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Culture Clash

BY RICHARD BRISLIN

Sunday, December 23, 2001



‘Tall poppies’ get
clipped in Australia

The purpose of this column is to increase understanding of human behavior as it has an impact on the workplace. Special attention will be given to miscommunications caused by cultural differences.

'Are you sure that you want me to introduce you by reading this material?" Graham Foster asked his guest, Erin Santos. Graham was the organizer of a venture capital workshop in Brisbane, Australia.

Members of the program committee had invited Erin, who was a well-known and successful entrepreneur from Fresno, Calif. Erin gave Graham a one-page description of herself, hoping to make the task of introducing her easier. The description contained material on honors received in college, awards won as an entrepreneur, and a listing of interviews she had granted to prominent magazines.

Graham introduced Erin, and she began her talk. After a few minutes, she was interrupted with questions about the sources of capital for her ventures, the originality of her ideas and the number of years she invested prior to success. One audience member was very direct with a question about why she was flown in from California. "Are you saying that there are no successful entrepreneurs here in Australia?" She tried to answer the questions and continue her presentation, but at the end of her allotted time she found she could have spoken for another half-hour.

Erin has encountered the "tall poppy syndrome." When I ask Australian businesspeople about cultural differences visitors might observe, this is the example they most frequently report.

Tall poppies refer to high status people who might be challenged or "chopped down." In Erin's case, she was challenged about how she had obtained her status. Did she have a clear business plan to attract investors, or did she just take advantage of family money? Did she have good ideas herself, or did she benefit from others' innovations? She had to defend her accomplishments that led to the invitation from the conference organizers.

Australians are much less inclined to put down tall poppies if they are seen as deserving their high status.

This incident and analysis developed from conversations with Norman Feather of Flinders University, Adelaide, South Australia. He points out the tall poppy syndrome serves the Australian value of social equality. People should not put themselves above others. When challenged, people should be modest about their accomplishments, give credit to others who have helped, and they should communicate with graciousness and humor. For Americans, communicating in this manner can be practiced before travelling to Australia.


The purpose of this column is to increase understanding of human behavior as it has an impact on the workplace. Special attention will be given to miscommunications caused by cultural differences. Each column will start with a short example of such confusion. Possible explanations will be offered to encourage thought about these issues.






Richard Brislin is a professor in the College of Business Administration,
University of Hawaii. He can be reached through the
College Relations Office: cro@cba.hawaii.edu



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