One of the very first things I learned about Australian culture was that it robustly supports the lopping of tall poppies. Unless you are from AU, NZ, CA, or the UK you probably don’t even know what this term means, Wikipedia describes it as:
“… a 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.”
…and herein lies a problem. In Silicon Valley, where I spent most of my adult life, there was a particular way in which one could be successful without garnering any unexpected ill will from his or her friends, co-workers and acquaintances. False modesty was not encouraged, nor was shying away from the limelight when it was directed. It took me quite a while to adjust to this, but when I finally did, I realized that the people I most genuinely enjoyed being around had an easy relationship with their personal successes. They tended to be inspirational, rather than boorish and conceited.
Here in Brisbane, on the other hand, I hear street performers joke, “Come on, I can’t clap for myself folks, only Americans do that…” That stings a little, though I understand where it’s coming from, but what stings more is when I realized that I am the tall poppy. Twice (recently) I was in a large social event and someone showed an interest in our trip. I reacted as I always do with huge enthusiasm and excitement. I mean, really, it was super cool. After rambling on for (probably) waaaay to long, I realized that I was supposed to say “oh, that, it was okay.”
And here’s the rub. I’m not sure what to do about this. On the one hand, I see my reaction as fair dinkum (an Aussie term that means a statement of truth), an honest reflection of my childlike enthusiasm for this amazing experience. On the other hand I truly appreciate the social value (fairness, and egalitarianism) from which this tall poppy cutting comes from. Max Webber had an interesting theory about social capital which posits that in certain social groups social capital is a zero sum game. In other words my social rise mandates another’s fall. I don’t know that I agree with this, and I don’t know what context he postulated that for, but it seems to resonate with what I’ve heard and read about the underlying motivations for this phenomenon.
To put a bit more of a spin on this topic, I have also noticed that there is a sub-culture here, that seems to partially (or fully) reject this notion. I’m still looking into that, and trying to find my own way though this interesting and complicated situation. If I were leaving Australia soon, I would probably just punt, but as this is my home now, I feel compelled to resolve this issue in a way that maintains my personal values and authenticity, while concurrently honoring the spirit of “fair go” that I respect so much in Australians.