There have been some very strong winds in Melbourne recently and last week I heard on the radio that a large tree had fallen onto a parked car. You'd think this would be cause for concern, but in fact it was cause for some sniggering and mirth – because the car was a Porsche.
The tall poppy syndrome is alive and well in Australia and this is a classic example of it. According to golfer Greg Norman, the tall poppy syndrome indicates jealousy of someone else's success. Norman explains that if someone in America bought a sports car, then other Americans would say “nice car”. However, if someone in Australia bought a sports car, other Australians would scratch it.
So why does a crushed Barina elicit more sympathy than a crushed Porsche? Why does the owner of the Porsche somehow deserve this bad luck and why is it often assumed that he can only afford a Porsche because he fiddles his tax returns?
In part the reasons are historical; Australia developed from an extreme combination of convicts, who literally had nothing, and ‘free settlers' who often had personal wealth, but no prospects in England. Both groups struggled to survive and both succeeded, but settling in a harsh new country was a great leveller. Struggling to hold onto the British class system, many free settlers tried to deny ex-convicts the normal rights of free citizens and this denial of the opportunity to ‘have a fair go' caused huge resentment against people with money and social position, which had been handed down through generations for 200 years.
Still today the best that you can do for someone is to “give ‘em a fair go” and the ‘Aussie battler' is celebrated as someone who may not ever win, but who will face any adversity and never give up trying. Australians' frequent support of the underdog in everything from sport to business to politics (and particularly in the union movement) celebrates the idea of people who just keep on trying and who would rather be a ‘battler' than a ‘tall poppy'!
Most Australians will tell you that a ‘tall poppy' is someone who has an inflated sense of self worth. Many expats and migrants will tell you, as though determined to avoid that situation, that they find Australians are fairly reluctant to offer praise for a job well done. Unlike America where individual achievements are feted from a very early age, the culture in Australia is very much one of teamwork and mateship – an ‘all for one and one for all' kind of society. Achievements are of most value when they benefit the team, not the individual, and new players may find it helpful to be modest about achievements and to downplay their successes.
Clearly the spirit of competition is alive and well here, but perhaps with a caveat of not being too successful? In many ways, this is partly what contributes to Australia's laid back lifestyle, but it is also a source of frustration for many newcomers to the country. If high achievers are actually allowed to show what's possible, without getting knocked for it, it means the bar is raised for everyone else too and that's not to everyone's liking. In Australia people work to live, they don't live to work; work is very much seen as something you do to fundyour lifestyle and if you have to spend eight to 10 hours a day in the office, then it had better be a relaxed place to work. Talking and joking with colleagues, having time out in the office kitchen or during Friday night drinks are sacred work practices here and it's important to join your colleagues in them if you want to be accepted here. Australia really is a land of opportunity, but whatever success you enjoy, just don't boast about it. (By the way, we just bought a new labrador puppy and named her Poppy – I just hope she doesn't grow too tall.)
Wikipedia describes tall poppy syndrome as “a populist, levelling, social attitude”. Someone is said to be a target of tall poppy syndrome when his or her assumption of a higher economic, social, or political position is criticised as being presumptuous, attention seeking or without merit. Alternatively, it is seen as a societal phenomenon in which people of genuine merit are criticised or resented because their talents or achievements elevate them above or distinguish them from their peers. In other words, you're damned if you think you're better than the rest and you're damned if you actually are better than the rest!
Patti McCarthy is a life coach and neuro linguistic programming practitioner who offers an expatriate coaching support service. See www.sabona.com.au/pattimccarthy