etiquette in Australia
In the 1957 movie They're a Weird Mob, Nio Cullotta said,
is no better way of life in the world than that of the Australian. I firmly believe
this. The grumbling, growling, cursing, profane, laughing, beer drinking, abusive,
loyal-to-his-mates Australian is one of the few free men left on this earth. He
fears no one, crawls to no one, bludgers on no one, and acknowledges no master.
Learn his way. Learn his language. Get yourself accepted as one of him; and you
will enter a world that you never dreamed existed. And once you have entered it,
you will never leave it."
Although a work of fiction, it was perhaps one of the best introductions to the Australian character ever written. A relative absence of formality coupled with conformity to a few basic values has left many Australians with a degree of mental freedom that is unparalleled in the world.
The basic rules of Australian social
do not relate to how a fork should be held, or who should be served first at a
dinner table. Instead, most of Australia's rules relate to expressing equality. Basically, as long as you appreciate that Australians
want to be treated as equal irrespective of their social, racial or financial
background, anything is acceptable.
of wealth may be seen as signs of superiority and frowned upon accordingly. Likewise,
the acceptance of generosity may be seen as a sign of bludging or inferiority and may be frowned upon.
relaxed attitude of Australians has been known to cause problems. Because Australians
are difficult to offend, they are not sensitive to causing offence in others.
To outsiders, Australians often appear very blunt and rude. They tend to call
a spade a spade when perhaps more tact is required.
because Australians see people as equal, they frequently offend international
visitors who feel a more respectful attitude is warranted. For example, Australians may refer
to some foreigners as "mate" instead of using more respectful titles such as your
honour, sir, madam, mrs, mr, ms, lord, and your highness. Likewise,
cricketer Dennis Lillee expressed his egalitarian sentiments when he greeted
Queen Elizabeth using the words:
how ya goin'?"
In Dennis' mind, he
was just treating the Queen as an equal. Afterall, it wasn't her fault that she
couldn't play cricket. Nor was she responsible for her subjects being terrible
cricket players. But to many English people, Lillee's expression of equality was
the act of an upstart buffoon.
It is not
only the Poms who have found Australian egalitarianism a little confronting. In
1980 a Japanese prefecture sponsored a weekend seminar to discuss problems that
Japanese people might experience in Australia. One speaker, Hiro Mukai,
"Australians appear very naive
to the newly-arrived Japanese. They speak the same way with everyone."
In myth, Australia is a country where people are assessed on the content of their character rather than the colour of their skin, economic background or job. For temporary periods of time, the myth becomes practice in various areas of Australian life. A salient example of the myth can be seen in Melbourne's Section 8 bar. Located in an alley in the middle of Melbourne's CBD, Section 8 uses packing crates as seats. The toilets are made out of shipping containers and the bar is just enclosed with a fence. Section 8 attracts rich businessmen, Japanese tourists, struggling artists and even homeless people. It is deliberately designed to be unpretentious. As a result, it attracts people from all walks of life that want to mingle with someone different from themselves.
Section 8 - Melbourne
The egalitarian nature of Australia is something many English have found definitive of Australia. For example, English migrant Paul Davies said,
"Australia seems refreshingly
free of class prejudice. Here people take you for what you are, and are less concerned
with how you speak, what job you do, where you went to school etc. I enjoy meeting
people from many walks of life and treating each other as equals."
rounds at the pub
social rules of the round or shout are perhaps the most important
of all social rules that need to be mastered. A
round is where one individual will pay for the drinks of the other members of
the drinking party. Once the drinks have been drunk, another member of the drinking
party will get the next round. Every member of the drinking party must buy the
same number of rounds.
the bill at a restaurant, there is no consideration given to each member's financial
status, background or to their gender. Even
generous acts of appreciation, such as buying a drink for an old Digger on ANZAC
Day, are likely to be rejected by the intended recipient of the generosity.
round is one of the principle reasons why Australia has avoided the racial ghettos
and race riots that are common in America and Britain. The custom allows an outsider
to be inducted into the social group and treated as if they are of equal status.
