Today marks five years in Australia for my partner and me. That’s five years of living and working in a country that represents the true land of opportunity to us. Disclaimer: I love Australia and Australians dearly, so if that annoys you, better stop reading now.
I used to say that there has never been a day I regret coming here and that there’s nothing I hate about Australia. Regret has never been my thing anyway and we’ve still not regretted our move Down Under for a single day. Sometimes it gets a bit hard when things happen with family or friends in the Netherlands (I am not Canadian, really, I am not, or Danish or Scandinavian…), but yeah, it’s been pretty much rainbows, unicorns and cupcakes every day.
Hate is a powerful emotion and one I reserve for the truly terrible things in life like inequality, abuse, homelessness and spiders. I know it’s a figure of speech for most people when they say they ‘hate’ something, but I am not most people and words have power, so I try to use them wisely.
Before I get to the thing I hate, let me share my experience of 5 years working in Australia. In short, it has been a dream come true. I’ve had great leaders (mostly women), worked alongside inspiring (volunteer) colleagues, got to reinvent and develop myself on so many levels and it seems like every week presents a new opportunity to try out new things. I’ve come to know Australians as people who will help you when you try to help yourself, with a great capacity for working hard at hard work, possessing a ‘give it a go’ mentality and an inclusive mindset. The list goes on and I’ll try not to gush too much about the country and people that have been so welcoming to us from coast to coast.
Sometimes I wonder if I have just had an incredibly fortunate run, but looking at others around me, I’d say it’s pretty much great for a lot of them too. Yes, there are real issues, like in any country, but Australians truly don’t know how good they have it and like to complain about first-world problems like 5% unemployment, reduced ROI on their negatively geared mortgages and the price of fuel and coffee (or maybe that’s just Melbourne…). Hey, give them a break, they live on a big, beautiful island, full of opportunity and far from most other things, it’s hardly their fault! Okay, back to the thing I ‘hate’.
The Dutch have a saying that translates a whole culture in one sentence and it goes something like this: “Just act normal, that’s more than crazy enough”. Seems innocent enough, unless you’re not ‘normal’ or if you’re considered ‘unique’, then you’re in for a life of continuously explaining, justifying and defending your views and actions to every (wo)man and their dog for no other reason than that it’s different from what everyone else thinks and does and therefore it must be bad and wrong.
When we prepared our list of things we wouldn’t miss when leaving the Netherlands, that mindset was pretty much near the top. Only to find that Australia has a much worse version of this same cultural phenomenon and it’s called ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome’ (TPS). As in: the poppy that sticks out, get’s its head cut off. Figuratively speaking of course, don’t believe everything you hear about Australia, Crocodile Dundee as a movie was not completely culturally accurate, okay?!
TPS is described as social phenomenon in which people of genuine merit are resented, attacked, cut down, or criticised because their talents or achievements elevate them above or distinguish them from their peers. Often followed by the words: “that’s just how we are”. Maybe, but I don’t think so, like with every cultural norm, it’s who you choose and accept to be for whatever reason makes sense to you. Here are the reasons why I hate TPS so much, especially in the workscape.
- It makes it very hard to reward people for a job well done without exposing them to an undeserved amount of backlash, ridicule, scrutiny and criticism. Good luck finding relatable and helpful success stories in that environment…
- From a young age, it instils a deep sense of inadequacy in people who should be proud of what they accomplished, instead they are visibly uncomfortable with and incapable of accepting a simple compliment on their outstanding work.
- It diminishes any achievement as a result of hard and honest work, robbing others of much needed examples that actually work in practice beyond the popular ‘one-hit wonder’ inspirational memes on LinkedIn.
- It supports a culture of (masculine) hero worship and victimisation based on archaic ideals that no longer have a place in the modern work place, leaving people without healthy constructive role models to copy and follow, instead perpetuating an unwanted, toxic and impossible ‘ideal’ of success.
- It silences people with good and smart ideas who feel that getting hazed or raked over the coals is not worth it and rather keep their mouth shut and their ideas to themselves.
In my first job here, I worked with a very talented and capable woman who had one of the worst cases of self-imposed TPS ever. I would keep complimenting her good work and she kept dragging herself and her achievements down. It got to a point where I was so annoyed that I lost my temper and said: “Just take the damn compliment Bob (not her real name), just say ‘Thank you’, it’s not a marriage proposal for goodness sake!”. Deservedly, she didn’t speak to me for two days, but she did say just “Thank you” a lot more from that day onwards. Later, when she thanked me for giving a damn (her words), she explained that the whole I-am-unworthy-and-surely-undeserving-of-compliments-routine had become so second nature that it took someone like me to remind her that she had a lot to offer and that she indeed added value. I looked her up online recently and she’s doing great, in business for herself, being awesome every day. Bob 1 – TPS 0.
If you from Australia, New-Zealand or the UK, TPS is probably very familiar. Maybe others do it to you, maybe you serve it up to others or perhaps it’s both. My mom (and many moms around the world I think, it must be in their mom-manual) always used to say that “If you have nothing good or nice to say, maybe that’s a good opportunity to say nothing at all”. As always, she’s right. A similar strategy of kindness would be that when you feel the urge to put some TPS on someone, you take a breath, repress those decades of cultural priming and simply say: “You did a good thing”. Full stop. And if you feel you’re on the receiving end of some TPS, the ever deadly and effective “Thank you” will serve you well to acknowledge both genuine and backhanded compliments.
I’ve never been subjected to or participated in TPS myself, but that doesn’t stop me from feeling morally obliged to safely and respectfully call it out on behalf of others. It’s the great thing about being an immigrant with a funny accent, you can do this and people will think you ‘don’t get it, it’s just a joke. Oh, I get it alright, it’s just not funny and as Australians like to say: “Not good enough, mate”.
Author: Gilbert Kruidiner
Gilbert is a helper of people, a get-things-done-person and compulsive thinker who helps businesses build change capability. He’s a rejecter of convention and not impressed by people who think it matters that he’s been in working in Change for more than 15 years. He values people based on their actions and real-life accomplishments, not their resumes and social media profile. He’s always looking to shake things up and happiest when solving problems and volunteering for causes that support ending homelessness, protecting the most vulnerable people in society and cleaning the oceans. He’s also a massive fan of Cookie Monster.