Australia Etiquette Guide
Sydney Opera House, with downtown buildings in background
By Dean Foster Monster Contributing Writer
It’s “just like southern California – only a few thousand miles further away,” says one unobservant Yank about his first trip to the land down under. Yes, US Americans are Yanks, and Australians are Aussies – it’s OK to use those terms. But there is much that is uniquely Australian about this island continent.
English is the language, but it’s based on British English and filled with uniquely Australian, or Strine, words and phrases. And like the US, Australia is rooted in British culture. Australia was first established by the UK as a penal colony for its most disreputable criminals. But similarities between Australia and the US can mask deeper differences. Here’s how to navigate them as an expat.
Mates vs. Cowboys
The majority of Australia’s population lives within 100 miles of the coast. The vast interior is mainly inhospitable and uninhabited. Unlike in the US, the wild Australian outback is not seen as a frontier to be overcome and tamed, but rather a place that doesn’t lend itself to individual survival. In the outback, one needs one’s mates, meaning men or women who can be depended upon, in order to survive. In turn, Australians often think Americans push too hard. Australians more typically try to find a balance between their personal lives and the benefits society attempts to provide for all.
Don’t Be a Tall Poppy
The “tall poppy” idea is based on the notion that poppies – the garden variety common to Australia – that grow taller than their neighbors will have their heads chopped off when it is time to pick the flowers. Australia is a very egalitarian culture, where “Jack’s as good as his master” differences in status require no special deference, and anybody attempting to pull rank will be seriously challenged. Australian radar is very sensitive to this, and Americans will be challenged to prove themselves as equal mates. Nothing will get you knocked off your pedestal more quickly than trying to tell an Aussie what to do.
Definitely be prepared to defend your opinions – Australians often find Americans too timid – but never assume you can prescribe them for your Australian colleagues. Usually, these conversations take the form of good-natured ribbing over a few shouts, or rounds of drinks. Join in the fun as an equal, and try not to take things too personally. Each person in the group at the bar is expected to pay for a shout, so pace yourself.
It’s a Big Island
Be sensitive to regional differences. There is a friendly rivalry between the two largest cities, Sydney and Melbourne – or “Melb’n,” as the locals say. Sydney sees Melbourne as too small, slow and provincial, and Melbourne sees Sydney as too brash and big. And throughout the country, aborigines, the island’s indigenous inhabitants, struggle for equal treatment with the mainly European immigrant population, more recently mixed with an Asian influx.
Don’t Confuse Kiwis and Aussies
Finally, never fail to distinguish between Australians and New Zealanders, or Kiwis as they call themselves. New Zealanders, having struggled for independence from Australia, often demonstrate a greater allegiance to Britain than Australians do. Additionally, New Zealanders are proud of having created a very civilized culture focused on ecology and social welfare.
Of course, Australian culture is similar to other Western English-based cultures, but don’t be a galah – that’s one who is foolish and silly, named after a native bird – and assume you don’t have to know unique Australian differences. Respect the local ways, fit in with your mates, and take pleasure in your work and life in very enjoyable Australia.
Don’t Sit in the Back Seat of a Cab
In Australia, they are very conscious of social and class equality. It is insulting to a taxi driver if you sit in the back of the cab. Go ahead and take shot-gun in the front seat.
Back to other countries in our Country-by-Country Etiquette Guide.