Australia is a unique and rich country in every way, with a culture that is as broad and versatile as its landscapes. Modern Australia is an international and multicultural country, something a visitor might notice in the country’s varied food, lifestyles and different traditions.
The Aboriginal history and the British heritage are important features in the Australian society, a society which in the last century also have seen more and more influences from Asia, United States and its neighbouring countries in the Pacific Ocean. This rich diversity has created a society and a viable modern culture that is innovative and outward-looking. Many European people I know quickly feel welcome and at home in the Australian culture, and for the first time many gets to experience a way to socialize, live and to be treated like they have never experienced before. But for those who feel that the Australian culture is far from what they are used to, with this article I aim to give a brief overview of the trends, phenomena and legends I experience as central upon understanding, appreciating and blending into a modern Australia.
I hope to give you a basic knowledge of what Australians often refer to in everyday conversations or on the news channels, just to make you feel better prepared during your visit. I have also tried to list what I and other Scandinavians abroad are experiencing as interesting differences between Scandinavia and Australia; Both in terms of values and behaviour in individuals as well as trends, greetings and the fundamental tone used in modern society. Maybe you find that some of these differences applies to you and your home country’s culture as well.
In Australian culture, many phenomena originate from the British heritage and the close relations with the United Kingdom, as well as from World War II, and onwards the United States is a big influencer. Stories and legends of the colonies’ early days picturing vulnerable and brave people struggling in the inhospitable new country are powerful motifs even in contemporary art and myths. During the first part of the 1900s, the young nation was thrown into a traumatic upbringing. The shock of the immense losses from the First World War, followed by a narrow escape of being invaded by Japan during World War II are two very important events that came to shape the modern Australia, especially in the form of legends surrounding the bravery of soldiers and self-sacrifice. Over the last century, Australia has been populated by emigrants who, with a willingness and a strong driving force, have chosen to leave their homelands to build new and better lives on the new continent. The values and ideals of these millions of adventurers, individualists and entrepreneurs permeate the tone of society, creating an optimistic and forward-looking society full of confidence and a conviction that Australia is “The Lucky Country” and full of opportunities.
My first encounter with a completely different way of thinking
Sometimes I get questions about how it was that I chose to move from Sweden, and although the reasons behind my move to Australia are many, I usually tell a short story about a personal meeting that sums up so much of what I love about Australia.
At Christmas 1999, I was in New Zealand for the first time. I was 23 years old and had moved to Brisbane to study two semesters as part of my studies at Chalmers University, taking the opportunity to travel as a backpacker in Australia and New Zealand during my summer holidays. At my hostel in Christchurch, I met Mike, a man in his fifties who told me that he was halfway through a more than two-year-long journey around the world. For me, my simple journey was a fantastic adventure – it was the first time I had been outside Europe and I fantasized about how I could continue travelling around the world, and Mike’s journey was something unimaginably awesome for me. I asked Mike to tell me more about his travels and he rolls out a world map in front of me on the table, full of painted lines and markers showing his planned itineraries and destinations. He told me more about how he lived on the road, with everything he needed in a couple of bags and that it was a dream he had saved up for during many years. In fascination I could not but to burst out “wow, I feel so jealous of you!”
Imagine my surprise when Mike (who I at this point thought I got on well with) immediately turned silent, stopped in his movements to turn to me with an irritated look as if I had insulted him. What had I done to make him upset?
After a moment, his reply came, which although it may sound trivial now, it totally came to change the worldview of the young Swedish backpacker that I was back then. “Why do you say that? Why are you jealous? Why don’t you say good for you?”
At that moment I became aware of some for me, very important things. Without being aware of it, I had approached Mike with jaundice and with my question communicated that I subconsciously wanted his journey to “belong” to me and not to him. Although there was no obstacle for both of us to have rich and free lives independent of each other, it was something fundamental in my way of thinking that made me look at the world in terms of zero-sum games and jealousy. For me, how I think and feel about the world around is a conscious choice, and in Mike’s positive and generous expression “good for you” was a friendly and optimistic approach that I had never experienced before.
I short words; I had stumbled into a new way of thinking and a way of hanging out with people that I never experienced in Sweden. Something I didn’t want to lose once I found it. I had fallen in love with Australia’s culture, and I wanted to stay.
The Australian Personality
If you are a Swede, a Scandinavian or perhaps even European, you might notice that you have a lot in common with our Australian friends, but also that we differentiate ourselves on several and perhaps unexpected areas which manifest themselves both in how society is structured but also how we interact with each other.
