Small talk is supposed to be a visible aspect of Canadian culture, but it may not feel as friendly if you’re an immigrant and the subject of conversation is your accent. The often-dreaded question, “Your accent is interesting, where do you come from?” can make many newcomers feel like outsiders no matter how long they have lived in Canada. The person asking it is often unaware that they are guilty of a microaggression.
The Canadian educator and communication trainer Dalton Kehoe, who was my professor at York University, considers a healthy daily exchange or what he calls “small talk” of utmost importance for not only emotional and psychological well-being but also for social safety and for decreasing social threats.
People in heterogeneous societies have long sought to liberate communication from discriminatory codes to live in peace and harmony. But sometimes, discriminatory codes in daily communication become a norm due to widely used cultural practices.
The “othering” effect of microaggressions
Friendly social bonds decrease social threats and contribute to social safety, which is the foundation of national security.
As someone who specialized in how the accumulation of microaggressions in everyday life fosters macroaggression, I want to make my own contribution to building a more friendly society by highlighting one aspect of small talk that is considered a microaggression and could potentially lead to macroaggression.
Take a sentence like, “Your accent is interesting, where do you come from?”, which is used widely in Canada when the speaker wants to engage in small talk in the public sphere. There is a discriminatory code within this question — an “othering” of the receiver as someone belonging to an “outgroup.” That is, these words categorize the individual as being an outsider to the country they inhabit.
The person asked may take this kind of phrase positively or not give it much thought at all. However, over time, they may start to respond with a coded counterreaction. Here is an example of small talk I witnessed at one of the Canadian universities (italics used for emphasis):
Speaker: Your accent is interesting, where did you come from?
Receiver: I am from A, how about you?
Speaker: I am Canadian. [Speaker codes receiver as an outsider.]
Receiver: Where did your parents come from? [Receiver gives coded counterreaction: even if you are in-group, your parents are outgroup or outsiders.]
Speaker: They came from B.
Receiver: Do you speak French? [Second counterreaction from the receiver.]
Speaker: No, I had a few courses in high school. I know some words, but not more than that. How about yourself?
Receiver: I didn’t study French in high school because I didn’t do my high school here. But tried to learn a little more than you online. However, because English is already my fourth language, it is not easy to learn a fifth language. [Third counterreaction from the receiver highlighting that the speaker knows only one of the official languages of their country and indicating that they offended someone who speaks several languages.]
Empathy and imagination needed
This exchange wouldn’t have happened if the speaker had put themselves in the shoes of the receiver and understood that someone who leaves their land, family and friends must be quite courageous and may have faced many difficulties. Or if the speaker were merely realistic and realized that language fluency requires daily interaction and positive experiences.
If someone has an accent, it might mean they haven’t had sufficient interactions with native speakers, therefore they have not accumulated enough experiences. One could even conclude that the society in which the receiver lives is unfriendly; the locals do not befriend the newcomers to a degree that would enable the latter to improve their language.
Some people are just curious to hear other people’s stories, so they would ask regardless of any consequences. However, a genuine person who thinks of the whole society and people’s feelings can reach the same goal by rephrasing the question as, for example, “It’s so cold! You probably haven’t experienced such cold weather elsewhere?”
This way, the person asked has a chance to either answer yes/no or, if they desire more communication, elaborate on it without any hard feelings. Such a question is not coded with a direct discriminatory tone, so it’s no longer a microaggression.
Before I moved to Canada, immigration officers overseas provided a presentation on life in Canada and Canadian politeness. They mentioned that Canadians use the weather as an excuse to make small talk. It has been over 15 years since I arrived in Canada and I am still looking forward to a bit of small talk that starts with comments on the weather rather than with me.
The discriminatory codes of communication that have unconsciously become a part of the cultural practices and behaviours of people can become toxic. They can destroy the inner peace of communicators, which is the source of all other kinds of peace, and provoke anger or even aggression.
John F. Kennedy once said, “Peace is a daily, a weekly, a monthly process, gradually changing opinions, slowly eroding old barriers, quietly building new structures.” It would be nice if this peace-building process could include slowly eroding worn-out discriminatory codes and replacing them with casual comments about the weather. After all, Canadian weather is still as crazy as it was.
Kaziwa Salih holds a PhD from Queen’s University, Canada, where she specialized in cultural sociology of violence/genocide and the way microaggressions foster macroaggression. She is a multiple award-winning author of over 10 fiction and non-fiction books and has written many articles and academic papers. She founded and was editor-in-chief of two Kurdish journals, Nvar and Newekar, and has worked in several human rights organizations in Canada, Kurdistan, Egypt and Syria, including the United Nations Association in Canada and Amnesty International.