The Martin Paradox, revisited

Moose A couple of weeks ago, I commented on the Martin Paradox, the one that says that the Canadians who are creatively forthcoming as individuals can be rendered unforthcoming in groups. 

And today, for no good reason, it occurred to me that Canadians have a national passion and genius for improv.  (Consider Second City and all those improv exports who now grace the American stage.)  And improv is nothing if not group-based creativity.

We are obliged, then, to say that Canadians are creatively unforthcoming in groups chiefly when these have somehow been given bureaucratic or pragmatic marching orders.  Released from these orders, Canadians are returned to their native creativity, as it were.

It’s a puzzle.  What is it about the bureaucratic and the pragmatic that makes Canadians large and lumbering with tiny little eyes and an inclination to bang heads.  I would call for a Royal Commission on this topic but that would only turn out badly. 


McCracken, Grant.  2008.  Canada, The Martin Paradox and The Opposable Mind.  This Blog Sits at the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics.  January 10, 2008.  here

7 thoughts on “The Martin Paradox, revisited

  1. aj

    Just as a pedantic note from someone who did improv for 10 years, Second City’s origins are American; the troupe evolved from Chicago’s Compass Players (which included Mike Nichols and Elaine May) into the first “Second City” troupe; Toronto’s group was second, there was a short-lived New York branch, and now another one in Detroit. The Second City school was based on American theatre teacher Viola Spolin’s work.

    Canadian improv actually has more British roots – Keith Johnstone, ex of the Royal Court Theatre in London, moved to Canada and brought his theatre games with him (which toured Europe as the Theatre Machine in the 60s); he taught at Red Deer College in Alberta where Loose Moose Theatre and the Canada-wide Theatresports movement was born.

    And Quebec improvisation is something different yet again.

    But I do agree with the general idea that we’re naturally a little bit better at it, for some cultural reason. Maybe it’s shared cultural background and references, and a naturally cynical and jesting nature in the face of long winters and the elephant next door?

  2. Mary Schmidt

    The bigger question is why are Canadians so gosh darned nice all the time? 😉

    (I worked for Nortel (then Northern Telecom) for six years, have spent time in Ottawa…and I have had several Canuck friends over the years.)

  3. Mary Schmidt

    The bigger question is why are Canadians so gosh darned nice all the time? 😉

    (I worked for Nortel (then Northern Telecom) for six years, have spent time in Ottawa…and I have had several Canuck friends over the years.)

  4. peter

    So if Canadians are only creative in groups when the group activity is somehow illicit or frowned-upon, it would behoove top management to publicly oppose (but in fact support) brainstorming sessions and skunk-works. Sort of like senior US Government and military officials in the late 1950s publicly announcing that they did not trust or use game theory (annoucements which they did make), in order to entice the USSR to use it. Requires a rather subtle style of management to do this — something I doubt any MBA graduate is going to understand.

  5. Laurie

    It’s funny, Grant; I was going to sugget you call a Royal Commission on that. I don’t know if you’ve encountered any Royal Commission reports, but they tend to be policy-driven and rather obvious in their findings. When government (read: ideology and politics) gets involved, Canadians are pressured to be more inclusive, more diverse, and possibly less free thinking and creative.

    My experience as a Canadian is that on a volunteer level, groups can be very innovative and productive. It’s when government gets involved when the freedom to express ideas creatively gets dampened. Left to their own devices and combining passion with an agenda for a greater good (as is the case for volunteers), creativity is enhanced.

  6. Christopher

    Interestingly, the Make It Stick boys talked about improv in their most recent Fast Company article. Improv actually works because of the constraints — a defining premise, lines that are fed to people (you are taught to be very specific in your details when saying a line, so that the other person has something to build on), a specific time and place (imagined and physical).

    Perhaps the problem with Group Canadian creativity is that there is a resistance to establishing the right kinds of rules. No form of measurement from the outset.

    I haven’t a clue, my Canadian experience is limited enough not to entirely be able to draw any conclusions. Perhaps a royal commission with a set of parameters might help.

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