The Tall Poppy Syndrome

Within minutes or hours of meeting a Kiwi (they can be shy, so it might take a bit for them to warm up), you are likely to hear moaning about New Zealand’s rampant epidemic of the Tall Poppy Syndrome. Most Americans will likely not have heard of it as it is a truly exotic condition for any citizen of a country that deems self-confidence and  self-promotion as god-given rights. As James Bellamy, of Wellington, NZ,  first explained it to me, in New Zealand, if anyone is seen as getting a tad too successful, ambitious and proud of  her achievements — i.e. is a Tall Poppy — those around her will want to cut her down to size (and it will, very likely, be a she — women rule the roost in NZ, it is an exceptionally matriarchal country).

Whether or not this truly afflicts Kiwi society and undermines individual amibition is up for debate. And  success doesn’t always have to be loud and conspicuous– this all may just boil down to a matter of style. Peter Jackson’s movies are certainly not understated quiet achievements, but Jermaine and Bret of Flight of the Conchords, whose tagline is  “Formerly New Zealand’s fourth most popular guitar-based digi-bongo acapella-rap-funk-comedy folk duo,” have made a minor, kiwi-sized industry of their cheeky celebration of self-deprecation and slacker mediocrity.

The Tall Poppy Syndrome appears to be a Commonwealth-wide phenonmenon and comes to mind these days while reading the heaps of words printed about whether or not Canada suffers from a severe case of it. And whether or not it should “get over it” and “be proud of itself” (be more American?). The Olympics have unleashed Canada’s perennial debate about “who” Canada is exactly, and if it aspires to more than merely not being the US. In his piece in Pajiba about the Winter Olympics, Michael Murray, a mostly unapologetic Canadian writer in Toronto, sums it up as best I’ve heard it (and happens to be very funny), while in the New York Times, Timothy Egan implores Canadians to be more proud, stop blushing and recognize Vancouver as “Manhattan with Mountains.”

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One Response to “The Tall Poppy Syndrome”

  1. rodger Says:

    interesting blog, friedman.

    a few of my nz bred thoughts on the matter.

    new zealand’s values have changed since deregulation of the economy in the mid 80’s and ostentatious consumption has become much more acceptable lifestyle since.
    that said, victorian english values still linger in this ex british outpost and exceptional/ostentatious behavior still makes people uncomfortable.

    i don’t think this attitude is ever going to disappear completely.

    the tall poppy syndrome to nzers is like a primal psychological wound inflicted upon the psyche of a nation at its birth.

    the first nzers moved to nz to escape the oppressive class system of the uk…. and the oppressive industrial environment. in part.

    i believe nz-ers defined themselves by what they were reacting against. these values then became shaped into a political system which continued to influence the generations up until the present.

    tall poppy syndrome may exist in many of the commonwealth countries, as you suggest, but it is likely to be more extreme in new zealand because of its geographical isolation and homogenous population.

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