Is a Canadian moving to the USA or an American moving to Canada likely to face culture shock?

When I moved the USA from Canada, I experienced culture shock.  It wasn't huge, "what do I do?" shock, it was small things.

A list:

  • You can't do anything in the USA until you have a Social Security Number.  Can't rent an apartment, buy a car, open a bank account, get a phone, nothing.  That is your first thing you do when arriving is applying for and getting that card.  Unlike Canada's SIN, the US SSN is used for a lot of things beside taxes.
  • The news is reported differently.  Tune into a Canada news station and an American one and the differences, biases and approaches are obvious and strange.  Canadian reporting, in my opinion, tends be more factual and objective and not seeking "balance".  They let the viewer decide their viewpoint rather than shoving it at them or disguising it under said "balance".
  • That your zip code determines the quality of your education. 
  • 24 hour shopping for anything.  Grocery stores, book stores, etc.  I loved this.
  • Emphasis on job titles.  Corporate America places a lot of importance on titles.  I couldn't care less.  You can call me "Code Queen" for all I care since it is the paycheck, not the title, that matters to me.
  • Racial issues.  Canada has them too but it is much more prominent in the USA.  There's a whole slew of subcultures and views that come with that that I have a hard time understanding.
  • Politics.  This is a big one over time as you adapt to American style politics.  I think Americans need to experience Canadian politics.  Too much incumbency and ideology in US politics.  Canadians can and do throw disfavored politicians out of office on a regular basis.
  • Disparities in cost of living.  This one I've adapted to but have never gotten over.  Proportional salaries for a given area smooth this out but it is hard to explain why a house that cost $90K in my home town is $250K in my area.  And this occurs across the USA.  Only a handful of places in Canada exhibit such disparities.  In Canada, most people would consider $100K/year a very good salary.  In the USA, this is barely middle-class in some areas.
  • Fantastic roads.  The USA Interstate system makes Canada's 400-series highways look like a bike path.  Throw in the other highways, secondary roads and back roads and there isn't anywhere you can't go. 
  • While more recent and I don't know if Canada has followed suit, much more structured child rearing.  Playdates, programs, etc.  What happened to kids going out, riding their bikes, playing the neighborhood and otherwise disappearing unsupervised until sundown?  I'd be in prison in the USA if I ever had kids because I'd raise them like I was raised.
  • In the vein of above, planning a child's future while in the womb.  College savings begin before a kid is born!
  • The idea a college education is a prerequisite to a good future.  Usually just a way into the door and then no longer important as experience and ability trump the piece of paper.  But there is an amazing amount of emphasis on "college" here.  Canada is far more relaxed in this area.
  • Widespread and common gun ownership.  Truly an alien concept for the average Canadian.

I moved from Vancouver to BC in 2001 (and came back in 2010). Moving to the USA was nothing. The USA is just bizarro Canada. Almost the same until something different pops up now and then. Really, most Canadians and the majority of Americans are so close culturally that the culture is almost identical.

The things I see that other people mentioned is just little stuff. Things you get used to quickly.

The biggest difference is in having to choose your medical plan and not thinking about the cost. And I only had to worry about that once a year. But I knew about this ahead of time so it was not a shock.

The biggest inconvenience was having no credit rating and I had to put up deposit for a secured credit card so I could do things. I was lucky to have a friend there who went down 4 years before me and he cosigned my lease for an apartment.

Cost of living is irrelevant as medical insurance takes away all the savings on everything else.

I was convenient I had already obtained a Social Security Number in the 1980s for business purposes but I had to get a Taxpayer number for my daughter. But really this is how things work in Canada as well.

Canadians actually know the USA as well as the majority of Americans as we get all the main US TV channels. When I was in grade 6 most of our Social Studies program that year was on the United States. A lot of Canadians can probably discuss the reasons for the War of Succession/War of Northern Aggression aka Civil War than most Americans can .

