say that.
“Just the look they have. Counting figures. Not female figures — it’s a more serious and abstract matter than that. Bay Street, I bet.” From where we sat we could hear words here and there. We were unscrupulously listening. We had made a bet: which one of us could pick the nationality of the most guests. On Sunday afternoon the terraces of the summer resorts fill up with visitors from the city and guests from the hotels.
At that moment, I lost a point. My friend had been right. The trio was talking about Toronto, business, advertising agencies.
A moment later, three men emerged from the hotel. My friend looked at me. We smiled. This time, there was no bet. We both knew that they were French Canadians. They surveyed the terrace in a long, circular, possessive look. At the border of the pool they sat down. One of them wrapped his bath towel scarf-like around his shoulders. Another put on a cap. They still had not said a word, but we knew that the silence and quiet of the place would soon be shattered.
When a girl started to dive and swim, the
three stood up, merry and playful. For her benefit they displayed wit and muscle, gave exhibitions of their athletic ability.
The Toronto woman, not far from us, said to her husband:
“It would be nice to have a longer vacation in Quebec City.”
Her husband looked at her and answered coldly: “There is nothing else to see. We have to see the w'est, my dear. The west, my dear, next year. The oil fields.”
Although I have heard many times that you can always tell an English woman from a French-Canadian woman by the length of her feet and the volume of her chest — I suspect that this is rather a biased Irishman’s opinion — I believe that it is much more complicated than that to determine what makes airline stewardesses say, “Good morning, sir.” to this passenger, and, “Bonjour, monsieur,” to the next one. They seldom make a mistake. What would prompt a hotel owner to say to this approaching guest: “How long do you expect to stay, sir?” et à l’autre: “Nous n'avons plus de place, monsieur”? One day, the owner of a big resort in Gaspé told me that he prefers Englishspeaking guests. “They are much quieter,” he said. “When you are the owner of a resort you prefer a dull place to a noisy one!”
It is a fact that French-speaking people are generally livelier than their compatriots of English origin. They talk louder, laugh louder, tell more stories. They also have a higher sense of humor and like to show off in public. They always look as if they are having the time of their lives.
Years ago, I was in Ottawa, working for the French daily Le Droit, when a girl on the paper was going out with an English-speaking boy. "I like to go out with them,” she said. “They are so quiet and respectful!” 1 saw her not long ago. She was married to the same boy. They both looked bored. She told me that her husband was “the cold type.” They have a nice home and the cutest little dog.
English-speaking people are considered by French Canadians as cool and distant; as having "no soul” and no emotion. And when they display any, we think: “There must be some Irish blood in them.”
AN ENGLISH FACE: DEVOID OF EMOTION
So, Quebec girls think it is safe to accept an English-speaking boy’s invitation to go out. They look at them as “peu entreprenants.” They feel confident that these escorts of little enterprise will bring them back home slightly bored but with a true story to tell their mothers.
It is true, too, that most English-speaking Canadians look distant, poised, masters of the situation, cool. When one calls on you in your office, you can recognize him at a glance. He generally stops and looks at you. He then closes the door, puts his hat on the hatrack, composes himself, draws his coattail and walks to your desk, looking you straight in the eye. He lays his brief case on the floor; again he draws his coattail, extends his hand slowly and, keeping his face devoid of all emotion, says: “I am So-and-So from Such-and-Such Company. I hope I am not disturbing you.” This kind of entrance always does disturb me. It makes me feel that he has come to tell me that I will not, after all, inherit from my rich aunt.
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To some French Canadians, all English Canadians are cold, shy, efficient people — with big feet
plincd French-speaking Canadian will, in similar circumstances, make a display of his ability and charms and prestige right at the beginning, assuming that he has to impress you, and that his personality has a lot to do with any deal. While the difference between the two characters is so noticeable in Quebec City and other cities having almost totally French-speaking
populations. Montreal, with its more cosmopolitan population, offers a third species: the cold, Engiish-looking FrenchCanadian salesman or public relations man, disciplined through his contacts with English firms. He looks with disapproval at his more exuberant French-Canadian co-worker.
A friend of mine who has been in the
insurance business for many years as a salesman, and is one of the most successful women in this business in North America, says that she seldom makes a mistake in distinguishing between English and French-speaking Canadians. “Before they open their mouths, I know from their approach.”
