Australians and the ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome’

I was born and grew up in Australia and can say that as a culture and race of people, we have pretty much mastered the art of avoiding appreciation. This is kind of funny really because there is so much to appreciate about Australia, our culture and landscape. There are so many awesome and amazing people that I have met and been privileged to know in Australia!

However, it appears to me that many habitual aspects of our language and ways of interacting with each other can block truly appreciating one another.

We have the ‘tall poppy syndrome’ – an agreement in society that no one should big-note themselves or talk themselves up too much for fear of being bigger or better than anyone else. It is definitely frowned upon to talk yourself up and many times as I was growing up, I often heard criticism, indicating that it was not the done thing to love yourself in any way, shape or form.

Now I understand that being arrogant or superior towards others is not a good thing, but have we actually thrown the proverbial baby out with the bathwater here? In our fear of seeming superior or arrogant, have we gone too far the other way? Have we actually made it more difficult for us all to actually feel good about ourselves?

What is wrong with sensing that you are amazing, awesome, beautiful, graceful and even talented or useful to have around? It is almost like we have some kind of unwritten contract that says that nobody can shine too brightly. So if anyone breaks this contract and starts to truly appreciate themselves, they get noticed and brought back down to size. Humility is a good thing but lack of appreciation is not.

I am also not talking about big noting yourself in some kind of delusional self-grandeur, false confidence or bravado. This is not true appreciation; it is just showing off and attention seeking behaviour. Craving for and continually seeking attention or recognition has nothing to do with appreciation and in fact stems from a lack of it.

Another enemy of appreciation we have is the ‘pay-out culture.’ In our conversations with each other we are continually putting each other down with comments that are disguised as humour, but are actually thinly veiled attacks and the opposite of appreciation. Many times in my life I have prided myself on being quick with a witty, funny or scathing response or ‘come-back’ that I knew had hit the mark with someone else.

We have made it a national pastime to pick up on other people’s faults, imperfections or mistakes and undermine them, rather than appreciating the beauty in someone and building them up.

It is great to not take ourselves too seriously and to be light-hearted about our imperfections, however this feels different from ‘putting down’ someone based on their faults. ‘Pay-out’ banter can be a form of combat that avoids being open with others.

Often if we ever mention that we have felt hurt by something someone has said, we are accused of being a ‘wimp,’ a ‘wuss’ or a ‘wet blanket’ who is spoiling the fun; or the other excuse that is often used is that “it was just a joke, so get over it.”

There is a belief that you give as good as you get and that it is all ‘friendly banter,’ but the reality is these taunts and teases hurt and actually bring us down as individuals and as a society. They keep us separate from one another and do not bring us any closer together.

Also I have noticed that if we genuinely appreciate someone else and tell them how much we truly value them, it is often considered a bit weird and awkward in our society. We feel awkward for expressing our appreciation and also uncomfortable when receiving a genuine compliment. Why are we so hesitant and uneasy about appreciation?

Have we fully realised how much these patterns and contracts of behaviour are affecting our society? If we consider that low self-worth and self-esteem, lack of confidence, social isolation, feeling lonely, anxiety and feelings of rejection contribute to many of our self-destructive and self-abusive behaviours in our world, including over-eating, suicide, obesity, drinking, drug use, domestic violence, rape, murder, road rage, then why are we not considering the deeper reasons as to why these things exist?

Could valuing appreciation in our society once more be part of addressing these issues?

So maybe it is time to put down our ‘sharp-tongued weapons’ and ‘jovial’ wars? Maybe it is time to value each other more and see the beautiful qualities in all of us; encourage each other to bring more of this beauty in our interactions and appreciate the fact that we may seem different on the outside, but underneath the surface we are all yearning for a world where jealousy, hurts and insults are not part of our everyday.

We have all sensed that our societies fall short of the quality of life we all really want and that in many ways we are in a mess. Surely if we all support each other to shine more brightly there will be less darkness?

Is it possible that we can stop the insults, the putdowns and the ‘paybacks’ once and for all and be inspired by each other? Why would we choose to all stay in the mess together when we could be supporting each other to get out?

By Andrew Mooney BPthy (Hons) MCSP, Cornwall, UK, Physiotherapist, Complementary health practitioner

Related Reading:
What is the Science of Appreciation and how does it evolve all of our relationships?
Washing my Car: a Lesson in Appreciation and Self-Care
Life is Truly Magical

467 thoughts on “Australians and the ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome’

  1. I was talking to a friend who comes from Australia and they shared that they found another trait they notice from their culture is a lack of physical intimacy, not often hugging or being affectionate and how this had impacted their view of physical affection and openness – as a society we need to be aware of the way we can perpetuate patterns of behaviour that can impact people for their whole lives

  2. Humbleness is such a key word in this piece. It just brings everything back to what is important, and shows that the entanglement of judging who is big-upping themselves and who is not is simply not even important, because with humbleness there is what work there is to be done and simply nothing else.

  3. I have grown up as the quintessential Australian. I learnt quickly, that to get by in life and avoid being vulnerable, all I had to do was be sarcastic and pay people out, non stop. And I most certainly did not talk myself up, ever!
    Amazingly, I have moved on from my ‘back off, don’t even try to get close to me’ exterior, and have softened like butter since realising and appreciating just how harmful my approach to people was for me and those I interacted with.
    I realise now that everything I was protecting from the world, me, didn’t need protection. It’s ok to let people in, and it’s ok to love yourself.

