Calgary at a Crossroads

Imagine that you've just left the grocery store.

You're walking to your car. You pass a stranger and nod in acknowledgement, but they don't nod back. On the drive home, someone cuts you off in traffic. At home, people have parked on the street right in front of your house.

Have you just witnessed atrocious manners, or the changing reality of life in a big city?

"We need manners to get along together and to have things flow smoothly," says Maria Doll, a Calgary etiquette consultant.

Manners are the grease that keep us living side-by-side with some degree of pleasantness. With manners, we signal our friendliness to strangers and expect the same in return.

But there's far more than simple "niceness" involved.

Manners take the idea of being nice and turn it into social rules. Manners are the glue in building a functional community.

But understandings of civility are cultural and fluid. Expectations and outcomes don't always match. And as Calgary gets bigger, our social norms are evolving.

"Cities are in many ways becoming much more diverse than they were before," says Brian J. McCabe, a sociologist at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. "You're encountering people that are different from you. That changes the way that we interact."

Manners begone!

Consciously and unconsciously, communities pass along expected social customs.

We hold doors open. We thank bus drivers. We leave room for other motorists to merge, and give a courtesy wave when someone else makes room for us.

Snowy Deerfoot Trail near Memorial Drive

Deerfoot Trail in Calgary is no stranger to aggressive interactions. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

But manners change over time. People today wear hats indoors, and men aren't expected to stand when a lady enters a room.

Such shifts are normal, but the transition period, like the one Calgary is in, causes friction — and sometimes anger.

"It plays out sometimes in messy ways for cities," says McCabe.

Take the big Calgary pet peeve as an example: driving.

On the road

 On our streets, the traditional "courtesy wave" is vanishing.

"Maybe half the time, people might acknowledge if I let them in," says Maria Doll. "Calgary used to have that sort of small-town, small-city feeling. But it really is a big city now."

Road rage Calgary

These three men were recently caught on camera in an apparent case of road rage that played out in the middle of traffic on a Calgary street. (Screenshot/YouTube/Philly Sheppard)

There it is: the idea that small places have manners, and big cities do not.

"People aren't courteous anymore," says Caylene Foley, who has noticed a change in driver etiquette since moving to Calgary six years ago.

"With more congestion," says Foley, "you should be almost more courteous. You should be paying better attention, instead of driving like a jerk and not using your signal light and getting so close to somebody that there's no way for anybody to merge in."

Changing city, changing manners

"What does the wave signify?" says Francisco Alaniz Uribe, who teaches at the University of Calgary's Faculty of Environmental Design. "It's this appreciation that someone has let you in, signifying that they were pretty nice, and you're being nice as well."

'I didn't see as much road rage in Mexico City as I see in Calgary.' - Francisco Alaniz Uribe

Such frustration is common. But not everyone is put out by the courtesy wave's demise. 

"I don't know if that's something we should be concerned about, to be honest," says Alaniz. "I still do it, because I think it's important, but it's a matter of how we are changing."

Alaniz says what's striking to him is Calgarians' tendency toward road rage when they see a behaviour that they perceive as infringing on their space.

"I didn't see as much road rage in Mexico City as I see in Calgary," says Alaniz, who is also co-director of the University of Calgary's Urban Lab. "I think here, people are too sensitive and get insulted very easily."

Maybe that's something else we also need to change.

Room for politeness

Historically, Calgarians have been accustomed to abundant space — in homes, on streets, in neighbourhoods. The city is surrounded by open prairie, and the city's growth is largely low-density.

As that changes, and the city shifts to a more compact form, each of us has less space to work with. This inevitably creates social frictions as we bump into each other — sometimes literally.

No Parking Sign Justin Kern

Some Calgarians, like Justin Kern, say they get frustrated when neighbours take the parking space in front of their house — even though it's fair game in the city's eyes. (Jonathan Love/CBC)

On streets, there is tension between motorists and cyclists and pedestrians. River pathways are more crowded. In parks, dog owners and young families vie for green spaces.

"There are going to be more and more conflicts of users, and that's natural," says Alaniz.

"When we live in communities that are more diverse, denser, where public transit and public amenities are very present, then you have to interact with other people because you're forced to share space," says Alaniz. "You're forced to share resources with other people."

"That, in a way, educates you."

Much of that education is just awareness that you are not the only person in the city. But the technology we use everyday to connect ourselves to each other, also divides us.

Our attachment to smartphones has given rise to new social behaviours — from walking head down while texting on busy sidewalks, to sitting unaware at a green light and holding up traffic to check Facebook.

"We used to have much more situational awareness of other people," says Doll. "For instance, when someone on the C-Train needed a seat — if they were maybe elderly or very pregnant — most people used to get up and offer that person their seat."

"I'm not seeing that as much as I used to. We're so engrossed in our phones."

The solution can be as simple as looking up and looking around, she says. Doing so says something about you.

"The whole purpose of practicing manners is showing that other people have dignity, that we treat others with respect, that we make people feel welcome."

Calgary manners

Toronto architect and urban designer Ken Greenberg has argued that new urban manners are crucial to successful cities.

He's also pointed out that the kinds of conflicts we're experiencing are "enviable problems of urban success experienced as growing pains."

Alberta housing 20130622

Calgary's footprint is not the only thing experiencing growing pains. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Even amid rapid change, Calgary has retained some social customs that might not be unique to us, but are certainly part of our civic character.

Christopher Rouleau, a Toronto graphic designer who went to university in Calgary and visited last summer, says he was surprised by how many strangers still said "hi" to him on the sidewalk.

"It reminds me of on the prairies, when you're driving, and you kind of wave your finger up off from the steering wheel to acknowledge the other driver," says Rouleau, who grew up in Saskatchewan.

"It's very uncommon to say anything to anybody in Toronto, even if there's only two of you on the street."

Different cities, different customs

Such gestures may seem insignificant, but they can have a big effect on how we feel about Calgary and our place in it.

They can make the transition to big city easier.

For a city to successfully navigate the transition, formal and informal social codes need to change at the same time, says Greenberg.

Formal rules codify our changing expectations in an official way — for example, certain seats on transit are designated for seniors and people with disabilities.

At the same time, people need to be conscious of their impacts on others, Greenberg says.

"Take a city like Tokyo, which has so many people. They are incredibly careful on jammed sidewalks in making adjustments to each other."

If we don't adjust, we're in for more collective crankiness.

"'Courtesy' is a very old-fashioned word to use. But it's important," says Greenberg. "This stuff is the social glue that makes cities work."


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.