Australian culture – What defines Australia and Australians?
So what is Australian culture? Whilst we should not generalise and stereotype, Australian culture more than many other cultures revolves around the outdoors and in particular the water. It is a relaxed, informal culture. Barbecues, surf lifesaving, the Sydney Harbour Bridge, Sydney Opera House and weird animals are all earmarks of the country/continent known as Australia.
In Australian culture, being Australian means being part of a multicultural society where we accept those of all backgrounds, ethnicities, religions and beliefs. We all look different but are drawn together by common beliefs or values. We do not all dress like Crocodile Dundee nor Steve Irwin nor do we wear cork hats (an English fallacy). Moreover, we do wear bikinis, board shorts and Speedos at the beach. We are the spirit of the Anzacs, the hardy soldiers who fought resiliently in World War II.
You will quickly find that we shorten words and add an “o” to the end. We enjoy barbecues but never with shrimps. We may play backyard cricket using a wheelie bin as the stumps or picnic with a cask of wine. You will find that we sometimes walk barefoot in the supermarket, especially in areas near the beaches away from the city centre. We squeeze Vegemite through Saos. We have a easy-going “She’ll be right” attitude. Rather than being earmarks of a lack of education or culture, Australians on average are highly educated, these cultural norms are marks of our relaxed way of life.
Geography and Population
The country fills the space south of Asia, north of Antarctica, west of South America and east of Africa. The climates range from unbearably hot deserts to snow capped mountains (in winter). With a population of about 25 million it is the sixth largest country in the world. This means it is about the same size as mainland USA without Alaska and Hawaii or about 80% of the whole of Europe. These figures also means that it is one of the sparsest countries in the world.
Australian culture is a rich mix of people from all around the world. Almost 30% of the population were born overseas. The largest numbers of immigrants come from United Kingdom, New Zealand, China, Italy, and Vietnam. Also, the second largest Greek population in the world is in Melbourne (after Athens). The population is made up of 90% Caucasians, 7% Asian 7%, aboriginal and other 3%.
The original immigrants to what is now Australia, the aboriginals came by land bridge from India 50,000 years ago. They generally lived a nomadic lifestyle and were hunter gatherers. There was very little documented history from this time. From 1788, the Australian immigrant population was almost entirely from England and Ireland until after world war II. After the second world war, the government boosted the workforce predominantly from Southern Europe, especially Yugoslavia, Greece and Italy. In the 1950s, immigrants came from Northern Europe, in the 1960s they came from Southern Europe and in the 1970s from Vietnam (due to the Vietnam war). Since the early 1980s, Australia has opened its borders and we have immigrants in large numbers from all throughout Asia and the world.
English is the official language of Australia. However, at times, especially in smaller rural communities where locals may have both strong accents and use more Aussie slang, it may be difficult for foreigners to understand as the accent is neither American nor English, which is what most foreigners learn when they study English. There is also a government funded movement to try and preserve the 20 or so surviving aboriginal languages. These are normally only spoken in more remote and isolated areas.
In terms of foreign languages, because of Australia’s high immigrant population, many people, especially in Sydney and Melbourne can speak a foreign language. There are suburbs in these cities where you can speak Mandarin, Cantonese, Vietnamese, Italian, Greek, Arabic and Punjabi. In 2016, the census found that over 20% of the population speak a language other than English at home.
People are free to practice whatever religion they wish or to not practice a religion. The following are dominant religions: Protestant 23%, Roman Catholic 22%, other Christian 24%, Muslim 3%, Buddhist 2%. Many people are atheist or agnostic or practice other religions. In Australia more than 70,000 people (0.37%) declared themselves members of the Jedi order in the 2001 census. Australian culture means accepting people of all religions including non religions. It also means keeping religion and governance separated.
The government and law originates from British law and even though it is democratic and self governing recognises the British monarch as head of state. Government is over three levels: National, state and local. We even drive on the left hand side of the road and walk on the left side of the footpath. In Australia, the government provides both primary and secondary education and it is compulsory. Medicare is also provided by the government and provides a safety net for most essential medical expenses. Unfortunately, as a result, Australia also has one of the highest rates of taxation in the world.
Whilst it is true that much of Australia’s history was created by the British, we are by no means British. The warmer climate and mix of ethnicities has very mush influenced the Australian culture. As a result we have left the stiff upper lip for a more relaxed lifestyle.
Australians (in general) like to play/watch sport. They have the second largest number of Olympic Swimming gold medals (after USA). The country punches above its weight by population averaging 14th place over all Summer Olympic Games.
Whilst there is a small snow covered mountain area in Australia, less than 4% of the population live within 4.5 hours of the ski fields. So winter sports are not as popular in Australia as our cooler cousins. That being said, the country has still managed to amass 18 Olympic medals in Winter Olympics.
The country is also obsessed with cricket and football. In Australia, football means Rugby Union, Rugby League or Australian Rules Football but generally nor soccer, although there is a tendency to change that as well.
The country also stops for the Melbourne Cup, a horse race run in November each year.
Australian Culture with regard to Values
Modesty and Sincerity
Authenticity and Humility are earmarks of Australian culture. Australians are “down to earth” and neither put people on a pedestal nor step on them. They do not think that they are better than other people nor that other people are better than them. Everyone from the prime minister down is on equal footing. Building trust is important in Australian society. Insincerity will quickly lose you respect and make it very difficult to build relationships in Australia. People who are pretentious will find it difficult to fit in.