    1. Yes this cultural game which is certainly not restricted to Australia is a nasty cocktail of put everyone down as much as possible and never talk yourself up or even just value yourself thereby ensuring that we all stay down and never grow or evolve.

    2. Actually you are killing yourself slowly by behaving in the way you used to interact. Although you seem to be very open and social, we keep being lonely inside, because we are hiding very manipulatively the inside of us. Which is a hurt we constantly, through many different ways, run away from.

  4. I would love to know if the tall poppy syndrome is exclusive to Australia. I find there are forces that do not want us to know how glorious we are, that do not hold to the man-made boundaries of countries. What I find in Australia is that we have a persona of being easy going. This equates in reality to being shut down and not really honouring your feelings or allowing yourself to be seen as sensitive.

  5. Growing up in New Zealand was similar, you just didn’t want to get branded a big head a show, off or up yourself but sometimes I probably envied those that were as they were probably being more true to their expression and not conforming to what everyone else expected.

  6. “…or the other excuse that is often used is that “it was just a joke, so get over it.”- The funny thing is, anyone can feel when someone is not truly joking in a lighthearted way, but are instead trying to put you down so as to somehow feel better about themselves or their own situation. But as Andrew has indicated, why would we choose to put others down when we could prop others up and then have a positive knock-on effect to inspire more appreciation for themselves and thus even larger groups of people that would most likely come full circle? This comes down to a choice in what we want to contribute to or align to in our lives- an approach that considers the whole or one that is based on self-only, regardless of everyone else.

  7. When someone says ‘you are so full of yourself’ its usually meant as an insult, and usually describes a towering arrogance. However, within this sentence is the key to it all – take away the arrogance and fill it with love and there is nothing more required – simply to be, full, of ourselves.

  8. I read somewhere recently that appreciation is actually our birthright. It is a reality check to consider that appreciation could actually be completely natural for us as sensitive highly aware beings and yet we have reduced ourselves so much that it has become something that is rare in life or awkward to express.

  9. What is it about us that we use our words so casually and scythe others down, diminishing them, even in casual banter. I still find from time to time this pattern re-emerges in me. It’s so simple to appreciate another and either giving or receiving that is gorgeous. Why choose anything different?

  10. If the only role models around us are those crushed and held back by our own fears of standing tall and being noticed, our own desire to remain small, how will anyone ever be inspired themselves to be more? Why are we so eager to see others brought ‘down to size’ as the saying goes, rather than supporting them to grow and blossom and be amazing, knowing that we do not lose, because by reflection we are pulled to be equal.

  11. “Why would we choose to stay all in the mess together when we could be supporting each other to get out?” It doesn’t really make sense, is it possible when someone shines brightly we feel uncomfortable with the reflection being offered back to us and that is that, we are choosing not to step into our fullness ourselves and be all that we can be?

  12. No-one wins when we try to bring down those who are simply taking responsibility for themselves by living the fullness of who they are. We need true reflections and whilst their reflection may remind us of what we are not choosing for ourselves we need to know that our discomfort is our problem and not theirs.

  13. I had a weekend recently where I caught up with some old friends. It was so lovely seeing all of them and seeing where they are all at. I was filled with appreciation of where they are in life; their commitment to their communities and dedication to the people they care for and work with. The appreciation was returned also. When we have relationships built on the quality of appreciation, there is no competition or comparison and even though it had been a long time between visits, no time had passed. Definitely no tall poppy syndrome here!

  14. To build someone up, you have to feel the grandness of yourself first. Only then competition or comparison has no chance and does not exist, as you know, that there is no better or worse, just quality with its many many varieties.

  15. Make people react in showing your glory! it only reflects to them, what they don´t choose- you might not remain the status of the popular person for them anymore, but what is more important: showing a different way, which can be inconvenient or keeping yourself small, compromising and compressing yourself for others?

  16. Many countries have something similar… In Holland is called the tall tulip syndrome, in Scotland the tall thistle syndrome… 🙂 The thing is we are born to shine, and when we find out true expression that’s what we naturally do.

  17. The tall poppy syndrome clearly comes from a lack of self-worth. It shows how deeply insecure we are about ourselves and hence become uncomfortable when we sense another has self-worth, like ‘who do you think you are to have self-worth?’

  18. Could it be that we spend so much time jokingly putting another down because our very own thoughts about ourselves are sneakily doing the same thing? Sometimes, not so sneakily, but still with that persistent cutting that keeps us from surrendering into our strength, wisdom and natural love. What we allow our thoughts to be dictate how we are with another.

    1. Great point Leigh that if we are self critical, judgemental and hard on ourselves whether that be under the disguise of a joke or not then it will be impossible to be any different with others.

  19. Jokes are meant to be funny and often when we jibe and tease each other it is not funny because words can hurt as much as any physical abuse. So this leads me to the conclusion that we actually need to claim the real meaning of a joke back because to have a go at someone and disguise it as humour and then excuse it by saying it was just a joke is not humour it is cowardice and sneaky.

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