The concept of “the tall poppy syndrome”

In this modern era, the differences between people are truly evident. The effects of globalisation can be seen where rich people are getting richer, likewise those who are poorer are getting poorer. In that sense, people are adapting themselves to a social phenomenon where they attempt to distinguish themselves from other people who they think are different from what and who they are. This eventually brings the society into some degree of social stratification where the groups of like minded individuals will tend to group together to share common goals and ideas. However, there is a situation where people in a society expect certain standards from individuals to behave, act and to set up their goals and attain them according to the rules and the society’s expectation. The reason for this would be that the society wants to have a sense of equality for all of its members, so that there will be no individuals who are seen better, richer ore more distinctive than any other member of the society. This notion of promoting a sense of equality for all individuals in the society is known as the tall poppy syndrome.

It is the aim of this paper to discuss the phenomenon of the tall poppy syndrome that often occurs in our society. First of all, this essay will define what actually the term tall poppy syndrome means. This will then discuss the concept and the notion of the tall poppies, as to what extent the tall poppies occur in society including sports, and how the idea of the tall poppy syndrome in Australia is different from what it is thought in America.

In the first place, what the term the tall poppy syndrome means? The idea of the tall poppy syndrome appeared and was introduced in 1989 by Norman Feather, a social psychologist who proposed a theory called ‘Value Based Leadership Theory’ (Feather, 1994, as cited in Meng, Ashkanasy & Hartel, 2003, p. 55). In the Macquarie Dictionary of New words (cited in Peeters, 2004, p. 13), the term tall poppy syndrome is defined as ‘a desire to diminish in stature those people who have attained excellence in a particular field’, and in the Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English (Moore 1997, p. 1393, as cited in Peeters, 2004, p. 13), as ‘the habit of denigrating or “cutting down” those who are successful, high achievers’.

In a more simplistic way, the term poppy syndrome can be defined as a social phenomenon occurring in a society where a person or a group of people who are considered to be more important, influential, successful and distinctive than other people can cause a sense of criticism and protests. In that sense, the society wants to cut them down in order for them to have a sense of equality (Johansen, 1996, p. 414 cited in Peeters, 2004, p. 4).

Originally, the words tall poppy is defined as ‘a person who is conspicuously successful; freq. one whose distinction, rank, or wealth attracts envious notice or hostility’ (Australian National Dictionary; Ramson, 1988, p. 494; Moore, 1997 p. 1393 as cited in Peeters, 2004 p. 2).

According to Peeters (2004, p. 71), tall poppies are those people or individuals who because of their successfulness and excellence have become the centre of protests and ‘targets for criticism’. This then spreads out to the other Anglo-Saxon countries around the world. In addition to this, the tall poppy syndrome is an Australasian fancy word for ‘envy, jealousy and covetousness’ (Mouly & Sankaran, 2004, p. 36). This phenomenon occurs where there seems to be an unbalanced life between people in the society as a result of unequal opportunities that construct the society itself through culture and gender that makes it difficult for the society to function as a solid and uniform community. One of the negative impacts of this issue is that there is a feeling of satisfaction to see poppies being cut down (Grove & Paccagnella, 1995, p. 88 cited in Peeters, 2004, p. 13). This will bring an unhealthy competition and may result in the situation where society will not develop its understanding of improving individuals’ performance as a part of attaining the goals of the society as a whole.

There are some major reasons why tall poppies occur in society. First of all, an obvious reason would be that people come from different cultural and geographical background. Vala, Pereira, & Lopes (2009, p. 21) state that ‘Cultural differences classify and naturalize’ the differences between superiority and inferiority of some social groups in the society. As it is generally known, the majority of the world’s largest inventions have occurred in western countries, therefore western people tend to be more educated and have more access to the technological advancements compare to those people in the third world. Furthermore, Jones (1972, cited in Vala, Pereira & Lopes, 2009, p. 21) argues that cultural and racial differences are very strong evidences that some groups are more superior to others, and these superior groups should have some degree of power to distinguish themselves. As Allport (1954, cited in Vala, Pereira & Lopes, 2009, p. 22) proposes that the ‘categorization of culture’ undermines prejudice. These are the reason why cultural differences can lead to prejudice and eventually promote the idea of poppy syndrome.

