Tall poppy syndrome

From Academic Kids

Tall poppy syndrome (TPS) is a term used in Australasia for a levelling social attitude, pushed to the point of bad behaviour. Someone has tall poppy syndrome when they are envious, defamatory, or overly critical of someone because of their notionally higher economic, social or political position.

The term originates from an account in Livy's Early History of Rome, Book I. A Roman tyrant, Tarquinius Superbus received a messenger from his son Sextus asking what he should do next in Gabii, since he had become all-powerful there. Rather than answering the messenger, Tarquinius went into his garden, took a stick, and symbolically swept it across his garden, thus cutting off the heads of the tallest poppies that were growing there. The messenger, tired of waiting for an answer, returned to Gabii and told Sextus what happened, who realised that his father wished him to put to death all the most eminent people of Gabii, which he then did.

In modern Australasia, tall poppy syndrome is frequently invoked as an explanation when a public figure is on the receiving end of negative publicity — even if such publicity can be seen as a result of that person's own misconduct.

Australians and New Zealanders have a reputation for resenting the success of others; whether this reputation is deserved is another question. Many Australasians have achieved success and wealth without attracting such hostility (e.g. Dick Smith). Apparent cases of tall poppy syndrome can often be explained as resentment not of success but of snobbery and arrogance, combined with an egalitarian attitude. Thus, Australians and New Zealanders are often self-deprecating, especially those in the public eye.

Belief in the strength of this cultural phenomenon, and the degree to which it represents a negative trait, is to some extent influenced by politics. Conservative commentators, particularly city-based ones, often criticise Australians for their desire to punish the successful. They sometimes compare Australia unfavourably to the United States in this respect, in the belief that Americans generally appreciate the successful as an example to admire and attempt to emulate.

However, this phenomenon is often misinterpreted by foreign observers. For the majority of the population, the targets are those who are seen as flaunting their success without humility or taking themselves too seriously.

One example cited of tall poppy syndrome is the wide criticism and derision of the manner or speech of Alexander Downer, the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs, who is mocked for being snobby or aloof. However, linguists describe his speech as a prime example of a particular accent, known as Cultivated Australian English (or "Educated" or "Refined" Australian English).

Another example is the comparison between two successful tennis players. Lleyton Hewitt is unarguably successful, yet is often derided for his flamboyant and egocentric behaviour. However, the more commercially visible Pat Rafter (now the public face of a major underwear brand), although not as successful a tennis player, is far better received since his behaviour is seen as significantly more self deprecating.

Tall poppy syndrome may well be a universal phenomenon, accentuated in some cultures. The concept of janteloven, or "Jante's law", in Scandinavia is very similar. Similar phenomena exist in Canada and the Netherlands where many commentators have also noticed a tendency to distrust or resent the successful. In the United States, public schools are periodically criticised for acting as a Handicapper General.


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