An excerpt from

Fear of Frying and Other Fax Of Life
by Josh Freed

I was sitting at a busy New York café a few months ago when a young woman approached my table.

"Excuse me," she said. "I hate to be so bold, but could I possibly ask you what you're eating, if you don't mind me asking." In a flash, I knew-she was Canadian!-and I said so.

"Gee!" she said." "How did you guess?"

Because no one but a Canadian could have asked such a convoluted question. A Parisienne would simply have eyed my meal in admiration-or disdain.

An American would have said: "Any good?," and scooped a bit off my plate. But only a Canadian could create such a timid, tortuous sentence, so dense you could never take offense, so sweet you could fall asleep.

We are a nation of diplomats, the world's most polite people, trained from childhood to apologize before we speak. Nothing distinguishes Canadians from our American neighbours more than our quest for compromise, our relentless search for safe, middle ground.

Bump into an American and he will usually say something straighforward like: "Hey! Watch it, buddy."

But bump into a Canadian and he will always say the same thing: "I'm sorry."

Then you'll say "No, I'm sorry!" and he'll say: "No, I'm sorry!"-apologizing back and forth till you're both exhausted. As Canadians we will talk forever, because we are too polite to say what we mean.

Take our constitutional quarrel ( I wish someone would), where there were no real statesmen or memorable speeches. Joe Clark, the Nembutal of nation-builders and Robert Bourassa, the zen master of Confused Federalism, both spoke in sentences of such mind-numbing tedium no one knew what they wanted--including them.

Instead of a civil war, we waged a civil bore.

It's been like that throughout our history. Other nations celebrate battles, wars and revolutions. But Canadians celebrate only one date: 1867-Confederation-a series of meetings. And we've been meeting ever since, addressing our major differences by avoiding them.

Former Canadian prime minister MacKenzie King faced a political crisis similar to ours, during World War II. English Canada wanted conscription and French Canada didn't, so King found a classic Canadian compromise.

He held an endless two-year debate on conscription and didn't bring it in until the war was almost over, earning himself a place as one of our great complacent statesmen. As Canadian writer Eric Nicols observed in a light-hearted look at Canada back in 1967:

U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt said: "We have nothing to fear but fear itself."

John F. Kennedy said: "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country."

MacKenzie King said: "Conscription if necessary, but not necessarily conscription,"--as confusingly Canadian a statement as ever was spoken.

Imagine how leaders of other times might have re-phrased their famous statements if they had been Canadian, said Nicols. For instance:

Julius Caesar, crossing the Rubicon: "The die is cast, but I don't believe in gambling."

Or Horace Greeley: "Go west, young man! Or east. Or north-by-east. Or south-by-west. Or..."

Or Winston Churchill, addressing England in 1940: "We shall fight on the beaches, possibly... We shall fight on the landing grounds if necessary... We shall never surrender, unless there is no alternative."

Compromise and convolution are the essence of being Canadian, one of the few things we do as well as anyone on earth. We stall. We study. We delay. We dilute. We distract. We do anything to avoid doing something.

If Boris Yeltsin was Canadian, he would never have stood on a tank. He'd have sat on a task force.

In the words of the very Canadian commander of United Nations forces in former Yugoslavia, Maj.-Gen. Lewis W. MacKenzie:

"If Bosnians were Canadians we'd simply take the whole population and bore them to death with conferences. I used to hate all the endless political talk at home. Now, I can hardly wait to get back to it."

Well-said, sir. Like you, I do not mind our preference for words over weapons. With luck, we will eventually use many of them to solve our political problems-working out a compromise so equitable, so complex and so Canadian no one understands it.

"A nation if necessary, but not necessarily a nation."

Our history of hesitation has served us well. When our cautious English and French forefathers decided not to join the American revolution two centuries ago, they couldn't have hoped for better results.

Sure, we often feel threatened by the pizzazz and panache of our colorful southern neighbor, but I think America should feel threatened by us. Our country's existence suggests the American Revolution was an utter waste of time, a lot of blood spilled for nothing, when a couple of centuries of meetings and constitutional conferences could have cleared things up without firing a shot.

If George Washington had fought a little less, and talked a little more, maybe the U.S. could have avoided its revolution altogether-and slowly, cautiously and quietly built a kinder and gentler America.

Like us.