My point is that the USA is not a mystery to most Canadians. As well, most of us have by the time we are adults have visited the US several times. My first time was a trip to Flint MI at age 9. My daughter's first US trip was to the Boeing 747 plant in Everett WA at age 2. Disneyland at age 5.

In 2001 the biggest culture shock was with the office clerk at the middle school in Orange County where I was enrolling my daughter The clerk was insistent my daughter needed to take an English Proficiency exam as she insisted that everyone in Canada spoke only French. My daughter tried to tell her that we likely spoke better English than half the people there and finally we had to get the school principal to come over and explain to the clerk what language they spoke in most of Canada.

The same thing happened when I with with my daughter when we showed up at her graduate school years later . That my daughter already had a bachelors degree from Pennsylvania was not enough for the clerk and we had to get higher authority to tell the clerk to set them straight The culture shock was not with us but Americans.

I put this down to the fact that most people only learn about 2 countries to any great degree They learn about their own country and the USA. It is no different for Americans. I do not blame them for this as the USA generates more than half of the world's news and so much goes on there, it is easy for most Americans to not have a good grasp on what the rest of the world is line. Not even the next door neighbors.

When I moved to the U.S. from Canada, I experienced absolutely nothing that I would describe as culture shock, though I did have to make a few minor adjustments along the way. I should mention that I moved to Buffalo NY, a city that is right at the Canadian border. 

I'm sure that the farther one is from the border, the starker the differences must be, but as far as I am concerned, life in Buffalo hasn't been all that different from my former life in southern Ontario. I mean, I see a Tim Hortons here every couple of miles or so.

That said, there are differences:
  • Businesses are open later, goods are cheaper, consumer choice is greater (but most Canadians already knew that).
  • Doctor's visits aren't free, even if you have health insurance from your employer (HSA or FSA).
  • There is definitely more of a car-culture here.
  • Metric vs Imperial. Canadian is officially metric, but in practice it is half-Imperial, so I had no problem with feet, inches, pounds. It took me almost no time to get used to miles. But Fahrenheit is still weird -- I still have no intuition for how I should feel in Fahrenheit, especially on the lower end of the temperature scale.

It's very hard to generalize one's experiences because there are parts of the U.S. that are very similar to Canada, and parts that aren't.

That said, despite claims to the contrary, I believe that Canadians and Americans really are very culturally similar, and many of the biggest differences are more regional than national.

A Buffalonian has way more in common with a Southern Ontarian than a Texan, for instance. A person in Vancouver can probably relate better to someone from Seattle than someone from Newfoundland.

My feeling is that most Canadians (from any part of the cultural/political spectrum) can probably find a parallel city in the U.S. that feels no different from home.
There's definitely some culture shocks but its not huge because its largely common knowledge for both sides, though I find that Canadians tend to know more about the US than Americans do about Canada.

As a Canadian, the biggest culture shock for me was the amount of crime and poverty in the streets of some cities. I lived in SF so I was a bit shocked when I walked through Market Street into some of the sketchier neighbourhoods. In the span of 4 months I saw a daylight snatch and grab, a person getting his bicycle jacked in front of him, and tons of homeless people. My roommate almost got mugged with a knife as well. The office where I worked was next to a methadone clinic and my coworkers would sometimes get their car windows smashed. Also, just before I came to SF, there was a shootout outside of the office where they had to call in a police squad to deal with. The company where I worked also implemented a system where you could pair up with someone when walking home in the evening as there were rumours of random assaults going on in the city.

My American friends casually throw around "just like in any city, you have to be wary" like it's a non-issue but I think they mean to say "just like in any US city, you have to be wary". The concept of 'watching my back' when walking the streets alone in the evening was foreign to me having lived in far safer places like Toronto. The bad areas in Canadian cities are actually not bad in US standards.

The contrast between lavish life in the tech community in SF and the crime and poverty right outside kind of fundamentally disturbed me a little. I felt like I was living in a bubble of entitlement. In Canada, I don't feel that way because there's much less violent crime and poverty in everyday life. I think the government and society sort of just get together to confront social programs.