Australia is one of the world’s most multiethnic countries. Just under one in four people living in Australia was born outside the country’s borders, and far more are first-or second-generation immigrants. The broad spectrum of individual backgrounds and histories, along with the legacy of natives who has lived on the continent for over 50,000 years has helped create a unique Australian national identity and folk spirit.
It is hard to miss the personal and informal ways Australians socialize and address each other; The greeting tone is open and friendly towards strangers, having a healthy disrespect towards prestige, hierarchies, titles and positions of power. One values humility, courtesy and self-sacrificing friendliness, respect and equality (both between the sexes and between people in general). To a much greater extent than in Sweden, one acknowledges each other politely, and many Swedish tourists are often surprised when a stranger ask them “How are you?”. People are chatting friendly in the elevator and with the neighbour table guests at the café or at a pub, despite haven’t met them before, and one go into most meetings with the certainty that the other party is a good friend that you just haven’t had time to meet yet. Many tourists in Australia have been met with an open kindness and curiosity between people, making them choose to travel back to Australia time and time again.
The concept of “Mateship” is a term of sacrificing fellowship that has its roots in times of the early settlers and gold diggers, with legends of how Australians survived hardship thanks to solidarity. Mateship is a code of conduct that emphasizes the importance of fellowship and equality, and although the concept applied to men in the past, the term in modern times is increasingly gender-neutral. To behave humbly, responsive and with warm kindness towards one’s neighbour, and not to emphasize oneself as superior, is seen by others as something positive.
Although mateship sounds like a positive nationalistic spirit, there is also a downside; Those who break the rules by believing themselves to be better than others will get fierce criticism, just like the selfish ones ignoring their neighbours and friends who need help. The tendency to want to pull down those who fly too high is called “tall poppy syndrome”.
Australian’s strong sense of fairness and equality is also displayed in the intuitive sympathy of those at a disadvantage and for those who thanks to positive thinking and strong spirit are trying their best to stay in the game. Not giving up even when the game looks like it’s over is tremendously respected in Australia, and the term used for the weaker fighter everyone cheers on is “underdog”. The attitude of rather supporting an underdog is often shown in sports; Where guest national teams with no chance of winning a Championship often get surprised by how the Australians spontaneously cheer and support them instead of the favourites. If an Australian is in the choice to cheer for one of two unknown athletes, the vast majority will choose to support the one with lowest chance of winning.
With a strong sense of justice and sympathy for the one who falls behind, it is unthinkable for the Australians not to give everyone a chance to succeed and to do their best. Australians hold a strong belief in giving everyone the opportunity to “a fair go”, to give everyone an honest chance, which relates to the historical pursuit of justice, giving every underdog an opportunity to succeed. Australia is a strong meritocracy and has a well-developed system of general health care, education for everyone and an extensive anti-discrimination legislation.
So wonderfully Australian!
As I write this, the Australian National day called Australia Day has just passed, and like every year thousands of immigrants have been sworn in as new citizens in Citizenship ceremonies across the country. Ministers and civil servants have kept speeches celebrating Australia and the Australian people, and then prime Minister Julia Gillard has handed over one of the country’s most prestigious honours – the title “Australian of the Year”. The title in 2015 was awarded to activist Rosie Batty, who through an acclaimed campaign against domestic abuse and domestic violence (her 11-year-old son Luke was murdered by his father) was a leading example to other Australian citizens by greatly contributing to the work against domestic violence. Rosie’s name is one in a line to be written on one of all the blank plaques along the beach promenade “Australians of the Year Walk” in central Canberra. The monument is interesting not only for the many names going back in time, but also for all the blank plaques that extend far into the future, making one wonder where Australia is headed and who the heroes of the future will be.
The annual award ceremony is one of many ways for Australia to have an ongoing discussion about what it means to be Australian and what ideals and values one and all want to salute and encourage. As a part of this, differences in opinion are discussed every year, many about whether the right person won, and what characteristics, achievements and areas of business the price should prioritise. But perhaps it does not matter exactly what is being praised. One of the main goals of the prize is not to pay tribute to a specific career path or group of people, but by highlighting role models and predecessors it aims to encourage discussion and reflect on what it means to be a good citizen in Australia, and what ambitions, values and behaviours that characterize the nation’s foremost.
Being Australian is something to be proud and happy about. You should beware of saying that something or someone is un-Australian unless you feel very confident in your English skills, your understanding of what the word means and the situation you are in. The term is used to signal disapproval or a deliberate breach of the Convention; The term has, for example, been used seriously in debate articles to criticize the proposal to introduce social security numbers and national ID cards, but mostly it pops up in joke contexts, such as TV-advertising exclaiming that it is “un-Australian” not to eat lamb-meat for dinner.
