The tall poppy syndrome is a pejorative term primarily used in the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and other Anglosphere nations to describe 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. This is similar to begrudgery, the resentment or envy of the success of a peer.
A similar saying occurs in Chinese and Japanese culture that translates to “The Nail that stands out gets hammered down”.
Tall Poppy Syndrome
Tall Poppy Syndrome is rooted in Australian culture. It has meant different things to different Australians.
To golfer Greg Norman, the tall-poppy syndrome meant a jealousy of success. Norman explained that if someone in America bought a sports car, then other Americans would say “nice car.” However, if someone in Australia bought a sports car, other Australians would scratch it.
To tennis player Lleyton Hewitt, the tall-poppy syndrome meant ignorance. After seeing his home crowd support a fellow youngster over him, Hewitt said it was the “stupidity” of the Australian public to knock the better players.
To swimmer Ian Thorpe, the tall-poppy syndrome meant not conforming to traditional conceptions of Australian masculinity, which led to rumours of being gay.
To scientists, the tall-poppy syndrome meant Australians were too focussed on sport, and not giving due recognition to intellectual achievement. For example, when receiving an Australian legend honour at the 2002 Australia Day Awards, a scientist named Donald Metcalf said,”I could name 11 colleagues whose accomplishments would exceed those of our cricket 11. They haven’t been entertaining people. They have been saving lives.”
Rock bands like INXS have even had to endure it, playing down their international fame to fellow Aussies. In the book The Final Days of Michael Hutchence by Mike Gee, Mike interviewed INXS band member Kirk Pengilly in 1997: “I think we always did way better overseas than the average Australian was aware of. Probably because we were always trying to play it down a bit for fear of the tall poppy.”
People involved in the economic development of Australia denounce “tall poppying.” They say it ruins the success of Australia’s most creative and energetic people, hurts the economy, and spoils their efforts to modernize it. Despite his support of mateship, Australia’s Prime Minister Howard has knocked the syndrome as hindering “excellence”. He even tried—unsuccessfully—to encode the term into the Draft Constitutional Preamble in 1999.
The Australian Psyche
The Australian psyche is complex. In Australia, icons that are held up as the “model” that Australians should aspire to be like are criticised. On a contrary, America celebrates its icons and sees individual success as a positive reflection upon the nation.
The Australian like the “Little Aussie Battler”. They like the underdog. They like people who are almost famous. But as soon as that person becomes successful, they’re suddenly too big for their boots. They’re ostracized. They’re no longer loved. Then, feeling like they’re no longer welcome by Australia, that person will move overseas and climb the ladder again. While they’re doing it, that person is a “sell out”. Then, when they make it big overseas, all of a sudden, they’re once again LOVED by Australians. All of a sudden, they’re one of ours. They’re making Australia proud. They’re representing!
When Kylie Minogue won 4 Logies in the early 1990’s, overnight people hated her. There was such a backlash. The media dubbed her the “singing budgie” to remind her she was a soap star, not an accomplished singer. Then, she went overseas and made it huge in England. She made an impression in the US too. Then, she was a huge hit with Aussie’s and everyone wanted to claim her as their own.
Hollywood star Russell Crowe. was born in New Zealand. When he fucks up, he’s a damn Kiwi. When he’s winning an Oscar, he’s an Awesome Aussie.
Australia was originally settled as a British penal colony, and many current Australians trace their heritage to the criminals sent there. They were angry and violent people, failures in British society, and one thing they didn’t like was successful people.
Early Australians were hard-working farmers and miners who banded together to survive on the harsh frontier. Communities cherished the ideals of fraternity and labor. Because Australia is geographically isolated, they gave little thought to the outside world. To this day, a degree of provincialism endures, causing residents to dismiss new ideas.
Conspicuous success aroused envious hostility, and modern Australian culture began with a shared attitude of hostility toward successful people and behaviors to thwart them and ruin their success. Today, Australians call successful people “tall poppies,” and cutting them down to size is called “tall poppying.” The terms are based on Aborigine stories.
Social researcher Bernard Salt argues that Australia’s isolation led to a “cultural cringe”—rejecting national achievements and lionizing success from abroad. “If there is something from the northern hemisphere that is bigger or better, we have an inferiority complex,” he explains. To some degree, Australia also rejects intellectualism and instead worships sports, contributing to the nation’s reverse snobbery. “Athletes are judged as part of a team, and you can see how people have performed,” Salt says. “Intellectuals are highly individual and egotistic, and there is no real measure of an intellectual’s worth.” Sports stars are the few celebrities frequently excused from criticism; people like cricketer Shane Warne are forgiven for adultery and other sins as long as they keep winning and don’t cheat on the pitch.
A study in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology showed that being a good bloke is far more important than having a good job. Australia places great value on “mateship,” a prized code of conduct stressing loyalty and fairness.
How real is the spectre of “tall poppy syndrome” in Australia today?
Some Australians said it’s not really a problem any more. Different socioeconomic groups and different regions have different prevalences, as does the contrast between the outback, rural and urban.
The upper middle to upper class is where you’ll find the least amount of people who suffer from tall poppy syndrome because being a tall poppy is often the norm. There’s also a safety in numbers so congregating in larger cities sees them less likely to be cut down.
The lower class, which you could stereotype as bogans, is the worst place to be for a tall poppy. The lower class is still pretty fearful of success and tried to shout it down. If you’re a tall poppy, you suffer greatly down here. The lower class mainly lives in smaller towns and outer suburbs.
As for the outback, there isn’t really any incidence of tall poppy that I’ve seen. If you’re successful in the outback, you’ll either get respect or you’ll move to the city.
Thanks also to immigration, the expansion of foreign markets, increased wealth gaps, and weakened labor unions, tall poppy syndrome may be losing its edge. Fighting for egalitarianism becomes a lost cause when a diverse mix of people are fending for themselves in a growing economy.
Regardless of how someone achieves success, the key is never to flaunt it, according to Bob Grove, a psychologist at the University of Western Australia. If people remain modest about their achievements, others will generally leave them alone. “It’s not a matter of position,” Grove says. “It’s the way an individual impresses others once they’re in that position.”
Paul Hogan achieved international success through Crocodile Dundee. The movie benefited the Australian film and tourism industries. Wildlife documentary makers such as Steve Irwin subsequently traded on the crocodile image to push into the American market, and tourists from all over the world travelled to Australia to experience the friendly culture and beautiful environment. Qantas alone had to increase their number of San Francisco to Sydney flights from 25 per week to 40 per week. However, many writers and directors felt it was important to “correct” the inaccurate stereotypes. Paul Hogan also endured 20 years of attacks because he left his wife and children in Australian and ran off to LA with his young blonde co star. He avoided paying tax in his homeland and was dismissive of Australia in interviews. The general perception was he turned his back on Australia.
Nicole Kidman, Geoffrey Rush, Naomi Watts, Guy Pearce, Cate Blanchett etc etc have all had huge international success and because they’re proud Australians who love their homeland Australia love them back.
Many Australians turned against Steve Irwin’s showmanship when he dangled his son in front of a crocodile. After Irwin died, he was enshrined in the hearts of Aussies everywhere when his father refused a state funeral for him—a sure sign of proper Australian humility.
Still can’t handle the “tall poppy syndrome”? Don’t live in Australia 🙂