What is tall poppy syndrome?
Rebel Wilson, an Australian comedian and actor, won her defamation case last week, suing the publisher of several popular Australian magazines for publishing stories accusing her of being a liar about her age and background. In a tweet, Wilson sarcastically thanked the ‘shady Australian press’ for their ‘tall poppy syndrome’.
Australians would know exactly what was meant by Wilson’s comment, but international audiences may well have been left scratching their heads and wondering what she was talking about.
Tall poppy and tall poppy syndrome are well-attested Australianisms and refer to a tendency in Australian society to try and cut down people who are considered to be too successful or prominent (cutting the tall poppies down to size). Australians generally don’t like others to do too well, or (to use another popular Australian term) to ‘big-note’ themselves.
The first evidence for tall poppy in Australian records dates back to 1871 and occurs in a newspaper story about the Chief Secretary of the colony of Victoria taking the ‘tall poppies’ into government. The term continued to be used in Australia into the twentieth century to describe conspicuously successful people, but evidence suggests that these tall poppies were frequently viewed with envy and even resentment.
Tall poppy syndrome is first found in print in a 1979 academic title, Elites in Australia, in the form cut-down-the-tall-poppy-syndrome. Here the authors observed that Australians preferred to embrace an ethos of equality (to some an ethos of mediocrity) rather than celebrating success.
By the early 1980s the term tall poppy syndrome is clearly in common use, its adoption spurred on perhaps by changes in Australian politics and economics, as Australia went through economic change and deregulated the currency to compete internationally. There were opportunities for individual success, and many Australians were taking them. At the big end of town it was a time of high-profile business deals, big egos, and the celebration of wealth.
Tall poppy syndrome is a term that puts the spotlight on those who would criticise others for their success, and takes these people to task. The Australian Financial Review, Australia’s leading financial newspaper, commented in 1983:
Is this not another example of the great Australian ‘tall poppy syndrome’ at work? … To suggest that these elite be punished fiscally for their endeavours is an essentially negative approach. (18 January, p. 11)
As the term became entrenched in the Australian English lexicon, criticisms of tall poppies often took aim at celebrities. Actors and sportspeople who were successful overseas were often the target of tall poppy syndrome as this tongue-in-cheek commentary on cricketer and celebrity Shane Warne reveals:
How do colleagues know when I’m having a go at Shane Warne? … They can see my fingers moving on the keyboard. Look, I try not to do it all the time, honest! But sometimes the compulsion just overwhelms me, as a hideous case of Tall Poppy Syndrome grabs me by the throat and, fair dinkum, makes me do it. (Sydney Morning Herald, 12 March 2005, p. 88)
The tall poppy syndrome speaks to the Australian ambivalence about just how to deal with those who succeed so much that they stand out. On the one hand, we like to make fun of those who flaunt their success (especially when they appear to not have worked too hard for their status), yet our resentment and envy mean we don’t celebrate those who have genuinely worked hard to succeed. In a culture where egalitarianism is seen as central to Australian values, it is hard to know how to deal with the tall poppies among us.