It also allows individuals to demonstrate that are trustworthy characters who
are not bludgers and who do not consider themselves to be superior. The round
is central to affirming Australia's egalitarian sensibilities. In a way, it creates
a kind of psychological round table that would have made King Arthur proud. As observed by the National Times in January 1978,
societies in which gift giving is economically important, there may be exchange
of gift giving of identical (or useless) gifts which serve to maintain the relationship
between donors. In Australia, the ritual of the round, known virtually to all
adult members of society, has some parrallel functions. It symbolise entry to
a group (and, for that matter, makes pointed an exclusion). It binds a group together."
The round is also a reason why non-sexual
relationships between men and women are very common in Australia. A lone woman
can go out drinking with men and provided she buys her round, she will be treated
as one of the boys. In other cultures around
the world, if a woman goes out drinking with men, she will generally be seen as
a slut. Men are always thinking of her gender because they know they have to pay
The rounds are not always followed
in night-clubs. This can be attributed to the diverse drinks bought, different
motivations, interference of drugs, and the different character of person who
frequents such establishments.
the bill at a restaurant
In most Asian
countries, if a group of friends go out for dinner, the wealthiest member of a
dining party may offer to pay for the entire meal. Furthermore, if a man and woman
go to dinner, irrespective of whether they are friends or lovers, the man will
usually pay. This is not the case in Australia.
If a group of friends go to a restaurant, the bill will be split amongst all the
diners. It is unlikely that one individual will
feel an obligation to pay for others. Nor do any of the other members of the dining
party want to be paid for. To accept the generosity may evoke feelings of shame
that one is a bludger.
*In business, these rules are bent a little
as a bill may be picked up as a way of fostering "good relations."
People in all countries have friends, but arguably no country lionises mateship
to the same degree as does Australia. An Australian's lionisation of mateship
is particularly evident in the way mateship is celebrated in ANZAC Day services.
Whereas most countries use their military day to affirm all that is good and just
about their nation, Australians use their military day to remember the character
of those who died in war. A central feature of the Anzac Day service is a
paragraph taken from the poem 'Ode for the Fallen':
shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them,
nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them."
with the Ode, Australian military tradition lionises mateship with the immortalisation
of John Simpson and his donkey. During the Gallipoli campaign, Simpson
deserted his unit and saved hundreds of wounded men by carrying them from the
battlefield to the army hospital. It was an act of self sacrifice that ultimately
cost him his life.
Although mate is a gender-neutral term,
it is more commonly used by men than by women. It carries with it a sense of obligation
to do the right thing by one's close friends. In
many respects, mates in Australia serve the role that family serves in other countries.
Mates can be relied upon in times of need and will stand by you through the good
times and the bad.
Perhaps the importance
that Australia places on mateship can be attributed to its history as an immigrant
nation. Convicts, orphans, prostitutes and lone individuals came to Australia
without families. Consequently, their friends subsituted for their lack of a family
Another explanation is that it
came from the hardships of the first century. It has long been known in psychological
circles that social bonding coincides with extreme difficulty. (For this reason,
defence force training inflicts hardship upon new recruits to foster such bonding.)
Consequently, the hardships endured by Convicts and farmers caused them to feel
a great sense of reliance upon each other.
final explanation is that it stems from Australia's wars being fought on foreign
territory. When a Digger was dying, a mate was brought to stand next to him so
he wouldn't die alone. Contrasted to Australia,
most other countries have suffered battles on home territory. When
men died, they often died with their families. When
men survived, they often saw their wives, children and grandparents raped and
killed. Accordingly, their scars of war were of a different nature to Australians.
Around the world, most
jokes are based on some variety of derogatory theme. In order to avoid offending
the victim's feelings, most nationalities usually only say the joke when its victim
is not present. In Australia, this can be a risky thing to do. Some Australians
don't like people making jokes about groups that they are not part of. If they
hear a joke about a different group, instead of laughing, they may get angry and
call the joke teller a bigot.
seem fonder of using derogatory jokes when the victim of the joke is present.
