Australia V USA: Standing Out

This is my second blog in a series on cultural comparisons between Australians and US-Americans.

Keeping in mind that both countries are extremely diverse and that any one individual may not be in the statistical norm for their culture, we can easily identify a large number of cultural differences between the people of these two (on the surface) similar countries. Last time I looked at orientations to hierarchy, probably the biggest difference between the two. This time I’d like to explore a somewhat related concept: standing out from the crowd.

In general, we can say that US-Americans don’t mind standing out from the crowd. In fact, much of the culture is built around the pursuit of doing just that. It’s part of the orientation to hierarchy – a desire to be bigger, better, stronger, faster, smarter, etc.. than anybody else and not be shy about showing it or talking about it. And when US-Americans can’t be the biggest, the best or the most recognised, they like to acknowledge other people’s accomplishments … probably in the hope that someday others will acknowledge them in the same way.

Conversely, Aussies have a deep cultural preference for not standing out as an individual, for blending in, for being one of the (equal) pack. They even have a well-known phrase that points to this very trait: the tall poppy. Picture a field of poppies, all approximately the same height. In that field, regardless of how windy it gets, the flowers largely hold on to their petals…protection in the crowd. However, the tall poppy, the one that sticks out above the rest, immediately loses its petals in a stiff wind. (A similar phrase used in other cultures is that the tallest nail gets hammered hardest…) Both phrases point to a cultural practice of keeping your head down, or trying not to be noticed, to prevent others from tearing you down.

As a result, Australians rarely want to be the first person to put their hand up to ask or answer questions in a meeting, training, classroom, conference, etc. They almost never introduce themselves by talking about their success or accomplishments. They are less likely to publicly acknowledge other people’s success or accomplishments. And they experience people who do these things, such as many US-Americans, as arrogant braggarts … as wankers. Sure, Aussies love a successful sporting hero, but he or she should be an acknowledged ‘team player;’ even individual rewards must be attributed to the team.

A great example of this cultural difference is Steve Irwin, the crocodile guy. In general, US-Americans loved him. Google him even today, eight years after his death, and many websites continue to highlight his vast popularity in the United States. His derring-do, ‘look at me’ attitude spoke right to the US desire both to be the tall poppy and to honour others who attain this position. Conversely, prior to his death, Australians often cringed when they saw or heard him, or when non-Australians raised him as an example of what it means to be an Aussie. Most Australians couldn’t stand the idea that he, a proud tall poppy, represented them on the world stage. It’s absolutely no surprise at all that Irwin married a US-American!

As a US-American living in Australia I’ve had moments when my own enculturated desire to be a tall poppy has caused me frustration and annoyance. For example, awhile back my gym ran a competition for who could participate in the most group exercise classes in a three-week period. They announced prizes for 3 different categories and an overall prize. I always love a new challenge and I thought it would be a good opportunity to get into better shape – and, of course, win a competition – so I jumped in. I quite literally exercised my ass off for three weeks and, on the last day, saw the final tallies and knew that I’d done more classes in two of the three categories. I had also been ahead in the overall list at the end of week two and so was pretty comfortable that I’d either won overall, or come second to the contestant who had been ahead after one week and was the winner in the third category.

But, I had forgotten the Australian discomfort with individuals who stand out (who win without a team behind them). Of course, the gym manager could not allow just two individuals to prevail in everything! So, when the names of the ‘winners’ were displayed, I received acknowledgement of having won in just one category. The person with the second highest number of classes in my second category was deemed the winner, though everyone in the competition knew I had done five more classes. The person with the most classes in the third category was accurately named the winner there. And, out of the blue, a person who had been in third place for the entire competition was given the overall prize, though it was numerically impossible that she did more classes than at least two others of us in the competition. And then, when I was shocked and annoyed at the clear manipulation of the event, I was criticised by quite a number of Australians for being … competitive. Yes, it was a bloody competition!! (Can you tell that I’ve yet to come to terms with this???). Would a gym manager in the US be uncomfortable with having just two winners? Not a chance. In fact, they would proudly display the two winners’ names and photos for everybody to see…as if to say, ‘Look here, these are our tallest poppies!’