Other than that and healthcare, it's pretty much the same.
I don't think there's extreme culture shock, at least not on the level of an American moving to Japan or something. I have spent a lot of time in Canada because of the family I have there. Here are the big differences that I've noticed:
  • Weird money. Especially now that Canada's moved to plastic looking money. Even before, it was more colorful than U.S. money, which is all green. They also don't have dollar bills and instead use coins, which haven't really caught on in the U.S. and are seen almost as an annoyance by a lot of people I know. Like when you go places and get dollar coins as change, people react, "What am I gonna do with this??"
  • Metric system. The Canadians I know use Imperial for most everyday stuff like height and weight but they use kilometers and Celsius, which confuses me. I remember watching the weather channel and having no clue what anything meant (20 degrees is good??).
  • The standard of living is higher, though this really depends on where you're from in the States. Someone who lived a middle class lifestyle probably won't see much differences. However I know someone who lives in Canadian public housing projects and I was shocked at what they considered "the projects". While it wasn't great by any means, it was probably what would be a lower middle class area in the States.
  • I don't know that religion would be a big issue. Yeah if you're moving from Toronto to small-town Alabama then people will be more religious but it really depends on where.
  • This is a really minor detail, but I remember being really surprised that in Canada you pay after getting your gas. I asked my uncle if anyone had ever just driven off instead of paying and he struggled to think of an incident he had heard of.
  • That ties into my next point, Canada is a lot safer. My Canadian family was shocked at American schools having metal detectors and police offiers.

I moved from the states to Canada. And not just anywhere in the states, but from California (weather!!!). Came a little over a year ago for university!

Culturally, people in Canada are nicer than they are in the U.S. Canadians are less interested in conflict; in most minor incidents, like a accidental bump etc., people just say sorry. Even when they arent sure who is in the wrong. Why? Because then both parties acknowledge the quick apology, then move on. Its very, very pleasant.

Canadians must have some sort of cold resistance super power. Coming from California which rarely even has rain, where "cold" means "sorry, no tshirt and shorts today", Canada is a frozen hell. Still, its a interesting experience, and its survival (I think).

Coins are worth a lot here. In the states, sometimes I lose a pocket full of change- no big deal, its like a dollar or two. In Canada, due to how people prefer to give change in one dollar coinsand two dollar coins as opposed to one/five dollar bills, a pocket full of change can easily be $10+!

What in the world is a roundabout??? Moving on.

Damn Trudeau sounds like a cool presi- err... prime minister. *cough*


When I first moved to Canada in 2000 in my early 20s, I didn't really see that much of a difference between the two countries and suffered very little in terms of culture shock. But it was when I would go back to visit family in the US where I started to feel some form of culture shock. Despite growing up in the US for most of my life, I looked at my birth country quite differently every time I would come back. And the longer I stayed in Canada, the more pronounced this culture shock would be. And it came in different forms. From noticing how excessive Americans can be when it comes to consumption of almost everything, to the gun culture. At one point I moved back to the US, and worked in New York for a year while waiting on my Canadian permanent residence, and it stunned me how much Americans talked about money. It was something that I was used to and participated in myself when I was growing up, but now it seemed strange to me and felt uncomfortable talking about it. I don't necessarily think these things are negative though, just very different from Canadian culture.
I believe that the intensity of culture shock for migrants is almost on par between our two nations, but for different reasons and here is why:

Canadians, on average consume much more American media than Americans consume Canadian. Because media is one way that we learn social norms, Canadians may already have a stronger sense of American culture and be more adaptable to it. However, the opposite is also possible where a Canadian may think they understand US culture based solely upon the media they have consumed and therefore are in for a bigger culture shock when their assumptions are proven false.

On the flipside, Americans on average have had less exposure to Canadian culture and the few stereotypes they have are likely more superficial (polar bears and poutine). While arriving with few preconceived notions about a people is generally positive, it still requires the individual to possess one key trait - adaptability.

Perhaps the next question is which culture is generally more adaptable?
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