When I was in Australia recently, many conversations and interactions with Aussies caused me to think about American cultural values. Being cultural descendants of the British, Aussies tend to have a “Keep Calm and Carry On” attitude, but might add, “and have fun doing it!”
Not wild-frat-boy-egocentric fun, though. If there is one thing Australia culture doesn’t love, it’s… ego. Just like in its mother country, blatant self-assuredness is hugely frowned upon down undah.
When I’m in America, I desperately miss how Australian values infuse conversations with a subtle cleverness, delightful subtext, and a sense of general thoughtfulness. The way Australians constantly seek agreement – “It’s a good flavor, isn’t it? He’s a good bloke, isn’t he?” – strengthens connections with every single interaction.
When I’m in Australia, I desperately miss the full-frontal honesty of Americans. I miss people saying exactly what they mean. I miss people having the gall to take risks that require egocentrism. I miss thought-provoking conversations with strangers that require each person to reveal their potentially controversial judgments about a topic.
This Is How We Do It
A few Australians who have worked in the American value system explained to me the frustrations they’ve had with their anti-ego culture.
One man works in Australia for an industrial design company headquartered in the U.S. He describes quarterly meetings in both locations like this: “In Australia, you could be sitting there and they say that ‘Nick has reached double the sales quota for the entire department this quarter – something never done before in history.’ And in Australia, Nick gives a tight little smile and there’s a little titter of applause and maybe a few, ‘Good on, ya, mate!’ In the U.S., everyone is jumping out of their seats screaming with excitement, high fiving ‘Nick’ and hollering “Fuck yeah, bro!” Nick is the first one up, wearing an ear to ear grin, beaming with pride, eager to celebrate his accomplishment that is both good for him and good for all his co-workers and the company. I really like our U.S. meetings. Everyone is real and authentic.”
Another Australian couple I met while living in Bali runs a business training Australian actors. They said their biggest and most frustrating hurdle is getting the Aussie actors to be confident. When they go to L.A. and work with actors there, they say it’s a breath of fresh air. In America, people are ready to stand up and be counted and to take personal risks. With Australians they have to do the equivalent of coaxing a small child not to be so shy. For trainees who have grown up in a culture where the loud self-confidence required by acting is actually considered rude, it’s a major hurdle.
I might even go so far as to say that a *lack* of self-esteem is encouraged in OZ. Of course every Australian would say that it’s important to have good self-esteem. But the stronger message, culturally, is “if you firmly believe you’ve got something special to offer the world, you’re an asshole.” It’s so important to de-emphasize the self that a reserved, slightly dorky blonde guy at a spoken-word night I went to in Melbourne actually said on stage – without a trace of sarcasm or cynicism – “This next one I wrote after a break up with a girlfriend when I was spending a lot of days on the edge of a bridge thinking about jumping off. And it’s really stupid and probably no good at all, but here goes…”
She’s Very Confronting… Isn’t She?
Americans are told from birth – you are special! You are the only you! You can do things that no one else can do! And you should!
As above, there are huge benefits to this mentality. However, there are also huge down sides (a country full of righteous people with ridiculously unshakeable political convictions for one, but let’s not get distracted). I would say the fact that Americans feel entitled to self-confidence is both everything right and everything wrong with America.
In Australia, “telling it like it is” isn’t always welcome. That’s bad news for a woman whose no-sugar-coating approach draws regular remarks on this site. The most recent comment applauded my “unvarnished honesty.”
In Australia, unvarnished honesty is the worst kind of honesty. It’s tacky. It’s rude. It’s repulsive. However, it’s ironic to me that Australians would never use the latter unvarnished words. No, they call unvarnished honesty, “confronting.”
