Social etiquette in Australia
"There 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." Nino Culotta - They're a weird mob, 1957
Australian rules of social etiquette are a little different from most countries around the world. The rules 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.
Displays 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. Likewise, it may be frowned upon.
The 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.
Furthermore, because Australians see people as equal, they frequently offend international visitors who feel a more respectful attitude is warranted. 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:
"G'day, 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, stated:
"Australians appear very naive to the newly-arrived Japanese. They speak the same way with everyone."
The rounds at the pub
"In tribal 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." National Times January 1978
The 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.
Like splitting 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.
The 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.
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 for her.
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.
Splitting 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. 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 network.
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.
A 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.
Taking the piss
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.
Australians 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 sheep.
"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.
Targets 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.
It 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.
Tipping is optional in Australia. In restaurants, a tip is only left if above average service has been delivered.
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.
Bringing 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.)
If invited 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.
Sometimes 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.
It 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 crack."
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.
Many 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.
Wine 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.
Depending 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.
No 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.
If 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.
It 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.
If 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.
Seek and express empathy, not sympathy
In 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."
Sometimes 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.
If 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 no respect.17 May 2007, 05:57 Cherry