Though I still find it difficult – I could name several other examples of this kind of incident – I still have to laugh at myself because I know intellectually that this is just another interesting cultural difference and that to live here happily I have to reconcile myself with the idea that if I stick my head up above the crowd, someone will try to knock it off.

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Australia v USA: On Hierarchy

I’m so sorry! It’s been months since I’ve contributed to this blog. But here I am again. Since last I wrote I’ve been back to the US for a visit, seeing my mum in East Aurora, New York, as well as a friend in Oakland, California. We also did a nostalgia tour of Stockton, California, where my partner and I lived for 10 years prior to moving to Melbourne. It was lovely being in the US in the summer and seeing both old friends and places that used to be familiar.

Being back in the US also reinforced for me the curiosity that Australians and US-Americans have for each other. Being a citizen of both countries means that I get a lot of requests to compare the two places…so here goes. This starts my series on the similarities and, mostly, the interesting differences I can see between the two countries’ cultures.

I could have begun with any of a very wide range of cultural differences, from universal health care to gun control – Australia has them and most Australians approve while the USA does not and many US-Americans are ok with that. Rather than these more obvious cultural differences, I’ve chosen to begin with something a bit more invisible, something that seems to surprise people from both countries: their different orientations to hierarchy.

My first reply to this oft-asked request to compare the two countries is to say that Australia values equality far more than the USA does. This is certainly not to say that Australia is an equal society! It’s not as unequal as the USA, but men still out-earn women by a significant margin, Aboriginal Australian life expectancy is, on average, 10 years less than other Australians and there are super-rich Australians who have more capital than hundreds of their fellow citizens combined. But looking at Australian cultural values – those unconscious logic frameworks that contribute to our conscious belief systems, moral frameworks and ultimately our behaviour – it is very clear that people in the US value hierarchy far more than most Australians.

Here’s a workplace example. Let’s say an Australian manager needs her assistant to make some photocopies for her right away. Rather than saying: “Please copy these; I need them right away” the manager is obligated to say something like: “When you have time, could you get these copied? They are for the meeting at 10” (it is currently 9:55). Rather than just telling her assistant what to do, the manager has to acknowledge the assistant’s autonomy by saying, “When you have time.” And then rather than directing the assistant to perform the task right away, she must provide the context for when and why it must be done, so that the assistant knows that “When you have time” really means “Do it now.”

This act of diluting the appearance of hierarchy between the manager and her assistant happens in many Australian work relationships between unequals, despite the knowledge on both sides that the manager IS the senior person. Unfortunately for US-Americans (as well as most other people!) who move to Australia, this unwritten rule of workplace collegiality is difficult to see right away. US-Americans working in Australia are often considered by locals as being bossy, pushy and rude because they are seen as giving orders rather than working collegially. At the same time, US-Americans often experience Australians as indolent and disrespectful because they don’t ‘jump to’ according to US-American time frames. Often, because we are all speaking English, we fail to notice that we are speaking the language very differently: US-Americans tend to use direct communication styles in the workplace, which highlight who gets to give instructions, or even orders, and who must receive them, while Australians use indirect communication styles to mask the status differences between people who give instructions and the people who receive them.

One of the other places that this different experience of hierarchy is evident is in the service industries in both countries. I’m always taken aback when I return to the USA and step into a grocery story…staff members generally, from the manager to the person at the checkout, seem to want to help me. They actually ask if I’ve found everything I want…and if not, they scamper off to find the missing product! It’s not necessarily in their job description, but making sure that customers are served is everybody’s job in the US-American grocery store. Here in Australia, it used to annoy me to no end when I couldn’t find anybody to help me locate missing items. The most common response of a store clerk to being told that a product isn’t on the shelf is to shrug and move on; occasionally someone will apologise (usually people who were not born in Australia) but still make no effort to locate the product or answer questions about when it will be available. The exalted status of ‘customer’ in the USA, which garners respect, deference and service, is much rarer to find in Australia…perhaps only in the context of people working on commission – and even then you’ll only get the third on this list; respect and deference must be earned and will never come automatically due to your position, whether as manager or customer.

There are infinitely more examples of where this values distinction creates belief and behaviour differences in the two countries. Do you have an example???