She prefers to do business with English
Canadians. “Il n’y en a pas comme les Anglais! Pour les chiffres, ils sont imbattables!" In addition to being “quick at figures,” she added, they make up their minds faster. They know what they want.
Another woman, secretary of the board of directors of a large company, says: “The English, they talk about their business, and when it’s over, it’s over.” She added: “Don't they look efficient?”
After a long chat and a few “toasts to the Queen.” many of them stop looking official and relax and smile, but the desire to be efficient and to avoid attracting attention to themselves seems so important with our English compatriots that it gives them all a marked resemblance. You feel that if you give one of them an extraordinary thing to do, he will do it in a conventional way and make it look ordinary. The French-speaking man will make ordinary things look important and will attract attention to himself.
How can one tell the difference? I asked many people. They all recognize it, they are sure, but no one seems to know exactly where it lies.
“They have nice rosy cheeks. And nice blue eyes. But long feet.” The woman who dusts my desk in the morning was positive that all English-speaking people had these physical characteristics. When I questioned her about the long feet, she was surprised.
“I never measured them, but my late husband was always saying that. He was rarely wrong. Too bad he died—he was such a good man . . .”
Her husband was an Irishman.
It is not a crime to have long feet, she agreed. “But it’s not like having shorter feet,” she added. I lost much time trying to decide whose psychology that was: an Irishman’s or a cleaning woman's.
Actually, it’s no longer easy to tell a French Canadian from an English Canadian by physical characteristics alone. Only a generation ago, says one hockey trainer, it was possible to tell the nationality of a player by looking at him. French-Canadians of Quebec City, for instance, were much shorter than Canadians of other nationalities. You could always pick them out in the team. They were squat, heavy, sometimes bowlegged. “Hale tes cannes, baquet!" (“Hurry, shorty!”) the fans would call to the typical French-Canadian player, implying that he was slow, heavy and short on his legs.
But today the height of French-speaking Canadians in the Province of Quebec has changed. During the past forty-fifty years the whole population has grown taller. Higher income, perhaps, or better balanced diet and more sports may be among the causes of the increasingly Engiish-looking physique of some French-Canadian men. And. as I have said, in cities where they intermingle, the reserve of the English Canadian tones down the French-Canadian exuberance. It’s not unusual to see JeanMarc (the name Jean-Baptiste is not very popular anymore, even with members of the St. Jean-Baptiste Society) or François or Pierre raise an eyebrow when a friend of his own nationality tries to make a show or assert his individuality. Conversely. in Montreal you will see more Englishspeaking Canadians wearing that seal of individuality, a nice fancy beard, than you will in Toronto.
In French circles of the Maritime Provinces, the first thing you note is that Acadians are as cold as the English-speaking
people. They are quiet and seem to be on the defensive.
Among girls, the same physical change is occurring more slowly. The new generation is taller, even though manufacturers have created a whole class of garments for the “petite” Quebec woman. The few shops known to cater to the English population tend to leave French-speaking women cold. You often hear: "All the dresses there are made for tall English girls. Let's go somewhere else!”
If you still have not learned to tell the difference between Englishand FrenchCanadian women, do not worry. You have another ace up your sleeve: garments. A few friends (female) in Toronto will never forgive me for this.
Have you ever been invited to a mixed party of French and English Canadians in Toronto? If not, try to be, just to observe the way they dress. Let’s say about men, to get rid of that subject for the moment, that you can generally pick the Johns and Jacks and Bills by the tightness of their coats. They never seem to be large or long enough. And the Pierres and Andrés of the older generation all look too well fed.
But the women!
A long time ago, I looked at English women and after much thinking, I concluded that they must have been put on earth to devote their whole lives to the perpetuation of the “tailored look.”
Even at cocktail parties, they look “tailored.” To us, Canadians of French descent, it means plainness, with a slightly masculine air that seems to be trying not to attract attention. At one party I attended in Toronto, most of the English-speaking women were wearing suits. Most of their suits were black or gray. Their shoes were also conservative. Their hats looked tailored and their bits of fur also had a tailored look, even those that cost some husbands a couple of months’ salary. The tailored women were giggling at what the Frenchspeaking men were telling them.
How do the Maries, Suzannes and Marguerites dress? While their English counterparts can make a fancy dress look tailored, the French-Canadian woman will make the most tailored dress or suit look fancy!
The reason? Curves, perhaps. And foundation garments.