For example, when an Australian meets a New Zealander on holiday, they may ask
if they brought velcro gloves in order to get a better grip on those Australian
"Taking the piss" is the term given
to making a joke about someone or an ethnic group, when that person or ethnic
group is present. If an American lady married an Australian man, she should expect
to hear lots of her husband's friends and family asking her why she would want
to marry such a low-life bastard. They don't actually mean that he is a low life
bastard, they are just trying to say that they think he is a good bloke.
of a piss-take are expected to reply in kind. An insulting joke in return often
increases an Australian's appreciation for you. The English are usually quite
good at returning insults. Convicts, Rolf Harris, and voting to retain
an English Queen give the Poms good material to work with. Americans seem to have
more trouble at taking the piss and perhaps relations between Australia and America
are so good as a consequence.
If you are
offended by an Australian taking the piss, it is best to smile and change the
topic. Showing the joke hurt your feelings may simply increase the motivation
of the Australian to keep saying the joke. Getting angrier and threatening violence
may simply result in the Australian taking you up on your offer.
is also worth being careful about what things you take the piss about. Although
Rolf Harris may not be a sensitive topic for most Australians (some are even proud
of him), there are other topics that may cut a nerve and elicit an angry response.
There are no hard and fast rules. It is recommended that no piss be taken until
you get to know your friend well and understand what makes them laugh or angry.
Then you take the piss and so help them feel better about whatever is troubling
them in his or her life.
is optional in Australia. In restaurants, a tip is only left if above average
service has been delivered. Salaris are good for service staff so they don't rely on tips to survive. Taxi drivers
are usually only tipped if they initiate a good conversation and don't rip off
their customers. (When getting into a taxi, sitting in the front seat is the etiquette.
The back seat feels too much like one is being chauffeured and it is difficult
to have a conversation.) Bar staff are
not usually tipped unless a customer has thoughts of seducing them. Even if the
staff are not tipped, they will continue to serve you on your subsequent visits.
No grudge is held against those who don't tip.
booze to a barbecue
There is an Australian
adage that when hosting a barbecue, a knock on the door should never be answered
as it means the guest isn't carrying the required case of beer. (One should only
answer a kick on the door.)
to someone's home for a barbecue, etiquette stipulates that you make a contribution
to the alcohol that will be drunk. If bringing beer, a six-pack is ok but a case
is more ideal.
Depending upon the nature
of the barbecue, sometimes etiquette allows un-drunk beers to be taken home. But
if the host has provided a large banquet, it is usually safer to leave un-drunk
beers for the host as a gesture of thanks.
people get away with just bringing a potatoe salad or pavlova. Generally this
is ok but a few traditionalists frown upon the absence of grog.
may seem strange for a society that came from Convicts, but Australians value
honesty. It is acceptable to be dishonest to pull someone's leg or play a joke,
but on serious issues, honesty is the best policy. This is reflected in the creation
of sayings such as:
"poor but honest",
"fair dinkum", "honest toiler", "honesty of substance", "having an honest
It is also reflected in the
dislike of "the big end of town" which is often seen to be corrupt. When
such perceptions are revealed to be true, Australians vilify the fallen millionaire
(or politician) like no other nationality around the world. They become a bit
like a pack of dogs tearing apart a carcass.
Australians are quite cynical and almost seem to presume strangers to be guilty
until they prove themselves otherwise. Perhaps this is why buying your round at
the pub is such an important thing to do. It shows that you are not out for all
you can get.
