This article was originally published on Jan 26, 2016.

Calgary at a Crossroads

Are we as nice as we think we are?

It's nice to think we're nice in Calgary. It's one of the first things we'll tell people about ourselves. Along with "entrepreneurial" and "egalitarian" we'll say we're "friendly."

After all, we have those nice folks in white hats at the airport who greet travellers and will give you a ride to customs in a golf cart.

The "White Hatters" volunteer their time to share Calgary's "warm western hospitality." We have a 10-day party every summer, the Calgary Stampede, where loads of people get pretty darn friendly. And remember the flood? Thousands of Calgarians left their modest bungalows on higher ground to help total strangers dig out their multi-million dollar basements. That was nice.

But are we as nice as we think we are? 

Nice is as nice does

hi-calgary-flood-yard-852-c

'Thousands of Calgarians left their modest bungalows on higher ground to help total strangers dig out their multi-million dollar basements. That was nice.' (Andy Clark/Reuters)

The answer depends entirely on who you ask.

A pal points to a total stranger picking up the tab for her table at a restaurant recently (so my friend's table picked up someone else's tab). A guy I know routinely buys groceries for the people in front of him at the checkout line. Even a cop I spoke with who makes a living out of seeing people at their worst, says Calgarians are nice.

"There's always the idiot," says the officer who has arrested plenty of "angry people." But, most are pretty good, she says. A long-time Calgary server — who has had beer coasters tossed at her head and customers ignore her for their phones — reports that "over 75 per cent of us are nice."

That lines up with Calgary Tourism's survey of visitors from Western Canada in 2015. Three quarters of them were satisfied with the "hospitality of local Calgarians."

In 2014, Leger asked 1,500 Canadians to describe the people of Calgary. About half said "cowboys and rich oilmen." A third said "generous, friendly folks" and 31 per cent said "hard-working entrepreneurs."

Negative Nellies don't move here

Snowy Deerfoot Trail near Memorial Drive

Deerfoot Trail is one place in Calgary that may not be so nice, according to Jennifer Allford. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

"Calgary has been built, generally, by people who are positive-minded and want to work to create something new," says Todd Hirsch, chief economist with ATB. "Negative Nellies and Sullen Sams don't move here. They stay put where they're at and complain full time."

But we definitely complain part-time, like when we're driving the Deerfoot. Nothing nice about rush hour. And nothing nice about thousands of layoffs in the energy industry and longer lines at the food bank.

"A good-old fashioned downturn, like any adversity, brings out people's true character," says Hirsch.

"The mean people will get meaner. But the nice ones will become more generous, thoughtful and kind."

When I ask a Saskatchewan native who has lived in Calgary for 17 years whether the city is nice, he nails it: "Compared to what? Compared to our neighbours to the south, sure we're nice, eh. Compared to snooty rain-soaked Vancouver, you betcha' we're nicer (not to mention sunnier). Compared to a small prairie town, maybe we're not so nice."

But regardless of whether we're born and raised here, or moved to Calgary from Timbuktu or Toronto, we all have a vested interest in being nice.

"It's a good first move with people we don't know, to be pleasant and engaging," explains John Ellard, an associate professor in psychology at the University of Calgary. "Because we all seem to be aware at some level that the more we are that way, the better the chances that the other person will be nice back to us."

What's in it for me?

CBC Calgary Suncor Food Bank Drive

Mayor Naheed Nenshi poses in the lobby of the CBC Calgary building after a large donation to the Calgary Food Bank from YYC Tech. (CBC)

We are nice so people are nice back to us.

As humans, we've evolved to realize that you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar.

While social norms are not universally adopted (hello Donald Trump), they tend to guide our unconscious thinking when we deal with other people.

"If we're in the presence of another person and we reliably feel good, that tends to increase our feelings of liking someone," says Ellard. "That gives rise to the sense that most of us have, that if we're all going to get along, we prefer to be able to believe that our interactions with other people are going to be satisfying and pleasurable." 

Human beings are very sensitive to disapproval and most of our brains are wired to seek out, to want and to remember positive interactions more than negative ones.

We're biased to be positive — to be a little Pollyanna — and downplay the negative. Social psychologists have done loads of studies that suggest people are more than happy to embrace positive stereotypes about themselves.

Embrace the stereotype

Prince William and Kate

Prince William and Kate don White Hats during a royal visit in 2011. (CBC)

So while there are plenty of jerks in Calgary, we have a shared understanding — a "mythology" if you will — that we're nice.

"Whether or not it's literally true that some reliable proportion of the population would pass the 'nice test', the other way to think about this is the extent to which we're willing to embrace the stereotype," says Ellard. "When we talk to each other about what it means to be Calgarian in those positive, nice, helpful, hospitable terms, we think: 'Sure that's me! That's us!'"

Even when yet another driver flips you the bird on the Deerfoot.


Calgary at a Crossroads is CBC Calgary's special focus on life in our city during the downturn. A look at Calgary's culture, identity and what it means to be Calgarian. Read more stories from the series at Calgary at a Crossroads.