You doubt this? 1 have it from a reliable source. About one third of the money used to buy foundation garments in Canada is spent in the Province of Quebec. The Motivation Research Institute of New York made a survey a few years ago and found some interesting things. For instance, the Quebec woman will probably pay twice as much for a bra or girdle as the Ontario woman, and she will wear fancier clothes to work.
Many cocktail parties are given right after office hours and the girls cannot go home to change and then return from the suburbs of big cities. So French-Canadian girls would rather come to work in cocktail dresses — and suffer the whistlings of boys during the day.
Another clue is the way the women of French and English origin wear jewelry. “It takes a French-Canadian woman to pin a brooch on the cuff of her sleeve,” said an English woman. “We would not think of doing that or see the necessity of it.” The necessity, no.
“I would rather put the price of a fancy dress into a piece of furniture for the house,” said an English friend of mine. She wears a cloth coat in the winter but has an expensive white rug in her bedroom, well-filled liquor cabinet and a good car. She does not care for clothing. She is single. English-Canadian women are much more practical ... in some ways.
Take fur coats. The first piece of clothing a Quebec girl buys when she starts
working is likely to be a fur coat. It is true that the weather is rough and that the wind coming up from the St. Lawrence River is damp and biting. But the wind of Lake Ontario, sweeping Toronto, is also biting.
It's a question of prestige in Toronto. The quality of the fur coat generally indicates social level. But not with the Quebec woman; you cannot tell to what income bracket or to what social level the fur-clad woman you meet on the street belongs. A few years ago, a woman I knew was wearing a mink coat to solicit subscriptions for a local newspaper. Another girl, earning eighteen dollars a week, bought a fourhundred-dollar fur coat. Another, making thirty dollars a week (that was more than twelve years ago) had an expensive threequarter-length broadtail coat made to measure, together with an extraordinary silk fuchsia hat. One night she was unexpectedly invited to a party at the Chateau Frontenac and, to help her go through with it, a group of friends contributed: one gave her make-up, others undergarments, necklace, earrings, gloves. She used my stockings. It was after the war and nylons were just coming back on the market. She ruined the stockings but she had a good party and made quite a show in her sophisticated fur coat.
This, of course, is an exaggerated example of the fact that the I rench-( anadian woman likes to be well-dressed and will sacrifice other comforts and needs to have an "expensive look.” Girls not wearing fur coats in winter develop a complex and always make excuses.
Another important aspect of "the difference” is color. Along with the tweeds and the tailored look, the blonde English woman seems to have a weakness for tones that will not attract attention: the beige or gray or pale blue, while the French brunettes want to be daring and dashing in vivid or sophisticated colors.
This shows in make-up, also. Cosmetic manufacturers must be reaping fortunes in French-Canada. The time when a girl would make up her face from three or four jars is long gone. It now takes more than that just to make tip the eyes. As fast as new cosmetics are put on the market, the Quebec women splurge on them. You will even sec heavily made-up women shopping in the morning. If you tour the shopping centres, you will not see any sloppiness in dress. On the contrary, the anadian woman is tightly corseted; and her hair has probably been set the day before (there are more beauty parlors per capita in Quebec City than in the rest of Canada).
A friend of mine and "un admirateur du hemt sexe' thinks that make-up and colors would do wonders to English women because the lines of their faces are not as well-defined as those of French-speaking Women. Their characteristic features disappear in the general aspect. "But," he said, and I felt very concerned, "they are generally nicer and softer than ErenchCanadian girls." As that had nothing to do with the "visible difference” I’ve been talking about, the rest of the conversation would be out of place . .
Knowing that 1 was interested in finding examples of "the difference," he stopped me on St. Louis Street in Quebec City at noon one Sunday and said:
"Did you see those two women?”
”1 saw one. not two.”
I turned to look There were two, waiting for the bus. I had noticed only the French girl who obviously was coming from church. She was wearing a hat. had heavy make-up to enlarge the lines of her eyes and correct the smallness of her mouth. The other, who had the initials W. H. on her handbag (no French given name starts with a W) had not a shadow of
make-up, was wearing a dress that looked very tailored — and was very pretty.
As to the men, since the average ErcnchCanadian male is fatter, he cannot easily achieve the nonchalant look the Toronto suit advertisements promise. Even if he spends a lot of money on clothing, the result is not the same "drape” that seems natural with the English-Canadian man.
