Alysha Kaye posted an entertaining and amusing article that has prodded me to spend a bit of time explaining a feature of the Australian culture that has been, at times, rather controversial.
She pointed out the ability of her year seven students to cut her down to size and rip the rug out from under her feet with their off-hand and quite amusing remarks, mainly in respect to her writing career.
Australians, both young and old, consider this kind of thing a national pastime. Over here, it’s referred to as the ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome’.
The iconic Frank Sinatra once quite famously fell foul of this phenomena, leading him to swear he would never grace these shores again.
If someone should be excelling at something, there is not a lot of encouragement available here. What began as mild deconstruction for the sake of inducing some humility in the recipient, has become something that for the past many decades has held this country back.
Australian celebrities walk a tightrope here; should they display the slightest pride, the resulting attacks can be vicious and decisive.
Many leave for fairer shores and I can’t say I blame them, to be honest.
It has ingrained itself into the Australian psyche so deep that many hold themselves back from greater achievement so as to fit in socially and remain accepted by the majority.
However, it does have an amusing side to it.
On a sweltering Queensland summer day, with the humidity nudging 100% and the thermometer hitting the 40 deg. C (104 F) mark, someone may remark that, “It’s a bit hot.”
To which the respondent would typically reply, “Yeah, I s’pose it is a bit.”
A category 4 or 5 cyclone (hurricane in the US) would be referred to by most locals as, “A bit blowy.”
No one is game to declare something as ‘the biggest’, ‘the hottest’, ‘the wettest’ and so on, in case they are decried as an exaggerator or worse.
Australians are always on the lookout for a chance to execute someones ego, also hoping for a laugh or two along the way.
The result is a national trait that displays itself as an overly relaxed and quiet spoken manner, with a sly and dry sense of humor.
Let me give you an example.
I remember when I was a second year apprentice, in the trade of Coach and Motor Body Building.
I worked in a factory that produced interstate coaches; where apprentices served a four-year apprenticeship, working a three-month assignment in each section.
The buses were built from the ground up and I was working in the engine shop at the time, where the engines were installed onto the freshly built rolling chassis.
We had un-crated an engine, shoving most of the packaging into a nearby drum and I had been given the task of welding on some mounting rails for the frame around the engine bay before the motor was mounted.
So there I was, welding away, when I head a voice behind me. “You having a barbie, are ya Drayman?”
As I turned to the voice, lifting my welding helmet, the laconic figure lounging against the workbench was somewhat obscured by a column of smoke rising from a large forty-four gallon drum.
The very same drum we had put all the packaging in and which I had neglected to remove from the area before commencing to weld.
The safety officer will be so pleased with me, I thought, as I stood there gaping at the rising pyre.
The smoke gave way to quite a decent sized sheet of flame as the timber and cardboard packing from the engine we had un-shipped caught well alight.
There was only one thing any self-respecting eighteen year old apprentice could do; I panicked.
The tradesman lounging against the bench was telling me something and pointing to the end of the bench, however my mind was focused on the problem before me and I ignored him.
Throwing down the welding torch and discarding my helmet, I proceeded to do a splendid imitation of a beheaded chicken, running hither and thither as the tradesman who had commented on my pyrotechnical abilities continued to lean against the bench and was now in the process of rolling himself a cigarette as he shook his head.
As I stood panting at a safe distance from the drum, looking like a dog who was having difficulty deciding which car to chase on a busy two-way street, I spotted a fire extinguisher on a post nearby.
As I made for the extinguisher, I noticed out of the corner of my eye that the tradesman was now lighting his cigarette, popping his lighter back in his pocket and stepping back a bit from the inferno-in-a-tin as he took his first drag.
He watched as I scrabbled at the release catch on the extinguisher, started to smile as I finally got the stupid looking thing off and, just as I was about to spend the next ten minutes working out how to turn the blasted thing on, he leaned over and picked up a sheet metal template from beside the bench. This, I realized, was what he had been pointing at before.
He then sauntered over to the burning bin of fire and laid the sheet of steel over the top of the bin, starving the fire of air in seconds and putting it out.
He reached up and pulled the cigarette out of his mouth, a sly grin on his face as he said amidst the laughter of a growing audience, “You looked a bit worried mate, so I thought I’d better put it out before ya wet yerself.”
By the time I finished my apprenticeship, I had become a person of few words and an accomplished listener.
Throughout that four years, any display of ego or pride in an accomplishment was jumped on from a great height. I had learned to be content with my humble position and spent many years going from job to job, learning as I went.
Looking at The Road Out in this light, I see quite a part of my old self in Arthur. I never received the life changing offer that he does, though.
I wandered from trade to trade, always trying to excel at whatever I did, much to the befuddlement and exasperation of those I worked with.
It was only when I had my own workshop that I realized that this ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome’ was not a feature, but a fault; it causes many in this country to never realize their potential.
It is obvious from Alysha’s post and also from the many American folks I associate with online that the US has not had this issue to any great degree.
Alysha’s point is well made, from an American perspective.
In Australia, however, the situation is a polar opposite. Our aspiring artists don’t need cutting down, they need building up.