In addition to this, conformity can be another major reason why society expects people to have a sense of equality amongst its citizen. Peetz (2006, p. 25) argues that even though we have our personal goals that we would like to attain, we have to set up these goals according to the society’s standard. We are free in some circumstances, but our freedom is limited. Nun, Crocket & Williams (1978, cited in Feldmen, 2003, p. 46) support this idea by proposing that every one of us encounters the problem of how much individual freedom is necessary and how much social control is needed. What this essentially means is that the society wants to maximise individuals’ freedom by the rules and restrictions that they place on our behaviour.

In sport, the tall poppy syndrome is also a common social phenomenon. This as a result, brings the case to the evaluation of high profile athletes and sport people who get caught and receive publicity for being involved in ‘controversial issues and non-normative behaviours’ such as sexual scandals, drugs use and criminal acts (Grove & Paccagnella, 1995, Paccagnella and Grove, 1997 cited in Paccagnella & Grove, 2001, p. 310). An example of this would be that in Australia, some prominent sport figures such as Pat Cash, Allan Border and Lisa Curry-Kenny are held in higher regard than other famous Australians such as Julia Gillard, Kevin Rudd, Kerry Packer and Rupert Murdoch who excelled in arts, politics and business (Feather, 1994, p. 66; Paccagnella & Grove, 2001, p. 312, cited in Peeters, 2004, p. 76). The reasons why sport people are usually held in high regard is that the popular media portray their feats and endeavours as being almost super human. They are seen as heroes and the general public will celebrate their achievements as well as promoting them as role models for younger generation (Paccagnella & Grove, 2001, p. 312).

An exception would be Brendan Fevola who was known as one of the most successful footballers in the Australian Football League (AFL). He is considered to be a tall poppy because he is a well-known athlete who earns a lot of money throughout his football career. However, once he was involved in scandals and criminal acts, the public suddenly turned on him and media in particular, focuses on his exploits in lots of detail. This eventually forced the two AFL clubs, Carlton and Brisbane to sack him up, and he quit the football and loss his career. In this case, Fevola has become ‘a victim of the tall poppy syndrome’ because he was a high profile and talented athlete who has done a reasonably successful job. However, he ‘suffered a loss of public face and reputation’ in committing a variety of unsavoury public acts (Peeters, 2004, p. 12). This is a practical example of how the society treats poppies once they perform unexpected behaviours that will eventually cause them to be cut down. Furthermore, peoples’ attitudes towards athletes with high profile are also very high. People expect them to behave in a certain manner and keep their profile and reputation save, as if they do not the society will eventually take them down and they may end up losing their jobs and career. These sport people are part of high profile sporting clubs who expect certain levels of professional behaviour. The rewards are great, but the fall from grace can be even greater.

In egalitarian countries such as Australia, tall poppy is a common social phenomenon where the society wants a sense of equality amongst its people. If there are people who are seen to be distinctive from others, the society will attempt to pull them down. The reason why the society wants to have a sense of equality is because when those high earners are getting more successful, they will eventually seek out authority, power and influence over others (House & Aditya, 1997 cited in Meng, Ashkanasy & Hartel, 2003, p. 54). Furthermore, Australia is known as a country that always attempts to cut their poppies down, especially when ‘they are getting too tall’ (Mitchell, 1984, p. 1 as cited in Peeters, 2004, p. 9).