The Toronto businessman has the reputation of being better dressed. But when an overcoat manufacturer’s representative has shown his latest creations in the Ontario metropolis, he does not go to the
west or even to other Ontario cities. He rushes to Montreal. Quebec and Chicoutimi (w-here there are many Cadillac cars and almost as many loan agencies) to offer his garments. That’s where he’s likely to sell some of his most expensive styles. This information was given to me by a manufacturer’s representative himself.
While Erench-Canadian men spend their money to look well-dressed for Sunday outings, their English compatriots have developed to perfection the art of looking "négligé" outside office hours. Last summer two friends and Í were crossing the
river to go to an island down the St. Lawrence River. I was a little w'ay away from them on the deck of the ferry when I heard one passenger remark to another: "I wonder why those two Englishmen are going to the island? They don’t look like salesmen.” They were as French Canadian as I, but they were wearing sports coats and caps and sunglasses. They looked "nonchalants" and artfully "négligés."
Faced with the choice of sacrificing his waistline or his appetite, the French Canadian would rather not resist a second helping, a few more pieces of bread, hors
d’œuvres, pastries. A philosophical waitress suggested to me that when an Englishman does such a daring thing as enter a French restaurant, he gets cold feet right after passing the door and orders English-looking roast beef. “1 believe they mistrust sauces and dishes when they cannot see with their own eyes everything that goes into them,’’ she said. “They come to French restaurants because they like to hear French voices around and good hearty laughs. But an unfamiliar atmosphere and unfamiliar dishes are just too much of an adventure for the same day.”
In restaurants the French essence shows up. Even if you block your ears you are sure to be able to tell the nationality of the diners.
Jean-Louis will read the menu closely and mutter all the way down. When the waiter arrives he makes his selection closely, asks questions about each dish, not trusting the words on the menu. This takes a long time and many explanations and hand gestures. He probably changes his mind three or four times when selecting the proper wine. Even when he sees the label on the bottle, and the year, he
will ask if it really is a wine of that year.
Later, when the plate is put in front of him. he sniffs appreciatively, makes appropriate faces and starts to eat. You don't need to listen to know his remarks. You can be sure he is recalling eating the same dish a while ago, somewhere else, where it tasted so much better.
His lean English-speaking friend will order roast beef or roast lamb. He will eat without comment, and without interest, the most delicious dish or an inferior stew. 1 don’t believe any Toronto man would dare return a bottle of “not-so-good" wine
in the main dining room of the Royal York Hotel. He would rather leave it untouched than attract attention. A French Canadian is not above complaining just for the pleasure of seeing the disapproving look on the face of the waiter.
It’s a crime for an English Canadian to attract attention to himself. The Quebecer loves attention — especially when he is driving a car. If you make the slightest mistake in front of him he will get his head out of the window and yell, probably in English. He thinks that if you are going slowly, you are probably English. And even if you’re not, swearing is so much easier in English.
Nobody would look as out of place as an English Canadian suddenly talking fast and gesturing and abusing the driver of a Cadillac that had splashed water on him on the street. He w'ould raise an eyebrow and look snobbishly indignant. He might mention at his club that “a most careless driver splashed water on my trousers.” But imagine what a French Canadian would do. The whole town would hear of it. and would know that he “gave the Englishman hell, because he could not be
anybody but an Englishman at the wheel of that Cadillac." Of course, he took the license number to report to the police.
Ask him the next day if he has notified the police, and he will answer:
“Oh. about the Cadillac driver? No, not yet. but I will! I will!"
He won’t. He had his revenge by yelling at the driver, and telling his friends and all listeners. His anger is appeased. By talking fast and “telling people off,” the French Canadian is letting off steam that his Latin temperament still creates, even after three hundred years of cohabitation with Canadians of English origin.
I he thought of the Fnglish-Canadian man going to Sunday mass in his best suit and chattering on the porch of the church with corsetted and colorfully dressed women (as we see every Sunday in Quebec City) would make some people smile. And imagine him kissing the hands of the ladies! Such a speculation would make the English Canadian himself blush.
In Montreal business circles, the French and English personalities are slowly blending with the years. One becomes warmer, a little more emotional and familiar. The other cools off. talks less and adopts the discipline of straight business. Types that are hard to define and classify are met every day on the street, in restaurants, in buses. C ities like Quebec and Toronto will shelter the extremes for a long time, until one day a truly Canadian type is developed with characteristics taken from both sides — unless the separatists win their battle, if