Like many New Zealander’s, I’m proud of my country. We make the best wine in the world, we own some of the best scenery in the world, we are champions at rugby, emperors at cricket, we care for one another, we are friendly, and we are naturally creative.
Yet there’s one part of my culture that I’m not proud of: Tall Poppy Syndrome.
Tall Poppy Syndrome (TPS) is an odd, yet incredibly common phenomenon in New Zealand. In short, people with TPS will to cut you down with words when you declare an ambition to succeed, or when you state an accomplishment. It’s something all New Zealanders have grown up with, and it’s part of our culture.
“Who would do such a mean and hurtful thing?” you might ask? Sadly, it’s likely to be your friends, your family, or your workmates. Someone who is on an even footing with you. A good example would be in a typical New Zealand workplace where there are, say, 10 staff who all get along (more or less). Then, one of these kiwi staff declares that he or she would like to (as a random example) live in Italy for 5 years.
There will be some workmates that will say, “Wow, that would be a dream, to learn the language, eat the food, and drink the wine!” but unfortunately there would also be the immediate detractors. Even though this man/woman’s dream of living in Italy doesn’t affect the workers in the slightest, a percentage of these workers would offer passive-aggressive remarks such as, “I couldn’t do that, it’s so dirty there,” or perhaps, “My sister holidayed in Italy for 3 months and hated it. It was horrible for her – but I’m sure you’ll do fine”.
These Tall Poppy Syndrome exchanges happen every day, right across the country. But why? Why would the people in that workplace example say such negative things to a fellow co-worker? I mean, it’s just a harmless future ambition, and the person’s goal doesn’t affect them at all.
I’ve lived in Europe for a year and a half now, and there’s barely a trace of TPS here. Additionally, I have a plethora of American & Canadian friends on Facebook and the support I get from them is breathtaking. I could say I want to build the world’s fastest desklamp and they’d say, “Go for it buddy!”, and they would mean it too! A large percentage of my New Zealand friends however would question “Why would you do that?” or “I don’t want to bring you down, but…“, which is immediately followed by them trying to bring me down.
But why? Where on earth does this party-pooping syndrome come from?
Wikipedia states that Tall Poppy Syndrome (TPS) is a pejorative term primarily used in the UK, Canada, New Zealand and other Anglosphere nations to describe a social phenomenon in which people of genuine merit are resented, attacked, cut down, or criticised because their talents or achievements elevate them above or distinguish them from their peers.
But Wikipedia still doesn’t answer the question, why? Is it jealousy, or perhaps is it a fear of being left behind with the pack? Additionally, why is it so embedded into kiwi culture?
Sociologist Max Weber thinks that TPS is a social mechanism New Zealanders use to equal the playing field. Kiwis use it subconsciously to keep eachother at a similar level. That notion makes sense because in my experience those who are affected by TPS don’t actually mean any harm to their victim/friend when they launch these small, but thinly veiled attacks. They simply want them to stay at the same level as the group. It’s so strongly a part of New Zealand’s daily culture we think it’s harmless.
We’re wrong. Of course harm is being done.
Tall Poppy Syndrome runs through our blood in New Zealand and we teach it to our kids. They use it, and they teach it to their kids. Want to buy a nice car? “A friend had one of those, and it broke down 3 months later“. Want to make a career of being a pilot? “Wow. That’s a big decision. It’s really hard, and the pay’s quite low but I wish you the best“. Want to start a home business selling something? “Be careful, most small businesses fail in the first five years – just saying“. Want to convert a car to run on electricity (an absolute TPS magnet)? -In my personal experience there were just too many to list here!
After undertaking the seemingly unusual act of converting my car to run electricity I’ve put up with enough attempts to cut me down to last seven lifetimes. Maybe that’s why I’m trying to do something about it.
So what can we as a nation actually do about this awfully common social disease? Easy: Learn to know when you’re about to use it, and stop dead in your tracks. That’s all! I know this works because I’ve learned to use it to break free from this destructive curse myself. Catch yourself as the thoughts get to your mouth and freeze. Think about the person, and think about what you’re about to say – or type – into Facebook.
Catching yourself enough, and saying something positive instead might seem foreign and strangely unfulfilling at first, but it gets easier and it gets better with time. Before you know it, it’ll feel awesome to boost people – even if it means they’ll succeed ahead of you.
When you learn to start dishing out the support, instead of the snide comments or gentle insults, your friend base will grow, and people will start to feed it back to you as well.
Just imagine what you could achieve if everyone around you stopped cutting you down, and encouraged you to grow, learn, and prosper. We are New Zealanders; we have everything we need to be proud of ourselves, our country, and our dreams.
Think what you could be doing now if your friends, family, and colleagues stopped asking, “Umm, are you sure?” each day, and started telling you “Go for it!” instead.