Hot Takeoff: Follow This Toronto Etiquette Guide or You’ll Be Sorry

Spacing magazine produced a handbook detailing the persnickety, elaborate social code of Torontonians. Visitors will find it useful, but what are the chances residents will agree on it?


Welcome to Hot Takeoff, a new column about travel and cities by the editor of Billy.

One morning on the eastbound 504 King streetcar this past winter, a man wearing a blazer and tie kind of lost it when the doors were blocked by clueless doofuses yet again.

“Is it your first time on one of these things?” he half-shouted while attempting to push his way through and disembark at Portland Street. “Well, THESE portals of MYSTERY are the DOORS, so PLEASE. MOVE.”

That gentleman, of course, was me. If it disturbed you, I’m sorry.

I was being rude, according to a new and delightful little book, the Toronto Public Etiquette Guide (written by Dylan Reid and incorporating material from Spacing, a locally produced magazine about cities).

A book about Toronto-specific etiquette is important because people often talk about manners when they talk about Toronto. It’s true that all big cities require people to get along with countless other strangers, but it often seems Torontonians are particularly focused on how to behave in public. Certainly among longtime residents, it’s common to discuss – with an undercurrent of disdain — the gaffes committed by people who are obviously struggling to figure out how to be here.

“There are correct and incorrect ways of boarding and alighting our sardine-can streetcars.”

Toronto’s hyper-awareness of manners is sometimes credited/blamed on the British roots, but the contemporary city provides all kinds of occasions where clear rules prevent us going caveman on each other. Think about the narrow sidewalks, the rage-inducing weather and the stuffy cattle trains we call transit vehicles.

It’s easy to see how the studying the code of the polite Torontonian would be useful (if sometimes bewildering or amusing) for the newcomer or the visitor. The passport-sized volume includes chapters on situations including dinner parties (bring wine always; it’s what Torontonians do), walking on the sidewalk (on the right), and holding doors for people (do so, regardless of gender).

If you live in Toronto and are attentive to such things, I guarantee the advice and observations will ring true.

This is evidence there really is an “unspoken etiquette specific to Toronto itself,” as the book puts it; an elaborate and persnickety – and heretofore unwritten – set of commandments for getting along with one’s six million fellow humans here. The general argument of the book is this: The considerate majority of Torontonians endeavour to stay out of other people’s way, and apologize for any instance when they become an obstacle, whether the infraction is deliberate or not.


Here comes trouble

Whether you consider the Torontonian ethos of public behaviour polite or rude generally depends on your perspective. The city’s hustle appears aggressive to people from gentler places – say, Atlantic Canada – who often experience being rushed by others as a form of hostility. Meanwhile, the characteristic (but far from universal) Torontonian way of speaking (businesslike; polite but impersonal) and way of moving (brisk, with a minimum of obstruction and collision) can seem refreshingly courteous for visitors from pretty much any other large city that isn’t in Japan.

By far the most extensive topic – by necessity – is how to cope with Toronto’s dysfunctionally overcrowded transit system. There are correct and incorrect ways of boarding and alighting our sardine-can streetcars, for example. The best advice I could have given before the book existed would have been to watch one’s fellow passengers and mimic the best practices. Now there’s a guide. Please follow it.

I would quibble with some of the advice, however (sorry). For example, if a party host tells you to go ahead and leave your shoes on, the book says you can. But take it from a guy who grew up here (in contact with uptown WASPs, no less): Unless this host is wearing his own shoes indoors, the offer is definitely not sincere. Shoes come off indoors! Sorry.


Flickr user Sarah Joy (Joybot) / Shared under Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0

Looks like a Toronto party is afoot!

What I found most challenging about the Toronto Public Etiquette Guide is its reluctance to applaud those of us who speak up against rule-breakers. Apparently we’re not even supposed to be rude to rude people.

Well, I never. Tactical tut-tutting on the part of established residents keeps people in line. It has contributed to Toronto being a more pleasant big city to live in than most.

“Gently reminding someone of their own responsibilities is neither passive nor aggressive.”

It saddens me when those who stand up for courtesy don’t stand up for their own actions. Witness Jayne, one of many Spacing readers quoted in the book. Jayne sometimes chases down litterbugs and hands them back their gum wrapper (or whatever), saying: “Excuse me, I think you dropped this.”

She concedes this approach is “a little passive-aggressive, perhaps,” when in fact, when you really think about it, gently but assertively reminding someone of their own responsibilities is neither passive nor aggressive.

(I say don’t be sorry, Jayne. Bravo Jayne. I wish there were more like you.)

The guide argues that muttered and/or sarcastic disapproval, or scolding people openly, are themselves rude behaviours, despite their deep history here. What to do when someone offends? The Spacing people argue it’s enough to gesture at the infraction and utter a simple “excuse me,” or (what else?) “sorry.”

My own personal counterattack (see “portals of mystery,” etc., above) has long involved aiming a bolt of sarcasm directly at the spot that will make the offender feel silly and embarrassed. It’s satisfying and proper to make rude people feel like garbage. They deserve it! If they don’t want to be called out, they can behave like adults!

But if others, including Dylan Reid et al, think I’m being rude, maybe I am. Sorry.

Perhaps we call all agree that it’s smart city-dwelling to hold inconsiderate people to account – but in order to maintain civility, we should do it in the politest way we can muster.

In a gesture of courtesy and appreciation for Spacing’s valiant effort to codify Toronto manners, then, I will try not to verbally snark at my fellow residents on the streetcar. But I do plan to buy an extra copy of the Toronto Public Etiquette Guide at the imminent launch. And the next time I encounter a door-blocking goofus, what I really ought to do is hand it to the offender as I squish past, in the hope that he will learn a few things from it.

Does that sound passive-aggressive? Well, I’m just doing what needs to be done.

Not sorry.

Hot Takeoff: Follow This Toronto Etiquette Guide or You’ll Be Sorry
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