The story so far

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

First impressions of the Aussies

Before going to Australia, I thought it would be a good idea to try to understand the Australian culture. If I was going to have to live and work there I would have to interact with Aussies on a daily basis and maybe even befriend one or two. I had better understand a bit more about what makes them tick.

I already have a view on Australian culture mainly based on sporting legends like Campese, Ponting, Warne and Border. While this may not be a representative cross section of Aussie society it gave me a start.

Aussies appear to me to be ferociously proud of Australia and being Australian. They also seem brash and insensitive and are proud that they are so.

One Australian expression goes something like "Strewth cobber! We like to call a spade a bloody shovel mate/Bruce" (as appropriate). This roughly translates to: "The English expression for someone who is direct is 'he calls a spade a spade' In Australia we expect everyone to do that and in fact would prefer the use of slang, swearwords and superfluous expressions to embellish the point we are trying to make"

The English way is correct, but having spent some time with Australians, I had noticed a certain confidence and conviction in their own opinions and way of doing things, however misguided. I suspect that to survive among millions of them I would have to learn to believe in the Aussie way - even if only for the sake of appearances.

Another thing I noted is that I harbour a fairly negative opinion of Aussies, due mostly, I think to the makeup of the sample group on which I had focused my views. For years I had listened to these characters putting down the English and being right more often than not. Thinking about this, I am heartened; I am more like an Australian than I think. I hate losing am massively nationalistic and am generally right. I might fit in better than I expected, even if I am on the wrong side.

Still, I believe it would not be wise to import the Ashes victory t-shirt I have been given by Hannah as a birthday present.

Digressions aside, in pursuing the true nature of the Australian Homo Sapien, I believed the important thing was to look outside the sporting arena and try to think about other Australians who could help me form a more rounded view. A more positive standpoint would certainly help me settle there. I decided to think of all the famous Aussies I knew and for some reason I imagined being at a student house party with them all.

The music was bad, mainly due to Rolf's huffing, puffing and wibble wobbling not entirely complementing Kylie's gyrating techno-pop. However, the vibe was good. Everyone was open, nice and cheerful. That is with the exception of Brendan from strictly come dancing who was arguing loudly with Bruno Tognioli (not sure what he was doing there or how to spell his name). Dame Edna and Mel Gibson seemed to be having an in-depth conversation and everyone had a smile, even Brendan.

Sometimes the brain knows things of which the conscious mind is unaware. This is one of those times. Even within the scene of an imagined party, my subconscious revealed a significant fact which invalidated my original sample group and any conclusions I had based on it. The only person arguing and showing outward signs of aggression and arrogance was a dancer. Bear with me, because dancing can loosely be considered a sport and this is the main arena in which these more aggressive Australian traits come out. It's probably why the Aussies are so good at sport, their desire to win does spill over at times, but this is what drives them to success. Most of the other Aussies in the party were entertainers and in the business of cheering people up, but at least this was one section of Aussie society which disproved my original hypothesis.

Aussie entertainers and sportsmen definitely have a difference in culture, but unless Esme's singing career took off, I was unlikely to be mixing with these groups. I had to get more down to earth.

I considered 'Neighbours' and 'Home and Away' as examples of Australian family life, I hope they are typical because all the women are beautiful, the sun always shines and the men stay slim despite the time they spend in the pub and polishing of "Snags" on the "barbie".

True life is boring 90% of the time and I suspected Grundy Television had embellished the storyline to increase viewing figures. Therefore I decided to play it safe and think about real Aussie citizens I knew.

I have a couple of examples. Firstly there is Sue's family. Those who read this blog regularly know that I have a (quite kind actually) Australian Step-Mother-in-Law.

I have made the conscious decision not to write about Sue when analysing examples of Aussiness. This is not because she has lived in the UK for more than ten years and may well have more English blood in her than Aussie, but because she has been good to us and I don't want to risk offending her by making direct comment on her culture.

In the past we have been warmly welcomed by Sue's family. We have stayed with Sue's daughter, son, sisters, mother, nieces, nephews and even spent a few days with her ex-husband and wife. Always we have been made very welcome and Matt, Fiona, Dave and Lucy in particular have bent over backwards to help us out and make our stay a good one. If these people are to be held as examples of Aussiness, I would say that the qualities they share are both a welcoming friendliness and incredible generosity both in terms of time and always being the first to the bar. Both Matt and Dave who I spent most time with (you can guess where) also have a kind of easy going humour which makes spending time with them enjoyable. Dave (by the way) is a kind of Aussie Kiwi, someone who is from New-Zealand but has spent a large amount of time in Australia. I have detected a certain amount of national pride in both Matt and Dave but always healthy and never reaching the ball busting levels of Ponting and Campese

Another Aussie contact I have is a work colleague. Let's call him "Bruce" to protect his identity. Work is an interesting situation as it is a competitive environment so may share some similarities with the sporting culture I have already discussed.

Bruce has a straightforward no-nonsense approach to work. He is direct in his airing of opinions and likes to cut through the BS and move direct to the answer. He is quite robust and tends to stick to his guns. I like this approach and think it even works well in a UK work situation. Although you can see the brash, direct, overconfident Aussie sportsman coming through, there is also charm and a good appreciation for how hard to push without completely irritating his colleagues.

I have seen Aussies cross the line before, displaying over confidence in the face of greater expertise than they possess. It is not pretty, but like everywhere, there are good and bad proponents. In my view, in the workplace, I will need to learn how to deal with both good and not so good Aussie colleagues but the benefits of cutting out the "process" and moving direct to the execution would be a breath of fresh air.

Outside work Bruce does exhibit a trait I have found among other Aussies; Matt and Dave for example. He is a bar magnet. What that means is without visible or conscious force, if he is in the bar I seem unable to leave. It is like magnetism, a mysterious force which still baffles scientists.

I will need to observe the Aussie culture in more depth and will no-doubt post more on the subject as I immerse myself in their society. For now though, I approach Australia with the following thoughts and hypotheses.

1) Aussies are confident, brash and direct. In sport it makes them good but irritating, in work it needs to be handled, but could reduce frustrating bureaucratic process.

2) Aussies are friendly and open. This is good while on holiday but may become irritating when woven into a busy life. I am currently thinking deeply about this and trying to understand what it is I want. If indeed I do want to embrace this open and friendly approach, I will need to change the serious and miserable outlook on life I have worked hard to cultivate in recent years. This will be the subject of another article.

3) Aussies drink quite a lot of beer and have strange powers in and around drinking establishments. I will need to be careful, having already an affinity.

All in all, although I will need to make some adjustments, which for a man of my progressing years will not be easy, I think the Aussie culture is a good one for me and my kids to adopt. The only thing I need to worry about is the drinking, but by providing the chance to escape the British ladette culture I think Australia will be better for the girls in this respect also.

The proof though is in the pudding and I am sure the true intricacies will reveal themselves the more time I spend there.....or as the Aussies would say. "Strewth mate, just get on with it"