Chelsea Joy Arganbright
Cultural Roots: Australia & America | 25 Years Old | Perth, Australia
Updated: Feb 20, 2021
I just posted my first ever Reddit thread, and received an off-topic question from a California guy. A very simple question requiring a very thorough, thought-out answer. I feel as though the past (almost) three years has been, along with a life-changing experience, a sociological/anthropological study of a different culture. So here goes.
*And, as a disclaimer, I understand if parts may annoy some people (either on the American or Australian end), but my thoughts aren’t off-the-cuff or fleeting, they’re things I’ve thought/obsessed about on an almost daily basis. Some people think about shoe shopping and last night’s party, I think about the socio-ethnographic development of “culture.”
How have you found the Australian people in general?
Your question requires a massive answer (even more massive than my gigantic post up there, but I will try to be concise.) My undergrad degree was in Sociology so I'm constantly analysing people in their cultural context. In a very small nutshell, and through conversations with people of all walks of life from the stereotypical country bumpkin to the Beverly Hills type Toorak/Brighton/Peppermint Grove folk, I'd say the overall cultural personality derives from the history (as does ours.) Early in the convict days, there was a sense that people had to band together amongst a society largely dictated by a penal system and the particularly structured government they were controlled by. So by default they became community oriented with a definite sense of "what's good for my neighbour is good for me." They refused the "tall poppy," aka anyone who attempts to position themselves above the common people, and adopted values based on having an overall good life and value financial success much less than Americans do - this in turn means that ambition and career-drive as values are regarded with much less interest than they are in America. It's amazing how much the ancestry of a country really sticks in the cultural attitude. Even though convicts aren't running around in modern day here and Australians have mixed with other races, it's still very apparent in the way people treat each other, communicate, etc. Without getting lecture-y (too late!), our history was founded on a bunch of people who sought a new land to escape from what they saw as religious and governmental injustice. One would think this would lead to a mentality similar to the Australian “Tall Poppy,” however it was the following cultural narrative that led to the big diversion. Yanks had to band together to a degree, but not like the Aussies had to. Americans value the singular individual in a "pull yourself up from your bootstraps" mentality. No one is going to look after you, you have to forge your own path and success. You see this in our forefathers and innovators from Washington to Lincoln, Rockefeller to Carnegie. As a culture, Americans are way more focused on making our way independently (Declaration of Independence says it all!) and therein lies the values that we still see so inherent now: competition, financial success, work ethic, ambition, drive, determination.
America was founded on the principle that you can’t really trust the government, and that's still apparent! Australia trusts in its government in part because it does take care of you; unfortunately (in my opinion) because of this it's a nanny state, and what happens when you treat people like children? Well...The government will take care of you here (you always have a soft pillow to land on if you fail.) Challenges create growth and innovation. But I suppose that sometimes it's the way you feel about your children: you know they need to go through their own challenges to grow into fully fledged, emotionally mature individuals, but you don’t want to see them struggling.
Examples of the soft pillow are: The government pays you if you're a single mother, if you're out of work, you get an entire month of holiday every year which you're required to take. Everyone can afford medical insurance here, and you'll be covered if you have to take time off work for medical reasons. The maintenance man at my apartment in Melbourne took a three month vacation to Turkey, acting like it was no big deal. The maintenance man at my apartment in San Diego had three jobs where he worked 70+ hours a week and could barely afford to pay his rent and support his small family. Life is set up here in a way that you can actually LIVE, not struggle. It's an easy life in a way Americans could only dream about. I’ll be forever thankful that I have been able to live in a lucky country. It truly is.
In addition: I've found Aussies to be friendly in a casual way, but do not offer deeper friendships readily as most Australians maintain their friendship groups from high school if not earlier, thus these groups are established and not easy to get into. I luckily found a very inclusive group of girlfriends but it’s not the norm to establish deep friendships in your late 20’s or 30’s. Also: Community oriented, caring, emotionally reserved, laid back, experiential (will do crazy thing for the experience of it, rather than to say they did it as Americans will), casual, vague and indirect in communication, and fun-loving.
A final note: Australians are *not* self-centered as Americans can be. One very nuanced but amazing thing is that Australians actually listen, instead of just wait for their turn to talk. Americans tend to be yappers with a conversational tone loud enough that the table across the room can hear them, and talk to be heard instead of to facilitate discussion. Australians, when you speak to them, do not tend to nod their head in agreement (even if they agree!) or say “uh huh, uh huh” (I am fully guilty of both of these things, you’d mistake me for a bobblehead when I’m listening to someone!) The interesting thing is that though you’d think because Aussies aren’t physically acknowledging you, it would mean they aren’t listening. It’s actually the opposite. The Aussies are taking in what is being said, while the American counterpart is expending energy on ACTING like they’re listening. In conversation, an Aussie will reference what you’ve said, and then reference someone you said in a conversation *months* ago. An American would have a hard time remembering what you said five minutes prior. On many occasions I’ll have casual conversations with acquaintances (the postal clerk, barista, someone I haven’t seen in months) and they’ll be able to remember what I briefly mentioned my dog’s name was when I was 12. It’s because Aussies value what the other person is saying as much as what they’re saying! It all goes back to the “competition/every man for himself” aspect of American culture, and the “let’s band together” aspect of the Aussie culture.