Foreigners tend to assume that the big cultural confusions between Australians and most other countries are gonna be based on our food, or social services, or weather, or weird animals. But it’s never that. In my experience, the real cultural confusions re: Australians are about The Respect Thing almost one hundred per cent of the time.
? I realize im proving your point but what
The broader Australian culture doesn’t, as a whole, have status-based respect. Some individual groups might, because they’ve brought it from other cultures they’re involved in, but the general culture doesn’t. There’s no sense that your boss or scout leader or the guy in charge of your country deserves more respect than you, or that you should behave differently to them than you would to any random person you know similarly well. (The very rare exceptions include ritualised settings, such as courtrooms, and for some reason the fact that children use “Miss/Ms/Mr” honourifics for teachers at school.)
I don’t mean Australians are a “stick it to the man, fight back against those in power” kind of people – we’re generally not. And I don’t mean we have a “we’re going to do the status thing but pretend we don’t and pretend to all be equal in mixed company” thing that middle-class Americans do. I mean the status-respect system does not exist, and if you try to use it, it weirds people the fuck out at best, and insults them at worst. Treating someone most countries would say is ‘above’ you differently in Australia is basically telling that person that you hate them; it’s saying “I’m forced to interact with you due to our current circumstances but I don’t see you as a person and won’t grant you the basic respect of treating you like an equal”. (When I was in America, I was constantly suppressing the instinct that random service people were sassing me because they overuse honourifics and were so keen to help me.)
This makes interacting with foreigners really baffling in a lot of circumstances. In university, my international friends would often describe Australians as “friendly, but very rude”. They thought we were all arseholes because of the way we spoke to our PhD supervisors and soforth, and wouldn’t believe us when we explained that our behaviour was respectful and that being deferential would be weird and awkward and insulting to them. Learning Japanese had a similar problem; everyone in the class could get the concept of different levels of formality and deference in language, ans was happy to memorise the usage of various words for Japanese people, but using them on each other was super weird, and we’d only ever use the most casual form of anything unless specifically instructed otherwise by the teacher.
The reason I’ve been thinking of this lately is because I’ve recently become aware that a lot of countries have like… a special respect for their country’s leaders? I don’t just mean “yeah, that guy makes the rules”, but that having that office makes them better than everyone else, somehow. Which I expect from countries with royal families, because Tradition, but I’ve recently found that Americans feel this way about their President, too. (Except the current one, who seems to be enough of a dick to break the system.) Like, if six Americans were in an aeroplane that was going down and there was only one parachute and one of the Americans was A Generic Non-Trump President, it’s just assumed that that guy gets the parachute? Like he’s automatically the life worth saving over the others, and they’d just give up their chance in favour of him? And that’s so weird to me. An Australian prime minister would have a 1 in 6 chance at the parachute; however the people decided, “this guy happens to be the leader of the country” wouldn’t be a factor.
When Americans don’t like a President, they usually feel the need to work in how he’s “not my president”, either through sheer denial, or by finding some way he’s theoretically illegitimate (different ways votes are counted, wild conspiracy theories about birth country, etc.), and while making sure those rules are obeyed IS extremely important, I’ve recently noticed that part of the motivation seems to be that they’re invested in whether he’s Really The President because being the President somehow makes someone Special rather than just a normal dick who’s been put in charge of the group project. (You see the same thing in “THIS IS TRUMP’S AMERICA!”, like him becoming President gives him superpowers or something).
This is getting off-topic. Point is, in Australia you can run into the Prime Minister and ask him to help you fix your phone and if he’s not busy but refused to help you out he’d be kind of a dick; of course he should help you out. And if I walk into your restaurant and you act like I’m a movie star and you’re going to be super attentive to my every need because I’m The Customer, I’m gonna get creeped out. We’re suspicious and insulted by what most people in the world consider to be basic manners, and vice versa. And it makes interacting with foreigners super weird because I always feel like they’ve got some invisible heirarchical flowchart in the back of their minds that I don’t.
