By Fiona Haley, published on May 1, 2007 - last reviewed on May 22, 2012
Ask any Australian or New Zealander about "tall poppies" and the answer will have nothing to do with flowers. Instead, you'll hear about people who are "too big for their boots," who flaunt their success and who "need to be brought down." Coined as a Roman military term, a tall poppy is someone who stands above the crowd because of his achievements. The backlash is known as tall poppy syndrome—the tendency to want to "cut down" the ostentatious or merely successful.
Inhabitants of a former penal colony, Aussies have inherent contempt for authority. In many ways, success and power reek of domination, which turns natives off.
Early Australians and Kiwis were hard-working farmers and miners who banded together to survive on the harsh frontier. Communities cherished the ideals of fraternity and labor. Because the islands were geographically isolated, they gave little thought to the outside world. To this day, a degree of provincialism endures, causing residents to dismiss new ideas.
Suchi Mouly, a professor of management at the University of Auckland, claims Kiwis have difficulties accepting diversity because the country has been homogeneous for so long. "Because New Zealand is a small and relatively young country, it's not used to people with different talents. Being geographically isolated, you get insular."
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. Just watch an Aussie meeting a foreigner who's been to Australia. The first question they'll ask is "Did you like it?"
Wanting to see accomplished people fail can also result from a sense of inadequacy on an individual scale. "People like to see tall poppies fall if they deserve to fall, or if the observer has low self-esteem," says Norman Feather, a psychology professor at Flinders University in Australia who has researched the topic extensively. "That's where a bit of envy or resentment enters in."
The path to the top—and one's conduct once there—play essential roles in determining target status. In a study at the University of Western Australia, students resented athletes who'd used performance-enhancing drugs more than they did athletes with a prior criminal record. People who were born into wealth or cheated their way to success are most likely to be taken down. On the other hand, people who have worked hard to achieve their success receive less attention. Nicole Kidman escapes criticism, but Alan Bond, a Perth-based businessman who went to jail for fraud, is vilified.
The press loves to promote tall poppy syndrome, encouraging the public to criticize celebrities, but attacks on the successful don't happen just in the media. Prosperous Australians are often afraid to tell others about routine occurrences like the purchase of a new car.
While most Aussies and Kiwis acknowledge their tall poppy syndrome, they're quick to point out that it occurs elsewhere too, just without a name. After all, schadenfreude is a universal emotion.
Yet countries respond to achievement differently based on how highly they value egalitarianism. A study in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology showed that Americans value meritocracy over egalitarianism; in Australia and New Zealand, the opposite is true. 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; Prime Minister John Howard even tried—unsuccessfully—to encode the term into the Draft Constitutional Preamble in 1999.
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.
There is a backlash brewing against tall poppy syndrome. Despite his support of mateship, Australia's Prime Minister Howard has knocked the syndrome as hindering "excellence," and a 2005 editorial in a New Zealand paper called it "a diseased way of thinking, invented by the majority to let them feel more comfortable in their intellectual mediocrity." Thanks 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."
In the early days of Kylie Minogue's career, the media dubbed her the "singing budgie" to remind her she was a soap star, not an accomplished singer.
Golfer Greg Norman is disliked enough in Australia that there's a "Greg Norman syndrome," loosely defined as "snatching defeat from the jaws of victory." Australians now resent him most for his arrogance and his American accent.
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.
Born in New Zealand and raised in Australia, Russell Crowe was claimed by both countries early in his career. After he hurled a phone at a hotel clerk, each nation tried to give him back.