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  • Writer's pictureChelsea Joy Arganbright

Tall Poppies and Conversational Colonisation | Sydney, Australia

Updated: Feb 20, 2021

I’ve lived in three states across the continent of Australia, not having been back home to California since I left in February 2013. I’ve lived around the world since I was born - mostly in North and Latin America and Germany - picking up a degree in Sociology and a degree in Urban Planning amongst various other things, studying the way humans cohabitate in communities and the reason we develop as we do.

I’m taken by culture, cultural anthropology to be specific. Each country I’ve resided in feels like a Petri dish, with the microorganisms being the people, and the growth and bacteria being the figurative culture – which is I suppose where the term culture originates. I sit at cafes with a book and friendly banter to the waiter, meanwhile overhearing conversations and assessing observed communication, body language, and mannerisms, and putting it into my Culture Bank, such as a scientist would observe organism development in the Petri dishes and chart the data.

I find it fascinating how culture, not biology, dictates traits like head movement in conversation, verbal tone, pace, eye contact, our speed of reply, our stance, the way we carry ourselves and how much space we take up using our body etc. Also our focus on kinship and familial networks, attitudes towards work and play, our internal motivations, decisiveness and directedness, ambition and level of resilience. I’ve compiled various lists over the past six years delineating tons of my observations, which people have either found interesting or contentious, and maybe a mix of both.

I’m a half-Mexican, Irish/German Californian who has never lived in one place for more than three years of my thirty-year life so far, a real modern gypsy. So maybe it’s a matter of not really fitting in anywhere that drives me to always feel on the periphery and therefore as Georg Simmel’s The Stranger suggests, having the freedom to maintain objectivity. Or at least, more so than someone who has spent their first thirty years evolving in the Pitri dish of their own hometown.

I’ve had long discussions with people I’ve connected with about their own experiences as an American, Australian, Spaniard, etc. and find it stimulating to mentally compile these second hand observations. My own theory is that the majority (i.e. 90%) of a country’s culture as it stands today is mostly built upon the multitude of nuanced developments created during its colonial inception comingled with the at the time existent native culture. Many countries have had many inputs from external cultures as time has passed, but my feeling is again that the majority of the current culture of any country at any time is firmly based on its colonial inception.

Let’s chat Australia and the states. Australia and America both originated from Brits emigrating across the pond. Sounds similar enough to produce similar results. However the reasoning, which then determines the values behind the founding of the nations, dictates our day-to-day actualisation of culture. Australia was an island prison: a colony founded primarily on the premise of English prisoners shipped out here against their will, many for petty crimes. America was founded on Christians escaping religious persecution and also profiteering. No one speaks about culture as an action, only as an abstract and vague notion in the same way someone might speak about spirituality. I personally like to think of culture as our day-to-day actualisation of the identity created by the country. So every nuanced action we make is conceived the cultural programming instigated by the people who founded our nation.

The identity of Australia is built upon a convict history where people didn’t really want to be here – which is partially why I believe some people say Australia has an identity crisis. Think of being a prisoner in a jail, where if you do something bad or one of your inmate buddies does something bad, the whole ward will reap punishment for it. This is where Australia’s Tall Poppy Syndrome came from, and why nowadays if you stand out too much by looking different or acting different (i.e. anything from wearing ‘alternative’ attire to building your own business) the socially normative response is to off-the-bat label you as “weird” or cut you down to size. In this way, individualism is undermined in Australia – the premise being “it’s wrong to stand out.” As an anecdote, moving to Melbourne for the first time in 2004 at 15 years old, I kept the blue dyed hair I had in the states. In America it was considered cool and different, in Australia it was considered strange and odd. You see more Australians branching out with dyed hair and alternative fashion now but on the whole the people like this are still considered outliers.

Likewise, creating a business is often met with skepticism rather than praise which you’d receive in America. On the flip side, mateship (strong bonds with friends) is really prized here because in the convict days, people had to band together in harsh conditions to create their kinship networks, in an “all for one, one for all” manner. Ironically though, the notion of family isn’t as readily valued like it is in the states or Latin countries, mostly due to the exceptionally generous social welfare system where people aren’t reliant upon the family unit to survive. So there is a laissez faire attitude towards family bonds whilst friendship is valued as gold.

The identity of America is built upon the religious and capitalist pursuits, which is just as prominent nowadays. What do Americans value? Individualism, God, the freedom to pursue your capitalist pursuits. In many ways it’s the opposite of Australia. Tall Poppy Syndrome does not exist in America; the more Avant-garde you are, the more self-determined in your business goals you are, the more different you are - the more you’ll be held in high regard for being the one to achieve lofty heights. Tall poppies reign. Manifest Destiny, the document which gave settlers the “God given right” to traverse into the west to claim any land as their own, is still as inherent in Americans today. You can even see this at a micro level in the way Americans sit and take up space: men sit with their legs far apart, almost asserting their masculinity, shoulders broad and arms taking up space on the table. “I’m here” is what the body language suggests. It’s like they’re colonising the dinner table!

The competition built from Capitalism can even be seen in the way Americans communicate with one another: often people will interject, talk over each other, a man (in friendly conversation) will escalate his voice over another speaking man to dominate and assert his stake in the topic. Americans are louder, hailing back again to the Manifest Destiny Principle. “I am here and I claim this land, claim this conversation, claim this table.”

My observations are mostly founded within my experiences living in America, Mexico and Australia, with the input of extensive travel experiences in Southeast Asia, Spain, and the UK.


Appendix Excerpt from Georg Simmel’s The Stranger:

“Objectivity is by no means nonparticipation (which is altogether outside both subjective and objective interaction), but a positive and specific kind of participation -- just as the objectivity of a theoretical observation does not refer to the mind as a passive tabula rasa on which things inscribe their qualities, but on the contrary, to its full activity that operates according to its own laws, and to the elimination, thereby, of accidental dislocations and emphases, whose individual and subjective differences would produce different pictures of the same object. Objectivity may also be defined as freedom: the objective individual is bound by no commitments which could prejudice his perception, understanding, and evaluation of the given. The freedom, however, which allows the stranger to experience and treat even his close relationships as though from a bird's-eye view, contains many dangerous possibilities. In uprisings of all sorts, the party attacked has claimed, from the beginning of things, that provocation has come from the outside, through emissaries and instigators. Insofar as this is true, it is an exaggeration of the specific role of the stranger: he is freer practically and theoretically; he surveys conditions with less prejudice; his criteria for them are more general and more objective ideals; he is not tied down in his action by habit, piety, and precedent.”

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