Canadian and U.S. Rhetorical Cultures

CBC Cross Country Checkup comment page

Teaching and studying “Rhetoric” in Canada is different from doing so in the U.S. because of Canadian “rhetorical culture” within which we live and work.

Rhetorical study has flourished more in the U.S. because there is less social stigma against using and studying rhetoric in the U.S.

Consider one small segment of our rhetorical culture — among academics.  The rhetoric we are accustomed to use in our colleges and universities as students, teachers, academic colleagues, and academic presenters.  Our cultural context beyond the university/college makes a difference in how we organize and deliver our presentations.  It probably impacts the way we do “small talk” and network and give feedback among colleagues at academic  conferences.

In his blog post on the CSSR (Canadian Society for the Study of Rhetoric) conference in 2010, David Beard (alias syntaxfactory) describes how his experience at our Canadian association conference differed from his experience of the RSA (Rhetoric Society of America).  He writes,

The feedback was neither agonistic (as so many conference Q&A become competitions between audience and speaker) nor was it skew (as so many conference panel Q&A become about “the paper I wish you’d written instead”).

Why was the feedback not agonistic or skew at the CSSR?  Because that’s a norm of our rhetorical culture.

Thinking beyond our academic worlds to the societies that support them, I often meditate on the differences in the “rhetorical culture” of Americans and Canadians.  There are negatives and positives on both sides, but the Americans have an advantage over us because they actually study their own rhetorical culture in a focused and open manner.

Canadians need to catch up with the U.S. in their study and refinement of rhetoric.  And when we do that, we may actually excel in the quality and broad impact of our rhetorical accomplishments for the betterment of society.

I wonder if there is any article on American and Canadian “rhetorical sensitivity” similar to the one I found comparing Thai and US rhetorical sensitivity (Knutson, Komolsevin, Chatiketu, Smith, 2003) because I think it might have a similar hypothesis and show some similar findings, but perhaps not as extreme in degree since the US and Canada are cultural neighbors:

Since the highest Thai cultural values are those associated with social harmony, The Kingdom of Thailand provides a unique laboratory for the search of behaviors associated with effective intercultural communication. Based on an analysis of Thai and US American cultural values, several hypotheses were tested. Contrary to the prediction, US Americans displayed significantly higher levels of rhetorical sensitivity than the Thais. Consistent with the hypotheses, the Thais exhibited significantly higher levels of rhetorical reflection than did the US Americans, and the US Americans presented significantly higher levels of noble self than the Thais. (Knutson, et. al., Abstract)

And US rhetoric is louder and bolder than Canadian, as they express their “noble selves.”  It is generally acknowledged you need to persuade and articulate yourself in order to make your way in American society, since at any moment you could be expected to perform.  Canadians seem to be less comfortable with this idea of rhetorical survival and the rhetorical path to success.  If you don’t go through the hoops and have the right credentials, social status, and good references, you don’t get ahead, no matter how you wave your arms and raise your voice.  You have to wait your turn and stand in line because to jump the queue is unfair.  Order trumps merit.

Modesty is Canada's Strange Vanity I learned that American rhetoric was different from Canadian while living in the US as a resident of Ohio for 4 years.  These are not things you notice as a tourist.  You learn them while trying to deal with banks and landlords and institutions, and while being a member of their institutions.  Some aspects of rhetorical culture I found awkward, annoying, or just weird as a Canadian:

  • In the US noticed that service workers made far more mistakes, were lazy or forgetful or otherwise inconsiderate of my needs as their customer or fellow resident.   (Observing retail workers, it is because they are socializing on the job and not focusing on doing their work.)   But I noticed that they paid attention to people who complained and made a noise.  So I had to fight for my rights and persuade people to do their jobs.  What a strange concept. Why should I need to assert my rights?
  • In the US I also experienced many situations where people were admired for making bold assertions with confidence, whereas such performances would seem arrogant and annoying north of the border (unless you are a politician campaigning for office).
  • I saw that people were applauded for speaking confidently of their uniqueness and accomplishments, whereas in my homeland you just don’t “boast” (unless you are asked to do so when applying for a job).
  • I saw people greeting each other in the campus hallways with a surprisingly friendly manner saying  “Hi! How are you doing?” and then continue to walk by, not waiting for an answer to this question.  I had a hard time imitating that practice because it went against my rhetorical ethics to ask that question without expecting to hear a reply.

