A Tall Poppy in Oz

October 6, 2013

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.



  1. Comment by Simon

    Simon October 6, 2013 at 2:24 pm

    Being from Australia I understand and am familiar with ‘tall poppy syndrome’ and really resent it! I don’t think it’s productive, quite the opposite – I find it stifling and crushing to the dreams of people young and old. How lucky you were to run into successful people in Silicon Valley who were happy, casual, and not conceited in speaking about their successes – that must have been an inspiration. To think of social capital as a zero sum game just seems ignorant to me, and I’m glad that you share tales of your fantastic trip with the locals, even if they might try to cut you down a bit.

    Not sure what my point here was other than a) I understand; b) that must be challenging; and c) this Aussie / American family reads your blog and your successful journey and lifestyle is an inspiration to us. 🙂 🙂

    • Comment by Tucker Bradford

      Tucker Bradford October 6, 2013 at 5:00 pm

      Simon, Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I admit to being intrigued (rather than dismayed) by this phenomenon. I really do appreciate the fairness and egalitarianism of Oz, and feel that some (perhaps much smaller) measure of this tall poppy response may be necessary to preserve some of the characteristics of Australian culture that I believe are superior to the American’s. Time will tell though, I’ll certainly be paying close attention to this topic, and will post another article if I have a substantively different perspective in the future.

  2. Comment by Kathy

    Kathy October 6, 2013 at 4:04 pm

    From earlier posts it is clear that you appreciate the life you have found there. How about saying something along the lines of, “The trip was a wonderful adventure, one we’d dreamed about and planned for many years. Best of all, it brought us here, where we really enjoy [list some things].” Your listener becomes a tall poppy by having what others seek.

    • Comment by Tucker Bradford

      Tucker Bradford October 6, 2013 at 4:45 pm

      Thanks for the comment, I definitely do this. Strangely, part of the tall poppy situation is that people tend to be uncomfortable with superlatives no matter where they are aimed. Nevertheless, I think this is exactly the right way to balance and it resonates with my belief that there is an abundance of stoke.

  3. Comment by Cidnie Carroll (@SVCeolMor)

    Cidnie Carroll (@SVCeolMor) October 6, 2013 at 4:58 pm

    This phenomenon is not just an Australian thing, the Scots do the same. The cultural differences between my American tendency to be excited, open and eager to share and Mark’s Scottish tendency to down play EVERY thing took us quite a long time to get it. Now I find myself down playing any and every compliment or good thing while Mark will occasionally bust out with “It’s not half bad”. We all can learn from one another. 😉

    • Comment by Tucker Bradford

      Tucker Bradford October 6, 2013 at 5:03 pm

      “it’s not half bad” is the quintessential Commonwealth superlative though 😉 I agree, balance in all things should be the goal! Honestly, discovering these differences is one of the best things about traveling.

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