I have long noticed that Americans have absolutely the same cultural attitude to the President as they would to a serving monarchy. They just think they don’t on a technicality.
Can confirm that if I call someone ‘Sir/Madam’ I generally mean ‘asshole’ (unless talking to an animal or tiny child) and that if I get called Ma’am I feel like I’m being called the asshole, which made time in Atlanta, Georgia suoer weird.
Australians have a very good attitude to respect
…so this explains why I have spent the last fourteen years low-grade pissed off at nearly every Australian I meet, because every time I try to be American Polite at them it pisses them off. And, for that matter, why my second boss here, the one I was so careful to be Formally Respectful of and always called “sir,” took such an intense dislike to me.
Yeah, even if that boss understood that you were American and what that meant, their instincts would’ve been screaming at them the whole time that you were being a dick. It’s a difficult thing for us to get used to even when we know the culture is different’.
As a Brit visiting Australia, the most vivid experience I had of this is: in the UK it’s really uncool to get into the passenger seat of a cab - you’re expected to get in the back. In Australia the reverse was apparently true.
… I am only just now realising that inAmerican and British movies and stuff, people don’t get in the passenger seat of a taxi.
covid update: you’re now meant to get in the back seat for social distancing and IT FEELS SO RUDE. sorry taxi person I AM NOT TRYING TO SHUN YOu just I know there are rules and we’re protecting each other. let’s be intensely awkward for a while.
Reblogging this because I just remembered the time Molly Meldrum absolutely horrified Prince Charles by describing meeting the Queen as “I saw your mum last week”.
One of my favorite travel books described humanity as, broadly speaking, having two types of culture: one where formal is respectful and informal is rude, and vice versa. Australian culture sees formality as hostile or unfriendly and familiarity as warmth. It’s decidedly not the case in USA as a whole, though as with any broad category the dichotomy changes as the group gets smaller.
The average modern Australian just doesn’t view ‘leadership’ as a quality that automatically garners respect, and that sort of reflects in our national history a bit.
Say, if you asked Americans who the first U.S. President was,
I’m guessing like 98% would be able to tell you it was Washington.
Most Australians would be able to tell you that as well, and probably list a few of the well-known others too: Lincoln, Nixon, Reagan etc.
But if you asked Australians who the first Prime Minister of Australia was, I’d say less than 2% would be able to answer that correctly,
(It was Sir Edmund Barton, but I had to look that up to confirm) because nobody cares.
Similiar story with our currency:
American banknotes have a bunch of former presidents/politicians.
The current Australian $5 note has the queen on it, but other than that we’ve got a couple of poets/writers, a convict turned businesswoman, a humanitarian and founder of the Flying Doctors Service, an indigenous inventor, a Women’s Rights reformer, an opera singer and a WWI ANZAC commander on our notes (equal representation of men & women), and the coins have just got native animals on them.
There isn’t that sense of glorifying our past political leaders at all.
See also: ‘Tall poppy syndrome’, which we’re sort of renowned for.
Most Aussies of my generation would be able to tell you that the first prime minister was Edmond Barton, not because we care about past leaders but specifically because of this one ad that was on TV ALL THE TIME a couple of decades ago
But here you are in 2022, held prisoners by your government. You clearly have no respect for yourselves and refuse to fight back.
I’m baffled by this response because while I can think of several things I hate the government for, I can’t see how any of them can be classified as being “held prisoners by our government”. Other people are being held prisoner by our government due to some absolutely disgusting refugee processing policies, is that what you mean?
I’m just super interested in knowing if this attitude of respect in Australia also applies to movie stars or really famous singers… say, would you casually ask Chris Hemsworth or Nicole Kidman to fix your phone too?
Individual people can get starstruck, but in general yes. A movie star (who isn’t at work at the moment) is Just A Guy unless you’re a particular fan of theirs. Like, if I met Marc Evan Jackson I’d be nervous because I am specifically a fan of Marc Evan Jackson, but if I met Chris Hemsworth in a shop then that’s just a guy. Foreign famous people who visit Australia are often blindsided by this attitude.