Perfect example: when I visited MONA – an art museum largely covering the themes of sex and death – an Australian woman my age and her boyfriend were behind me at the exhibit, “Cunts… and other conversations.” Seventy-seven life-size, porcelain portrait sculptures of women’s vulvas hang on the walls of a long hallway at face height, inviting visitors to look. I was looking. Intently. At each and every one. The young couple behind me moved along fairly quickly, the woman remaking, “It’s very confronting, isn’t it?”
An unintended but frequent result of my “blunt” communication style in Australia? I’ll be mid-conversation with a group of people, or in the middle of a story and suddenly just know that I’m being inappropriate. I don’t know exactly what or how, but I abruptly notice people are not responding in the way I expect. Time to wrap it up and put the ball in their court! Which brings me to…
I’m Also an Asshole Because…
I learned something new in the weeks following my fourth plane ride to the land down under. Or rather, I finally got to understand another possible cause of the conversation awkwardness explained above.
I heard a story from a woman who moved from Australia to the U.S. and is having a really hard time making friends in America. She said, “No one ever asks me about myself.”
“Yes, of course not,” I thought. In America we don’t ask a lot of questions about each other’s lives. A single question – Where are you from? What do you do for work? Where do you live? How have you been? What have you been up to? – might get the ball rolling. But from there, the expectation is that both parties volunteer information about themselves, observations, and opinions until the conversation falls flat and one party has to come up with another question to get things moving again.
In the U.S., each speaker reacts to the other by offering a-story-that-relates-to or an-opinion-about what their conversation partner just said. Most of what each speaker is saying could just as easily come out of their mouths if they were standing up on a stage. I don’t think it’s too extreme to suggest Americans are encouraged to behave as though they are actors in a very important one-wo/man show.
In Australia, each speaker reacts to the other by answering the question asked and/or coming up with a question for their conversation partner. In Australia, you need the other person in the conversation to draw things out – to indicate their interest in what you’re saying. It’s a back-and-forth that has in the subtext of each exchange, “I care about you. I’m thinking about you. I’m genuinely interested in you.”
A comparison, for my fellow nerds. Let’s call the conversants Susan and Amanda:
- Susan: Question A to signal the beginning of talking
- Amanda: Answer A + some other stuff
- Susan: Response to Answer A + some other stuff
- Amanda: Response to other stuff
- Either person: Question B
- Answer B + some other stuff
- Response to answer B + some other stuff
- Susan: Question A
- Amanda: Answer A
- Susan: Question 1 about topic A
- Amanda: Answer to question 1, topic A
- Susan: Question 2 about topic A
- Amanda: Answer to question 2, topic A. Question B
- Susan: Answer B
- Amanda: Question 1 about topic B
- Susan: Answer to question 1, topic B
- Amanda: Additional question 2 about topic B
- Susan: Answer to question 2, topic B. Question C
In the U.S., the Australian format would feel like an interrogation. Whoa, Nelly! If the person wants to talk, they’ll talk! No need to mercilessly grill them about every detail of what they’re saying. But to Australians, the U.S. version seems like a gross ego-fest. If someone hasn’t indicated interest and the desire to know more about what you’re saying, going on and on about it is self-centered and rude.
I suppose my conversational kangaroo-in-the-headlights moments are a result of my failure to follow the Australian format combined with expressing myself in ways that are considered “confronting.”
Love Me An Outlier
Lucky for me, there are black sheep all over the world. Of course my Australian friends aren’t typical Aussies. They are largely salt-of-the-earth people not too concerned with decorum. They can tolerate my unvarnished honesty. Some of them even enjoy it!
Like me, they are analytical about themselves and the world around them. They enjoy the benefits of their cultural structures while also critiquing the restrictions and challenges they bring. They are some of the very best people I know!
More on Australian culture:
- Why Everyone is Talking About Pot Plants
- Is That a Banana in Your Pocket…?
- Australians Really Eat Fried Mice
- When Being “Paid Out” is Bad
- Australia’s Richest is a Woman (language alert!)
- Australian Vocab Lessons & How I Misplaced an Entire Day