Do Americans Really Pretend to Be Canadian Abroad?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Back in 2014, Deborah Fallows wrote about conversation starters—those lovely little questions we use when small talking with strangers (Where do you live?, Where are you from?, Where’d you go to high school?, etc.) Our video team made a mini documentary based on her piece, quoting Americans from across the country:

Deborah shared an anecdote about living abroad:

And going international, expats everywhere get the question, “Where are you from?” When we lived in China, I got so tired of this question from shopgirls that I would start making them guess, saying “Where do you think I’m from?”  Surprisingly but invariably, their answers were always France, Scandinavia, Germany, Australia, England, Canada.. and they almost never got around to the US.

Hello from the other siiiiide …. of the world. A reader jumped on Deborah’s remark:

They do not say the United States first because they fear offending other nationals. For example, a Canadian may take offense at being mistaken for an American, but the reverse is likely to cause offense.

A Canadian disagrees:

I don’t take any offence, and very few Canadians I know would either. There are 9x as many Americans, and our accents are very similar. Also, while I guess there are some, almost no Canadians feel inferior. After all, Canada’s existence is a statement of not wanting to be American. I have been addressed as American, most recently in Germany, and was unsurprised and not offended.

There are a couple of other factors that haven’t been considered.

Canadians travel proportionally more than Americans do and—although it is completely wrong—generally are received in a more friendly fashion than Americans. Another factor: Many Americans pretend to be Canadians while traveling. This is particularly true during times like the Bush years when some schools even advised their American students to travel as Canadians. As long as they behave respectfully to the country they are visiting, we don’t care.

Do Americans really pretend to be Canadian abroad in order to deflect negative sentiments about their nationality? In 2004, The Washington Times reported on a company selling a “Going Canadian” kit, complete with maple leaf accessories and a guidebook on speaking Canadian. CNN covered the phenomenon in 2013. The Onion parodied concerns in “Report: U.S. Foreign Policy Hurting American Students' Chances Of Getting Laid Abroad.”

A reader who has lived in both Canada and the U.S. weighs in:

I have found that sometimes people treat me differently when I reveal that I am American—sometimes drastically so. Whether I am here, there, or abroad, there is a certain attitude people project on American me, and it is usually one that shows fondness for the American people but not so much the government, all of which is just lumped into a general “you.” When I am masquerading as Canadian/simply being Canadian, it is incredible sometimes what people are willing to say to me about Americans/the U.S. I learned quickly to tell people that I live in Toronto, and then if I feel like it is OK to share, I’ll tell them that I am also American.

No one ever has anything horrible or even mildly offensive to say to Canadians ever, except for some Americans who still think it is funny to make huffy puffy comments about their “backwards cousins to the north,” one of which I am in their eyes. Whatever.

Oh, Canada. Have thoughts on national identities and traveling? Drop us a line.