Whenever I’m traveling, I get the same question, over and over again. Why, oh why, do Canadians say Eh? Well, here goes.
We’d like to get to know you, Eh?
For visitors to Canada, how and when to use the Eh can be a tad overwhelming. First of all, let me set a few things straight. No! You aren’t expected to say Eh back to someone if they say Eh to you. No! There isn’t a right answer when you hear Eh being latched on to the end of a sentence! In fact, the use of the Canadian Eh isn’t meant to make you feel uncomfortable at all, but to do the exact opposite. The Canadian Eh is meant to initiate small-talk, a cultural phenomenon native to both the U.S. and Canada. It’s a prompt, a call for affirmation and an opening for strangers, friends and foreigners to join in the conversation.
The art of small-talk
Similar to the American “right?”, the Canadian Eh is placed at the end of the sentence in a way that invites input from the other party/parties. It’s cold out there, Eh…? Did you hear about the tsunami? Crazy, Eh…? For many Canadians, the Eh is a secret weapon we use to lure in unsuspecting, or unwilling, participants into a conversation. We hate awkward silences and we’ll do just about anything to avoided an uncomfortable situation. If no one is talking, we’ll look for any excuse to bring up another topic of conversation or start praying that someone finally turns the radio on.
Much of the Eh stems from not wanting to make other people feel uncomfortable. While this might be a reflection of our own discomfort when it comes to silence during meals, or unbearably long pauses in conversation, Canadians really are trying to put everyone at ease. So, how do you answer the Canadian Eh? You just talk. Canadians love small-talk. It’s designed as a prelude to friendship, a way of getting to know someone and a vice used by many to pass the time in a friendly manner. Unlike many European countries, where personal questions are a big taboo, Canadians tend to be pretty open about their lives including their jobs, their families, hobbies, travel plans etc. Starting with an Eh, we tend to turn one sentence into what some would consider a bit of an inquisition. Despite the unfortunate perception, it is genuine – we really do want to know.
Bob and Joe from Canada
Still unsure about how to use the Eh? Here’s en example a typical conversation between two Canadian colleagues who share an office but never meet outside of work:
Bob from Canada: “It’s cold out there, Eh?”
Joe from Canada: “It sure is! I nearly froze trying to clear the driveway this morning!”
Bob from Canada: “I know! I was with my wife on the weekend driving up north and we had to stop three times to scrape off ice from the hood of my car!”
Joe from Canada: “Oh, do you have a cottage up north?
Bob from Canada: “No, we were just away for the weekend. We drove up to a ski-resort with the kids. They loved it. The ski-resort is called Blue Mountain. Do you know it?”
Joe from Canada: “Yes! I was there with a friend of mine last year. I love that place! Have you been to Whistler?”
Bob fro Canada: “I have. We were in B.C. last year for my brother’s wedding…”
And one thing leads to another and another, and another, and another.
Can I opt out of small-talk?
If you don’t want to engage in small-talk, just smile and nod. Canadians don’t mind being rejected, as long as it’s done politely! Small-talk isn’t for everyone, heck, it’s not even for every Canadian, but when you’re in the country – and if you want to be one with the locals – try your hand at building a conversation from the Eh up – you’ll be glad you did and chances are good you’ll leave with a fistful of new friends who will keep in touch for years to come.
image credit: amadika