Aside from being distrustful
of individuals, Australians may be distrustful of spin doctoring. As the myriad
of failed media, political and marketing campaigns show, Australians are quite
sensitive to any cues that indicate everything is not above board. If they are
suspicious, they tend to reject it. In 2004, a Quantum/AustraliaSCAN survey
found that only four per cent had much confidence in consumer information from
major companies. Such figures indicate that a lot of companies are wasting money
on the public relations, as Australians simply do not believe them.
for the dinner party
At a dinner party,
wine is the appropriate alcoholic contribution made by guests. At the end of the
night, it is not usually etiquette to take home any undrunk wine. Instead, it
should be left as a gift for the host/s.
upon who is on the guest list, the choice of wine is very important. If the guests
are knowledgeable about wine, anyone who brings a cheap wine such as Jacobs
Creek will be frowned upon and the wine will just be left unopened.
wine is too expensive at a dinner party. The better the wine that a guest brings,
the more they will be appreciated. By bringing a good wine, the guest is saying
that it is an honour to drink with other guests and the host.
Those who share the wine should be appreciative of the honour, without expressly
saying so. Although the wine can be praised, the bringer of the wine can not.
In such situations, a very important rule is that the cost of the wine should
not be asked, and never volunteered.
the host takes it upon themselves to open all the wine for the evening, it is
generally good form to acknowledge who brought the wine that is being opened.
If it is an unique wine, this gives the guest the opportunity to talk about where
the wine came from and why he/she thinks it is interesting.
is very poor form for the host not to open a bottle of good wine that has been
brought. I.e. for the host to open the cheap plonk with the hope he/she can drink
the good wine by themselves at a later date.
the wine is not opened, then the host should suggest that the guest take it home
with them. In such circumstances, the guest can accept. Alternatively, the host
should say the wine will be saved for the next time the guest comes over.
and express empathy, not sympathy
America, people feel no shame when talking about the fact they are seeing a counsellor
or psychiatrist. Oddly, revealing one's emotional distress almost seems to be
a status symbol. In Australia, an ethic of "no
worries" reins. Irrespective of whether they have just lost two legs in a
car accident or their business has just collapsed, Australians try to maintain
a facade of cheerfulness. If you feel
the need to talk about your problems, it is more polite to try to turn the problem
into a funny story.
The reasons for no
worries mantra is best understood by appreciating that Australia was built by
victims. The first of these victims were Convicts who over an 80 year period,
suffered some of the worst human rights violations the world has ever seen. After
World War II, Australia became a new home for war, political and economic refugees.
As victims, these groups did not want
sympathy from others, nor were they prepared to give it to others. When recording
his experiences, the Convict J.F Mortlcok wrote:
In Australia, silent
composure under suffering is strictly prescribed by convict etiquette."
these victims were willing to give and receive empathy. The melancholic music
of Convicts was the first of such means to express empathy. In modern times, empathy
is expressed at ANZAC Day Dawn Services and when reciting the Ode in RSLs.
you consider yourself to be a victim, bear in mind that Australia is a country
where respect is given to underdogs who stand up for themselves. The victim that
doesn't stand up for themselves, or needs someone else to fight for their cause,
will gain sympathy but not necessarily respect.
your best foot forward
from an American book. Has a few insightful observations such as:
"If you are teased, you are expected to reply in kind, with good humor.
Such self-confidence will increase an Australian's respect for you. They do not
admire a subservient attitude. "
A list of social rules. Included
are a few gems like:
are very difficult to impress; even if you do manage to impress them, they may
not openly admit it."
business etiquette in Australia
of observations about some peculiar features of Australian business culture. A
few of the observations do not apply outside the business sphere.
Good rules in point
form. Nice comment about Australian fashion:
arrive in town wearing the latest status symbol to announce how important you
think you are. "
Activity 1 – Language and customs
Purpose – To understand how cultural values are passed on in customs and language
Contrast the values symbolically expressed in the following customs
- Splitting the bill versus the richest person paying
- Splitting the bill versus the man paying
- Everyone buying a round versus the richest person buying for others
- Using first names versus using titles
- Being informal in the use of language versus being formal
- Public volunteering versus the government controlling social programs
Activity 2 – The ideal
Purpose – Reflect on your own beliefs
- Define the values of an ideal society.
- What constitutes a good person?
- What customs would you create to affirm the values of the society?
- Which country or culture do you feel is closest to your ideal?