Don’t stand out among the crowd and don’t try to change things.
The Tall Poppy Syndrome (TPS) is a social phenomenon in New Zealand (and in Australia) where it is considered inappropriate to make claims about one’s talents or achievements, to stand up above the masses—like a tall poppy. The idea is that everyone is equal and no one is better than anyone else. Everyone is just one of the boys (or girls). No matter what your talents or achievements and no matter the effort you may have exerted to attain them, it is frowned upon to acknowledge them or bring attention to them. Well, you might say, fair enough, I don’t like braggarts either. But the Tall Poppy Syndrome has to do with people who have actually achieved, with people who maybe have worked considerably harder than others and who truly are superior in some respect to others, making claims about themselves that are true.
With the Tall Poppy Syndrome it is okay to be successful but not to mention it. It’s okay to achieve but not to stand out. Expectations are that people will play down their achievements, often with an almost feigned humility. And anyone who acts or brings attention to their talents are often resented, attacked or ridiculed. They are cut down to size.
Certainly from my reading and understanding, this attitude was once very prevalent in New Zealand. Exactly how pervasive it is in New Zealand now, it is hard for someone like myself to know, but from what I can gather, it still exists. At least there is a certain carryover here of not bringing excessive attention to one’s own achievements, and being humble despite one’s accomplishments. And there is at least some backlash against TPS, with many arguing it is time to put it behind.
The etymology of the Tall Poppy Syndrome is from a story about a Roman king, who when asked what should be done in the land he had just conquered, walked through a garden whacking off the heads of all the tall poppies standing above the rest, allegedly signifying that those of superior ability or influence in the conquered country should be killed. “The tall poppy gets cut down” is another quote related to this.
Why the Tall Poppy Syndrome? Perhaps it is part envy or jealousy. In that regard, other cultures often have somewhat similar proverbs. Japanese—“The tall nail gets hammered down.” Dutch—“Don’t stick your head above the mowing field (above ground level).” And then there’s the Russian proverb which minces no words with regards envy and jealousy, “What a joy, a neighbor’s cow has died!”
Some say that the TPS is in deference to diversity. One person’s view of success is completely different than another’s, and there is no reason to hold anyone above the rest.
As in many other places, there is a decided culture here of rooting for the underdog whether in sports or in any other endeavor. We all love that story. Or the story of the simple, regular, everyday man or woman who is smart but without extensive formal education and who with simple grit and determination and a fair dose of common sense succeeds against all odds or against others seemingly better prepared. That is in part why Sir Edmund Hillary, the first to summit Mount Everest, is such a beloved hero here.
Sometimes, from my limited understanding, the country of New Zealand views itself that way, being a relatively remote country often with limited resources but with a can-do, get-it-done attitude. Combined with this, humility in the face of success is also well-thought of here.
The clobbering machine, another social construct, refers to the pressure by people and society in general placed on individuals to conform to established standards. Don’t make waves. Things are done the way they are done supposedly for good reasons and you need to accept it. And again, anyone not conforming or accepting this will be clobbered, brought down to size.
Yet another historic social expression here—again I don’t know how relevant it is today—is the New Zealand phrase, “Jack is as good as his master”, which means that the common working man is as smart and as able as his employer. This was originally in part a repudiation of the social hierarchy of Europe from where many New Zealanders originated. No longer would they be constrained by class, education or ethnicity. Fair enough.
At least from my perspective, certainly Jack (or Jill) should be equal in rights and opportunity to their so-called master, but to be fair, they often are not as educated or experienced as their master in a given field. Indeed, that is why he (or she) is the ‘master’.
In my lifetime, I’ve seen a form of this egalitarianism taken to the extreme in the United States. You know as much as your doctor. What does an oil company know about drilling for oil that you don’t know?
Or even why is it necessary to have any experience in foreign affairs or economics to run a country? Or even more recently, despite having any education or experience in police-work, forensics, or any legal training, I can tell you what happened in a given crime scene and what the verdict should be.
At least in the US, something similar to “Jack is as good as his master” has morphed into “Jack is better than his master,” and then “Nobody is better than Jack,” and often even “Nobody knows more than Jack!”