AUSTRALIA: DOWN UNDERDOGS. - Although wonderfully laid-back, Australia's egalitarian businessman won't put up with any deference for hierarchy. In fact, the underdog is a national hero, writes Richard D Lewis.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Although wonderfully laid-back, Australia's egalitarian businessman won't put up with any deference for hierarchy. In fact, the underdog is a national hero, writes Richard D Lewis.

The world's largest island - and smallest continent - has long been a backwater, way out at the ends of the earth, with only New Zealand for company. But, thanks to the telecommunications revolution, remoteness is no longer the handicap it once was. And companies doing business in crowded Hong Kong, Singapore or Manila are looking towards Australia's inexpensive empty spaces with an eye to locating their Southeast Asian Headquarters. In the same vein, Britain's entry into the then EEC has forced Australians to take a more global view, having lost their automatic access to traditional markets.

To confuse matters for les etrangers, there is no manual for correct behaviour in Australia: the country lacks a clearly defined social and conversational map. Most antipodeans, however, see this as an asset rather than a stumbling block; a license to be rude or erudite as the situation demands. This lends Australian conversation an unpredictability and liveliness few nations can match.

An entrenched egalitarianism is a myth to which almost all Australians subscribe. And the foreigner must treat this notion with due deference when talking to any Australian, regardless of background. Likewise, business is conducted on a 'level playing field' where over-formality and exaggerated deference to rank have no place: boss and blue-collar worker should be treated alike. And those who obviously play on their wealth, education or background at the negotiating table are liable to be treated with contempt or ridicule. Visitors from more hierarchical societies will find conversation littered with pitfalls; adopting the native 'fair go' premise is the easiest way to avoid them.

Although the apparent simplicity of Australian society belies its complexity, certain topics of conversation may be relied upon to be 'safe' or 'dangerous'.

Sport is generally safe and Australians respond well to sporting analogy or anecdote. The same, however, cannot be said of penal colony jokes.

Furthermore, while self-criticism is a popular national pastime, damning comments from visitors are less well tolerated. Newcomers finding themselves in the middle of a torrid condemnation of the country or its inhabitants are advised to adopt a diplomatic silence. Those who dive in enthusiastically are likely to be told by their hosts to go back to where they came from.

But while running Australia down will be taken badly, so will excessive flattery. Constant high praise raises expectations to unrealistic levels and puts the high achiever under insufferable pressure - and the laid-back Australians hate nothing more than pressure.

When the Australian cricket team beat arch-rivals England to take the Ashes, the Captain's first response was not of joy but almost regret.

'Now everyone will expect us to play as well next time. It has put a pressure on the whole team,' he lamented.

Such tortured modesty is greatly respected by most Australians and the successful are expected to observe it or fall victim to 'tall poppy syndrome'.

Achievers who blow their own trumpets too loudly are likely to be cut down to size through a variety of abusive techniques. This leaves them either roundly humiliated and regretting their advertising their achievements, or packing their bags for those parts of the world where revelling in one's achievement is acceptable.

Then again, taking yourself or your national symbols too seriously is to invite a similar fate. It is a source of great pride to Australians that their Prime Minister is frequently booed at public appearances and that many do not know the words to the national anthem.

Perhaps the greatest strength of the Australian character, though is a monumental cynicism. Both in business and everyday affairs Australians will never kowtow to those in positions of power, wealth or influence.

Their respect and admiration belongs to the little guy, the underdog - not the winner.

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