Wellbeing / Wellness

What is tall poppy syndrome? A breakdown of the inherently Australian phenomenon

what is tall poppy syndrome

Australians love a humble Harry. They love a self-deprecating Sally. What they don't love is when someone achieves success and celebrates it a bit to loudly. This is known as tall poppy syndrome, a phenomenon all too common to the culture Down Under and also found in New Zealand. For those unfamiliar with the term, you may already have been exposed to it throughout your life, and we're here to educate you on how to identify it and what to do to ensure it doesn't take away from your achievements and successes.

What is tall poppy syndrome and from where does it originate?

Tall poppy syndrome is a societal attitude and phenomenon occurring when people are resented, excluded or criticised for their success and merit. Rather than celebrating the achievements of someone for their feat, they are cut down and often unconsciously relegated, overtly or covertly.

The origins of the syndrome – like many cogs of the societal wheel – can be traced back to ancient Greek and Roman civilisation. During this period, tall poppy syndrome began as a figurative instruction to ‘deal’ with those who had gained too much power – think: "we should totally just stab Caesar."

However, it has since become a common facet to Australian and New Zealand culture, with the 1984 book Tall Poppies by Susan Mitchell popularising the term to a point that it is now often regarded as a cultural phenomenon.

What are the signs of the syndrome?

Much like imposter syndrome, tall poppy syndrome isn’t a diagnosable condition and is rather a common social phenomenon that permeates society. There are a handful of common signs that exhibit when a person is feeling this way, including:

  • Hesitation in sharing ideas
  • Not pursing goals for fear of being ‘shamed;
  • Fear of making peers uncomfortable when sharing good news
  • Withholding from celebrating successes
  • Downplaying achievements
  • Appearing socially excluded

Why is tall poppy syndrome more common in Australia and New Zealand?

Consider the culture of Australia: We don’t boast, we love an underdog, a battler, those who don’t take themselves too seriously. While this may be an unconscious state of mind, it is a large contributor in tall poppy syndrome now being an integral part of culture and mindset Down Under. Simply put, the syndrome can be directly linked with our key, underscoring values.

Egalitarianism and humbleness mean there is an expectation people shouldn’t boast or act in ways perceived to be flagrant. This ties into tall poppies being ‘cut down’ for their actions, however they can also be cut down due to the envy or insecurities of the person deemed the ‘cutter.’

Is it more common in men or women?

Tall poppy syndrome is more common in women, particularly as women do continue to be pitted against one another as competitors; whether this be a self-inflicted action or a societally-induced knee jerk reaction. When looking at this from an anecdotal perspective, it is understandable as women are often raised to see one another as competitors, this extending into adult life in career and personal milestones. Which leads us neatly to our next point.

In what setting is tall poppy syndrome most common?

While many will expect the workplace to be the most common breeding ground of the phenomenon, it’s off putting to know that tall poppy syndrome is most common in our social network and with those we view as friends and support. In a 2018 study, it was found people experience the phenomenon with those in their most intimate circle, resulting in some ceasing to share their moments of happiness and success for fear the will be ridiculed, resented or ostracised by their nearest and dearest. Tall poppy syndrome is found elsewhere, with other common settings in sporting and social clubs and workplaces.

So, how do we stop feeling this way?

When noticing the signs and emotions surrounding tall poppy syndrome, it is important to recognise and attempt to rectify the situation.

Becoming the critic of your inner critic and changing negative communication with ourselves is an integral step of breaking the mould. Reflecting on the validation we seek, from whom and for why is also important in recognising why you may be feeling the way you do. Instead of taking comments or actions personally, try distancing yourself from these triggers and identify them as tall poppy syndrome as through labelling them, it helps making understanding what happening easier.

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