Sense of humour
Australians have a warm, self deprecating sense of humour and enjoy good banter and sarcasm. It helps to build relationships. If you’re from a culture such as China or Japan, where ‘face’ is strongly valued, then you will need to understand and not take offence.
Many Australian movies and television shows convey this sense of humor Some of the best examples on the screen include the Paul Hogan Show and Barry Humphries characters of the 1970s to films such as The Castle, Crocodile Dundee and hard hitting mock-umentary – The Chaser’s War on Everything.
Australian Mateship and Egalitarianism
Australians highly value friendships. They often turn to their ‘mates’ (friends), instead of family in times of need. Relationships tend to emphasise equality regardless of wealth, gender or background. Australians see relationships based on wealth as superficial, a quality that is against the culture. Instead, Australians prefer to seek relationships with authentic, down to earth and easy going people.
People do not regard others as better or worse solely because of their station in life. They are neither put on a pedestal nor stomped on. This is un-Australian behaviour. Those who abuse their power are cut down quickly in what is referred to as tall poppy syndrome. Likewise, there is support for the underdog.
When ex-prime minister Bob Hawke retired from parliament he signed books at bookshops. Ex-prime minister Tony Abbott was often in just his Speeedos (swimming costumes) when being filmed for interviews.
Australia’s early poet/Songwriters Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson did much to instill this concept of mateship and egalitarianism in their ballads.
Fairness or ‘a fair go’ is an underlying value of Australians and Australian culture. In building relationships with Australians, it is important to ask is that fair? Otherwise, you may trade off a once off gain for a longer term relationship. Australia is too small to go for the once off gain as you will probably need to deal with the same people or business again.
Australian culture tends to value a relaxed attitude that places importance on work-life balance and place an emphasis on keeping unstressed. The terms ‘work hard play hard’ and ‘she’ll be right’ are synonymous with Australian values. Australians tend to place a high emphasis on being able to wind down (holidays, sport, etc) and carry a positive attitude towards life with a don’t worry about things that are not likely to happen attitude. You will find Australians sporting both ‘thongs’ (known elsewhere as flip flops, slip slops, jandals, etc) and ugg boots (comfortable sheepskin boots that originated in Australia. When 85% of the population live within 50 kilometres of a beach and Australia has some of the best beaches in the world it is not hard to understand why.
Arrive on time. If you are going to arrive more than 15 minutes late, ensure that you let the host know. Also, don’t put people out by arriving too early. Consideration of other people is essential in Australian culture.
Whereas other countries may have stories about dragons, yetis, bigfoot, etc, in Australia we have Yowies and Drop Bears. A yowie has the Australian vernacular from Aboriginal folklore. The yowie is usually described as a two to three metre high hairy apelike creature.
The drop bear is a hoax featuring a predatory, carnivorous version of the koala. This imaginary animal is commonly spoken about in tall tales designed to scare tourists. This sort of larrikin prank is also a part of our Australian culture.
Australian Culture and Etiquette
Australian culture is quite informal. As such when greeting someone, normally a smile, a handshake and a simple ‘hello, how are you’ or ‘G’day’ is normal. If introducing yourself, use your first name.
As Australian culture is fairly tactile, close friends may kiss each other on the cheek, hug or tap the shoulder or back of each other.
If invited to somebody’s house, for a meal, it is polite to bring a box of chocolates, bottle of wine or flowers. It is important that gifts are not too expensive as that would be imposing a burden on your host should you then invite them to your place and may be perceived as flaunting your wealth. Gifts of money are never appropriate. If you receive a gift, it is polite to open on receipt. If you’re invited to dinner, check the dress code beforehand to avoid being over- or under-dressed. Never give a gift that still has a price or a receipt with it as this is considered in bad taste.
If invited to a barbecue guests often expected to bring their own meat and alcohol and possibly a plate (of food) to share. Dress code for BBQs is normally relaxed and casual.
The bills for restaurant meals are split between the diners normally. As such, expect to pay for your portion of the bill at the end of the meal. This is normal in Australian culture.
If you’re invited for a drink at a bar, Australians take turns buying ’rounds’. This means people take turns asking everyone what they want to drink and then go buy them at the bar. It is important that you take your turn otherwise you will lose the respect of the Australians.
Some important but small parts of Australian Culture
Small Talk with Taxi Drivers
If catching a taxi alone, you should sit upfront with the driver and have a conversation. Not to do so is considered rude. This is a part of Australian culture. It comes back to the philosophy that nobody is above or beneath you.
Bunnings Sausage Sizzle
Bunnings is a very large Australian hardware store chain. Every weekend they support local organisations including the fire rescue, scouts, local schools, etc by allowing them to sell sausage sizzles (sausages in bread). Whilst it encourages people to come to their stores, it also helps the organisations and is welcomed by all.
Meat Pies at the Football
Just like American culture is synonymous with hot dogs at the baseball, Australian culture has meat pies at the football (footy).
Two-up on Anzac Day
Two-up is a legalised form of gambling. It was popularised by the Diggers in World War I and involves tossing two coins into the air and gambling on how they might fall. On Anzac Day it is an integral part of Australian culture, is generally legal and you will find it offered in many pubs around the country.
Tipping is Optional
In Australian culture, tips are only ever given for exceptional service. A tip is always optional. Unlike other countries, the price you pay is what has been agreed upon at the beginning and should include all taxes and gratuities. In the case that someone has provided exceptional service, you may show your appreciation by providing a tip at your discretion. However, they are only used to reward exceptional service.
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