In America on the other hand, people believe that there should be some level of differences amongst its people as a result of different aspects of life such as educational background, cultural differences and the fact that privilege and opportunity will play some role in how successful people may become (Class and the American Dream, 2005 cited in Mandizodza, Jost & Unzueta, 2006, p. 659). The Americans believe that there must be a social boundary and ‘people get what they deserve and deserve what they get’ (Lerner, 1980, Major & Schmader, 2001 as cited in Mandizodza, Jost & Unzueta, 2006, p. 659). Moreover, Americans believe that ‘nearly everyone can achieve prosperity’ ((Cawelti, 1965; Hochschild, 1995; Weiss, 1969/1988, cited in Mandizodza, Jost & Unzueta, 2006, p. 659).Therefore, there is an assumption that the Australians do not ‘value wealth, power and mastery as highly as the Americans do’ (Feather, 1998, Hofstede, 1991/1997, Schwartz, 1994, cited in Mandizodza, Jost & Unzueta, 2006, p. 660).

However, The tall poppies in Australia are not essentially about attacking ‘its highest achievers’, but rather ‘cut down’ those people as if they  have more achievements, they will eventually become stereotypes and end up believing that they are better than other people (Peeters (2004, p. 75). Furthermore the author also believes that once these ‘highest achievers’ place too much attention on their achievements, they will tend to distinguish and isolate themselves as they would think that they are ‘different’ from others. In addition to this, there will be a sense of social stratification in the society where poppies will try to put themselves in a higher status than other people believe their own hype. It is also believed that the tall poppies should be cut down even though they have done ‘nothing wrong’ (Feather, 1989, cited in Peeters, 2004, p. 8). The phrase “nothing wrong” serves a meaning that the Australian society tends to strongly reduce the numbers of its tall poppies even though these high achievers have not done anything bad that can harm the people. Through their efforts and achievements they may have actually created substantial improvements and benefits for their community. This may not be realised for many years later.

In conclusion, the tall poppy syndrome often occurs in society as a result of different aspect that construct the society itself such as culture and self conformity, where individuals set up their personal goals. At the same time they attain these goals based on the standards that have been set up by the society. The tall poppies in the sporting area are also evident as people pay more attention and put high standards and reputation onto the sport figures. It is also seen that the notion of the tall poppy syndrome in Australia is different from what it is thought in America. Australia tends to be more egalitarian where the society expects a sense of equality for its people, whereas the Americans believe in the idea of individual freedom to pursue their life’s dream. The more effort and sacrifices they are prepared to make will influence the ultimate success they may achieve. For that success comes wealth, privilege, power and respect.

Reference List

Feldmen, S, 2003, Enforcing social conformity: A theory of authorisation, in Political psychology, vol. 24, no.1, pp. 41-74.

Mandisodza, AN, Jost, JT & Unzueta, MM, 2006, Tall poppies and American dreams: Reactions to rich and poor in Australia and the United States, in Journal of cross-cultural psychology, vol. 37, no. 6, pp. 659-668.

Meng, YK, Ashkanasy, NM, & Hartel, CEJ, 2003, The effects of Australian tall poppy attitudes on American value based leadership theory, in International journal of value-based management, vol. 16, no. 1, pp. 53-65.

Mouly, VS & Sankaran, JK, 2002, The enactment of envy within organizations: Insights from a New Zealand academic department, in The enactment of envy within organizations, vol. 38, no. 1, pp. 36-56.

Paccagnella, M & Grove, JR, 2001, Attitudes towards high achievers in sport: An adaptation of Feather’s tall poppy scale, in  Journal of science and medicine in sport, vol.4, no. 3, pp. 310-323.

Peeters, B, 2004, ‘‘Thou shalt not be a tall poppy’’: Describing an Australian communicative (and behavioural) norm, in Intercultural pragmatics, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 71-92.

Peeters, B, 2004,Tall poppies and egalitarianism in Australian discourse: From key word to cultural value, in English worldwide, vol. 25, no. 1, pp. 1-25.

Peetz, D, 2006, ‘You’re all individuals?: Some myths about individualism and collectivism’, in Brave new workplace: how individual contracts are changing our jobs, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, pp. 23-47.

Vala, J, Pereira, C & Lopes, RC, 2009, Is the attribution of cultural differences to minorities an expression of racial prejudice? in International journal of psychology, vol. 44, no. 1, pp. 20–28.


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