Australian nationalism is very rarely an aggressive chest thumping, but more of a quiet story that sometimes and contradictory is accompanied by a self-image of being a small and not very successful country in more than one area. One can sometimes sense a declining national self-confidence in the young Australia, where Australians seem to see themselves a few steps behind the world’s elite and seem to think of itself as being less cultural, innovative or sophisticated as other countries with a longer “national history”. This sometimes-displayed lack of cultural self-esteem phenomena has been called “cultural cringe”.
The Australian language and tips on how to behave
Australia does not have an official language, but English is the language that everyone in the country speaks. The Australian variant of English differs from the standard English most tourists speak and understand, and if you learned the American English, you will discover many differences during your journey. Australian English is more like the British, both in spelling and by speech. What is unique about Australian English is its pronunciation, some vocabulary and how it uses a lot of paraphrases and is full of metaphorical speech. Many unique Australian words are drawn from local aboriginal languages, and from World War II and onwards, several American expressions have entered the language. Most words are shared with the British English, but in some cases one use American terms, and in other cases, unique Australian words.
The Australian language is sometimes called “Strine” (pronounced a bit like saying “Australian” with clenched teeth), and in the same way the Strine-term for Australia is “Straya”. Strine is a playful designation Australians have on their own language, used to describe someone who speaks rough Australian English. One often shortens long words and adds an “o” or “ie” at the end of words or use hilarious and ironic rewrites or reversed and friendly playful nicknames towards a person being labelled talking Strine. Someone talking with a Strine-accent have a uniquely unmistakable flat pronunciation on their vowels and they end most sentences with a rising tone that sometimes can be mistaken as a question.
Some examples of words and paraphrases; The words barbeque and swimming costume (swimsuit) are too long and complicated and ends up being barbie and cossie. A guy with swimming trunks that are so tight and short that you can discern the contour of his private parts is said to wear “budgie smugglers”, which implies that he is trying to smuggle a small budgie into his tight trunks.
Australians are accustomed to people speaking both American and British English with different accents, so you should not have any problems making yourself understood even if you sometimes use the “wrong” word. However, some tourists may experience it hard making themselves fully understood because of bad pronunciation (sometimes us Swedes speak English with a “singing” melody that sounds amusing in Australian ears when we unknowingly use the same accentuation as “singing” when speaking).
Although there are barely any regional dialects in Australia, some Australian English can still be difficult to understand when its pronunciation differs from American and British English. Some Australians speak simple and clear British English, while others use so much local slang and have such a broad Strine that they can be difficult to understand for newly arrived people. What might strike tourists is the tendency of Australians to shorten words and soften consonants. A good example is the word water which by many Australians is pronounced something like “waada”; Like in many other words, the consonants soften, and the a-sound sounds wide and elongated.
Feel the situation before trying to use Aussie expressions. If you use them in the wrong context and with a bad pronunciation, it is easy to appear as a dumb tourist trying to use words that one does not master. Even if an Australian might greet you with “G ‘ Day mate”, you could start by using “Hi, how are you” until everyday phrases comes naturally.
Australians are usually humble, quite welcoming, polite and contact seeking when meeting strangers. Do not be surprised that strangers greet you, look you in the eyes and start a conversation with you in situations that you perhaps never had expected someone to do in your home country. In Sweden, we sometimes scoff contemptuously over chitchat and small talk, but after having lived in Australia for many years, I think the silence between Swedish strangers and their anonymity is somewhat unfortunate. In Australia it is not uncommon for strangers to greet each other in the elevator, for bus passengers to thank the driver when getting off, for customers to greet the business assistants as if they were buddies and to not hesitate offering help to strangers experiencing a problem.
If you greet friendly strangers in Australia with silence, you will quickly make yourself enemies, make a fool out of yourself or appear to be disrespectful and rude. At first it can feel a bit silly to walk around being friendly towards strangers, but if you listen to how the Australians around you behave and how they express themselves, soon you will get a good sense of how the social protocols work.
The standard greeting of saying “hello” or “good day” in Australia is “Hi, how are you?”. To just answer the question without asking a question back is perceived as impolite and shows that you are not interested in hearing how your counterpart has it. But if the one who asks the question is a stranger who does not know you, it might not be the right time to spill out everything that weighs you down. An easy way to answer is to say something like “Not too bad, thanks, how are you?” or” Pretty good thanks, yourself?” This is how I usually answer.
