The first country I ever visited was Canada. I went there to see Churchill’s polar bears. ©Eric Rock

In the first few hours of my first day in the first country I ever visited, I was stopped on the street by a local man, who guessed by the camera hanging around my neck that I was a tourist. “Welcome, welcome,” he heartily greeted me, shaking my hand. “Enjoy Canada.”

I was stunned. I had just landed in Churchill, Manitoba, and I had a few hours to wander around before the official start of my polar bear tour. And already, a Canadian had taken the time to welcome me to his country—personally.

The incident was the very manifestation of the old, friendly debate: Are Canadians truly nicer than Americans?

Not much to worry about

I decided to delve a little further into seeing if there was any truth to my initial impression of Canadians, based on that one experience. According to the list of 2011’s 10 Most Happiest Countries in the World published at World Business on, Canada ranks as the second happiest country anywhere. That could certainly cause someone to act nicer than the average person. The United States didn’t even make the list.

Canadians might have a lighter load on their minds than Americans. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

It could also be that Canadians are nicer than us because they live longer and are in better health than their American counterparts. Not having to worry about as much sickness in old age would make anyone’s outlook a bit more cheery. According to a study by David Feeny of Kaiser Permanente Northwest’s Center for Health Research in Portland, Oregon, and his colleagues, a 19-year-old Canadian can expect 2.7 more years of “perfect health” than an American of the same age.

Along with the country’s cradle-to-grave health insurance, Canada has a lower level of social and economic inequality compared to the United States, especially among the elderly. The overall poverty rate—defined as the proportion of people with incomes 50 percent below the median—was 12 percent in Canada, compared with 17 percent in the U.S. The poverty rate among the elderly was also lower: 6.0 percent there versus 23 percent here.

Mistaken identity

Such research seems to point to some reasons why Canadians might have a lighter load on their minds than Americans, thus making them friendly and nicer when we run into them on the street. But the more humorous reasons lie in the many anecdotes—such as my first experience—about Canadians.

According to no. 9 in an article titled “Top 10 ways to spot a Canadian” written by Judith Timson for Canada’s Globe and Mail just a few months ago, you’re Canadian if you “refile your taxes to correct a tiny mistake, wait patiently at a red light to cross the street even though no car is coming, and address a surly American customs guard as ‘Sir’ even after he has menacingly threatened not to let you into his country because of some minor omission on your customs card.”

Like many travelers, I can relate.

Canadians live in the second happiest country in the world. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Timson also says in her article that “you’re a Canadian if you’re nice but not too nice, deferential to authority but still ready to insist on justice, especially when it comes to rogue cops, and if you don’t need a quality-of-life survey to convince you that you live in the best damn country in the world.”

I can’t tell you how many times—especially when I lived for a while in California—that people have asked me if I’m a Canadian, probably judging by my Midwestern, Wisconsin accent (although you couldn’t hear it, when I just said “Wisconsin,” I said it with the emphasis on the second syllable and with a decidedly hard “K” sound). Or maybe they thought I was just … well, nice.

However they came to that conclusion, I’ll take it as a compliment.

Do you think Canadians are nicer than Americans?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,