Politeness Run Rampant
Roz Chast in The New Yorker (November 26, 2012)
Do you get it? They’re Canadians, so they’re so polite that neither one of them can bear to get on the elevator before the other one. They’re just going to stand there insisting that the other go first until finally the elevator doors close and it departs, leaving them behind, trapped in the vicious cycle of you-first-ism. Hilarious!
The cartoon itself is based on one of the most tired cliches about Canadians – that we’re excessively polite, to the point that if you step on a Canadian’s foot, the Canadian will apologize. The word “standoff” adds point to the joke: presumably we are meant to understand that an American standoff would be considerably more bloody than this. And so, in addition to politeness, the cartoon refers to broader stereotypes, which we’ve already canvassed, about Canadians being pacifists, as opposed to our more martial neighbours to the south.
Is it funny? Is there a subgenre of humour about Canadians in the U.S., like Newfie jokes up here? Would the average reader of The New Yorker pause, read this cartoon, and then burst out laughing?
It’s hard to imagine, partly because I think the idea of Canadians being excessively polite is something Canadians are more aware of than Americans.
Of course, the debate about whether New Yorker cartoons are even intended to be funny is so common it has even made its way into pop culture. Perhaps a New Yorker reader would look this one over, shrug, and mentally consign it to the dustbin of impenetrable obscurity.
Which raises another interesting possibility – but dare I even suggest it? Yes, I dare. Perhaps the cartoon isn’t aimed at Americas at all. Perhaps it’s aimed at … Canadians.
After all, I read it. The editors of The New Yorker must be aware that a certain percentage of their readership is Canadian. Perhaps, every once in a while, they slip in a Canadian-themed cartoon, just as a sly wink in our direction, a way of letting us know that they know we’re here, and they appreciate our taking the time to read their magazine. I didn’t exactly burst out laughing when I read it, but I did feel that uniquely provincial frisson that comes with seeing Canada mentioned in an American publication.
This, perhaps, is the essence of Canadian insecurity: we’re flattered to think that a magazine like The New Yorker would bother to publish a cartoon about us, even if it is a cartoon based on cliches.