Ngl, this explains a lot about my Australian internet buddy’s behavior, and it means I’d probably be miserable over there. I’m a really reserved person and it would probably weird people out in a bad way.
Also, lmao at the conservative American who believes what they see on Fox “news.” Jfc, get out of your cryptofascist conspiracy theory bubble, go touch grass.
Not if he’s an antivaxxer and antimasker though, Then he absolutely should not go and touch grass, unless he’s in an isolated location.
This is related to something really fascinating in linguistics called politeness theory.
Basically, we all want to ‘preserve face’ in some way (this term is often used for East Asian systems of politeness, but here its use is more general) - that is, we want to appear respected, liked etc. And we can give somebody face by doing things that make them appear respected, liked, part of the in-group etc, as well as by avoiding doing things that infringe upon that.
Where politeness differs across cultures is the type of ‘face’ that people prioritise. And then of course in turn then the type of politeness strategies people use to give that face. There are basically two types: positive face, which reflects the need for an individual’s wishes to be appreciated, and a positive self-image to be maintained; and negative face, which reflects the independence and autonomy of the individual.
So positive face says Like me! Show me that I’m part of the group! Tell me I’m doing well and appreciate me! and negative face says Respect me! Show me that I’m an independent person, with the right to go about my life unbothered and untroubled! Leave me to do my thing!
You can see how these might come into conflict.
You can already see that countries like Australia and some parts of America place much more focus on the first type of politeness, whereas countries like the UK or Japan place focus on the latter. This is what leads to cultural misunderstandings. It’s not that Australia doesn’t care about politeness, but that the idea of ‘politeness’ itself means something different. In cultures that emphasise positive face, you can give the other person face by using casual language, by expressing admiration, by treating them like they’re on the same level as you, by treating them as part of the group. Hence friendly ways of address, pats on the shoulder, big smiles all around!
To people from the UK or Japan, however, this often reads as insulting, bewildering and downright offensive: I don’t know you! Why are you talking like we’re friends? Get out of my personal space! I’m British, and am exceedingly uncomfortable with either American or Australian style warmth, whether it’s sincere or not: to me it feels like a transgression of boundaries, an invasion into my personal space. It feels like you are demanding that our relationship is closer than it actually is.
Cultures that focus on negative face will do all they can to show that the other person is an independent entity to be respected, and this usually means creating distance: we ‘hedge’ our language by framing it in structures like I don’t suppose you…? or I was wondering if you could..? where the past tense is used to suggest, well, I was wondering that, but it would be silly to wonder that now, wouldn’t it? This type of politeness suggests whatever the request is just a tiny, tiny thing; but it also gives the other person room to say no very easily. We don’t want to impose; it places other person under duress to reply yes, and if they can’t, their independence and autonomy - and thus their face - has taken a hit. Requests will similarly often be framed in a more roundabout way.
To cultures that focus on positive face, however - as has been said many times in the post before - this feels insultingly rude and very cold: Do you think you’re better than me? Are you really treating me like we’re strangers? Why do you want to preserve that distance anyway? What’s wrong with just asking me directly? All the examples given above of Australian culture are a classic example of a culture focused on giving positive face, and being offended when attempts are made to give negative face.
Finally: it’s worth noting cultures that focus on one form of politeness do not necessarily behave the same, or focus on it to the same degree - look at the difference between the UK and Japan! - or even behave the same within the country itself. Different social groups will put stress on different things, and different types of face are important in different situations. In my work and university, negative face was hugely valued; when I worked in the hospitality industry, as well as living in the north of the UK, there was much more focus on positive face. It depends on many things: the power relations between you, how close your relationship is, and so on.
When it comes to politeness, we are all trying to give respect to the other person in some way! But when somebody who wants to give negative face and another who wants to give positive face meet, they may end up communicating at cross-purposes.
(Here’s a further approachable explanation in more depth: https://www.universalclass.com/articles/business/communication-studies/politeness-theory.htm)