Unpacking Tall Poppy Syndrome & Australia’s Love-Hate Relationship with Success

In Australia, the concept of the "Aussie battler" has always been held in high regard. The idea that we should work hard to earn just enough money to survive is deeply ingrained in our national identity. This has led to a sense of pride in being an underdog or a member of the working class.
This love of the battler has also given rise to a phenomenon known as tall poppy syndrome. Tall poppy syndrome is the tendency to criticise or resent people who are successful, especially if they are seen as being arrogant. As you can picture, a 'tall poppy' is someone who seemingly rises above the rest — and needs to be cut down. The act of diminishing that success, or the idea of "bringing them down a peg or two" seems culturally distinct to Australia and New Zealand.
So, how did we end up with such a fraught relationship with success? Success is generally seen as a good thing, but in Australia, it can be a source of tension and resentment thanks to tall poppy syndrome, when we perceive someone's success as a threat to our own. Ahead, we explore exactly what tall poppy syndrome is — and who it's really hurting.

What is tall poppy syndrome?

Tall poppy syndrome isn’t a syndrome in the medical sense, but rather, it's more of a perceived social phenomenon. In both Australia and New Zealand, the term "tall poppy" is a metaphor for someone who stands out from the crowd.
So instead of celebrating someone's achievements, we perceive them as getting "too big for their boots" and tend to attack, scrutinise, discredit, criticise or generally just dislike anyone in the public eye who is experiencing any level of success above our own. In other words, “to be cutting down the tall poppy”. 
Tall poppy syndrome gets its name from the analogy of a field of poppies, in which the tallest poppy is an outlier, and therefore, is an eyesore and most likely to be cut down to keep the garden even. Poppies are known to grow together at the same pace, reaching the same height, which is what makes the tall poppy that much more obvious.

How do I know if I'm experiencing tall poppy syndrome?

Tall poppy syndrome can either refer to the successful person being attacked, or the feelings of the attacking party. It’s all to do with the treatment of accomplished people.

You might be the victim of tall poppy syndrome if:

— You hesitate to or feel embarrassed in sharing your successes, for example, sharing the news of your promotion at work with your colleagues
— You feel ashamed to promote your achievements online 
— You feel the need to downplay your skills or hide them away 
— You socially monitor yourself out of fear of being perceived as arrogant

You might be the perpetrator of tall poppy syndrome if:

— You find yourself being jealous of a friend after they announce a milestone  
— You go out of your way to ignore a colleague who has earned a promotion or pay increase 
— You frequently gossip about how unimpressed you are with a certain celebrity or someone with newfound fame 
— You exclude someone socially who you don’t want to be compared to
— You feel inadequate when you hear about someone’s success

Why is tall poppy syndrome so prevalent in Australia and New Zealand?

Tall poppy syndrome's prevalence in Australia and New Zealand is a direct result of our culture and key values. Our national identity is that of an egalitarian society (even if that isn't always the case for everyone). We value fairness and equality, and we don't like to see anyone get too ahead of themselves. That means we need to be perceived as humble, hardworking and self-deprecating in order to be likeable.
It’s our staunch belief that all people are equal that makes us dislike someone who might threaten this status quo and make us feel less than. To showcase your achievements is quite likely to result in a few eye rolls behind your back.

Who are we most likely to feel tall poppy syndrome towards? 

Most people are likely to experience tall poppy syndrome towards people who have what we want, deep down. Like the feeling of jealousy, this could be anyone from your sister to a big-name celebrity and anyone in between. A colleague, a neighbour, a friend, a friend of a friend, or even someone you follow on Instagram. 
A 2018 study by Dr. Rumeet Billan titled The Tallest Poppy found that people experienced tall poppy syndrome most among their friends and social peers. The study found it can heavily affect who we choose to keep as our friends and who we let go.
“What ends up happening for some is they stop sharing their milestones with those whom they should feel comfortable confiding in due to a fear of being resented, attacked or ostracised,” Dr. Billan explained.
While men are absolutely both perpetrators and victims of tall poppy syndrome, unsurprisingly, it is most likely to affect the behaviours of women, as we are likely to use other women’s success as evidence of our own failures.  

How can we overcome tall poppy syndrome?

Although the thought of completely eliminating tall poppy syndrome from Australia and New Zealand is ambitious, the progress starts with us. It’s important to recognise and consciously admit our feelings to begin the process of changing them. It's a good idea to start by considering why you might be feeling the need to cut someone else down — and make yourself the focus instead. 
Jealousy can be a great indicator that we're seeking something more in our lives. But we can reframe someone else's success as a source of inspiration rather than jealousy. It's also important to challenge the idea that success is a zero-sum game, and stop thinking that if someone else succeeds, that means we have to fail.
From a cultural standpoint, we also need to question the idea that being proud of your achievements is arrogant. After all, what's so wrong with being chuffed with something you worked hard for? We should also learn to put our own egos aside and wholeheartedly celebrate other people's achievements — if for no other reason than when it's our turn, they celebrate ours too. After all, life is a rollercoaster of ups and downs, and your time coming up could be any moment. 
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