I should also mention that in the US I experienced aspects of their rhetoric that were easy to get used to and also to admire:

  • more open friendliness and expression of emotions
  • more social occasions for getting to know people (academics, co-workers, and neighbors)
  • more open involvement in and discussion of politics, religion and social activism, and thus more interesting and engaging conversations  — and democratic participation — in a variety of informal forums
  • more encouragement of innovation within institutions like universities
  • less academic hierarchy and formality; people at higher ranks mingle with and listen to those “beneath” them, exchanging ideas as fellow citizens and offering mentorship and encouragement

In everyday life in Canada, our occasions and tools and aims for persuasion are obviously different.   Certain valuable tools, especially in the toolkits of pathos and ethos, are not available for persuasion because the rhetorical culture frowns upon their use, or judges them as irrelevant in light of structural rules.

Because of the discomfort with vehement self-expression in Canadian rhetorical culture, we face challenges talking about rhetoric, debating sensitive and emotionally charged issues, and acknowledging good reasons for getting upset about injustices or being passionate in expressing our convictions.

  • When I teach rhetoric classes in Canada, I have to raise people’s consciousness of rhetorical occasions in Canadian culture and fight harder against the idea that rhetoric is manipulative/uncivil or  “empty.”  I did not have to try so hard when I taught writing and rhetoric in the US even though some similar prejudices exist against the word “rhetoric.”
  • Canadians are still learning how to have a feisty argument in public life without making a mess of things.  They seem to find a certain degree of agonism, when it gets “too” emotional and vehement, to be shameful and childish (see news articles on our Parliament’s discourse lately, often discussed as a bad example).  Yes I have seen Americans get out of control, but they can also learn and resolve issues by accepting emotion as a natural aspect of discourse.  It is too easy to be civil, and impossible to resolve issues, when you and/or your opponents are silent and holding back.
  • Among Canadians, at least in our national media forums, especially CBC, “rhetoric” is something you point out mainly to “tone down” (let’s be calm and reasonable) or respond to with education (let’s look at the facts) and which people hope to transform into a more friendly, intelligent and accommodating mode of dialogue (let’s get along and understand each other, or at least respectfully disagree).  Yes, all the things in parentheses are virtues, but “peace at any price” is not a good policy.  How many decades has it taken Canadians to admit that something was seriously wrong with the abuse of aboriginal children in its government program of residential schools?

These aspects of Canadian rhetorical culture make it more challenging to teach and study rhetoric.   In Canada, rhetoricians have to persuade people that not only does rhetoric exist as a field of study, but it is an important thing for Canadians to learn about … and practice with excellence.

For these very reasons, Canada needs to learn rhetorical theory and practice, and we need to teach and study Canadian rhetorical criticism and Canadian rhetorical history.

We probably have numerous examples of rhetorical excellence, historical and contemporary, that are not being celebrated and understood as rhetorical achievements.  Instead they are treated as exceptional people or virtuous processes, as if some sort of magical genius of character or perfection of law and bureaucracy made the day, not practical rhetorical wisdom and expertise that can be studied and wisely imitated.

I did not say we need to radically change Canadian rhetorical values … I like civility as much as my neighbor does.  But we do need to

  • overcome some of our rhetorical fears in order to discuss important topics that may involve expressing negative emotions
  • reduce our rigid adherence to rules and adulation of institutional/governmental authority
  • acknowledge shining virtue and strength when it stands out in unexpected places, rather than punishing it for shining at an inappropriate time or place

I do not believe we are using our potential to build our civil society — we are too passive and withdraw from argument too quickly, and reluctant to praise what is praiseworthy.  Generally we need to learn how to use our rhetorical assets and minimize our weaknesses.

With awareness of rhetorical artistry and potential, and sensitivity to our rhetorical culture and occasions, we can use rhetoric more effectively and ethically, even within and through the norms of Canadian decorum.

Canadian rhetoricians, can we do something about this together?  Perhaps a series of internet lectures, an edited publication on Canadian rhetorical culture(s), a collaborative, multi-site research study… It would probably contribute to Canadian Studies and a variety of other disciplines at the same time.


Knutson, T., Komolsevin, R., Chatiketu, P., Smith (2003).  A cross-cultural comparison of Thai and US American rhetorical sensitivity: implications for intercultural communication effectiveness. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 27(1), 63-78.


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