Do not forget to approach strangers with a friendly humility, even if they are employed to help you (as waitresses or business assistants). Words like “please”, “sorry”, “excuse me”, “thanks a lot” and “thank you very much” are lubricants that at first can feel unfamiliar but quickly become part of your everyday expressions. Phrases like “sorry to bother you…”, “excuse me; could I please… ” and “would it be possible to…” can feel like an unnecessary conversation starter in some cultures (like Sweden), but people who speak directly and straight-out are easily perceived as brusque and rude. Without starting to use “maybe”, “sorry”, “excuse”, “can I please…”, “may I ask for” and “thanks a lot” with strangers, you will appear as confrontational, short in tone and rude. Say hello, ask how people are doing, treat strangers as friends and thank and apologize properly and you will quickly feel at home in Australia.
Australians are keen to appear being no better (nor less) than anyone else. They value authenticity, honesty and dislikes pretentious and swaggering behaviour. Australians appreciates people with humour and self-distance, and they gladly moderate their own successes and ambitions to such extent that they sometimes can appear uninterested in doing much with their life.
Good relations are important. Australians often try to find compromises in conflicts and negotiations, aiming for all parties to come out of a disagreement with their self-esteem intact and without negative emotions. As for an example, Sweden’s aggressive and territorial behaving security guards do not have like-minded colleagues in Australia.
You can introduce yourself with a handshake and a smile and it is common that girls get a kiss on the cheek. First names are used, even at the initial meeting. If you are invited to someone, it is common to bring something, preferably a flower, a little chocolate or maybe a bottle of wine (always a good move). It never hurts to offer to bring anything, such as extra beer and wine, or a dessert. It is also appreciated if you offer to help with the preparation or to wash up and clean up afterwards. Arrive on time if you are invited to dinner, preferably no more than 15 minutes late if it is a barbeque or a bigger party. The table manners include; Fork in the left hand and knife in the right hand (unless you are required to eat by hand). Laying your knife and fork parallel on your plate with handles facing to the right indicates that you are finished with your meal. Elbows off the table and hands above the table is a good table etiquette.
As a tourist you get away with most things when it comes to fashion, but if you want to blend in and not look too much like an outsider you should skip the sandals, and make sure not to wear socks in them. For a man, a pair of whole and clean jeans with a shirt, jacket and a pair of well-looked after sneakers work for most occasions. A pair of jeans, chinos or dress trousers and a nice shirt is what most Australian guys wear when trying to dress up a bit, and if they dress down, they have a t-shirt or a tank top with a pair of shorts. For girls it’s harder to dress, Australian girls dress up the more. Pumps or a low heel and a pretty dress is used in summer, or a black dress with a scarf seems to be of standard outfit for girls in my experience.
In the pub or in the bar, it is common to take turns to buy rounds; When someone say it’s your turn to buy the group a round, one normally says it’s your shout.
Hierarchies and executives are important in Australia, do not underestimate the importance of being prepared for meetings and important presentations. Punctuality is important, always be on time! The tone of the meeting is often relaxed, but do not confuse the friendly tone with Australians being relaxed and taking things lightly; Meetings and negotiations are serious events.
If an Australian does not agree on what you suggest or say, you will be told so. Be prepared to be questioned on the content of your presentation or your suggestion. If you present a project or a plan, avoid making things sound better than they are by making unsubstantiated and embellished claims; If they see through you, you will lose your and your company’s credibility. Use facts, figures, data points and factual analysis in your presentation, avoid trying to speak to the audience’s emotions, it makes you appear frivolous and unprofessional.
Although the Australians are fun and easy to have to do with in their free time, their meetings and business culture are more factual and professional, avoid chit-chatting and wasting time. It is appreciated to be concise but friendly objective and the majority does not like to listen to unnecessarily details during a presentation. Negotiations are effective and are implemented with a win-win perspective; One does not expect any of the parties to start bargaining but requires both parties to find a solution that benefits both, and the initial bids can only be negotiated as much.
Major decisions are taken at the top of Australian organizations, and most employees are aware of this mandate and their own place in the organization. However, managers consult extensively with their teams, which can lead to decision-making and analysis taking time while anchoring and going into depth of a decision.
If you do business in the major cities of Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra, the office attire is conservative, and a dark suit or costume, with blouse or shirt and tie is customary. You can leave your jacket at home during warmer days. You must dress formally at work but can go to a party in jeans and shirt.