Bignoting Down Under

They are not a nation of snobs like the English or of extravagent boasters like the Americans or reckless profligates like the French; they are simply a nation of drunkards

Marcus Clarke, His Natural Life, February 14, 1887

People from some countries often come across to Australians as being loud, arrogant and full of themselves.

Now, this isn't a nice observation, but it is a valid one. Why is it that the Australian culture should clash with other cultures like this? What is it about our culture that makes us find a certain type of behaviour offensive when it obviously is not offensive in the offender's country of origin?

We are a nation that despises pretention. We are a society that happily mocks those who seek high office and honours. 

No manners at all, Sydney Morning Herald, March 23, 2002

Not only do Australians love an underdog, they also hate someone who is cocky or arrogant and always gets his own way...

The Courier Mail Editorial, 20 September 2004

The cultural trait is this: In Australia, social norms demand that one does not make out that he is better than anyone else. Essentially in a room of people, everyone is reduced to the lowest common dominator.  This can be boiled down to two  rules:

Thou shall not bignote

The "little Aussie battler" - that resonant Australian archetype which has been around for at least a century - was powerfully captured in The Man from Snowy River where a small, unassuming horseman, without bragging about his abilities, triumphed over those who would consider themselves his better.

No manners at all, Sydney Morning Herald, March 23, 2002

A bignoter is someone who bignotes. That is, they blow their own trumpet, or are full of themselves, or have a headswell, or a big head. If an Australian achieves something, then it is not the done thing to blurt it out to all and sundry. You might tell your best mates, but even then you will play down the significance of whatever it is you have achieved.  Generally, not only do you not boast - you don't even communicate the fact you have done whatever it is you have done. 

This may be a crucial difference between Americans and Australians. Americans seem to us to be all about winning, and being the biggest, the best, the fastest, and the loudest.  And once they achieve their almighty goals, they then don't hesitate the blurt it out to anyone who will listen. And then some. 

Australians, by contrast, have traditionally been low key. "She'll be right, mate" rules the roost. "No worries". "Don't bust a gut".  And if you do succeed, then good on you, but don't parade. 

Later, more than one dinner guest described him as the ugly American..."There were 15 chief executives there," commented one of those present. "And there were 14 comments about policy and one big lecture on how important someone is and how he's going to take his company offshore. And what really grated was his attitude that Australia was not grateful enough for George Trumbull."

Australian Financial Review, George Trumbull on the warpath, 8 August, 1999. 

He is not a quiet man and his American-ness has remained overt, and that unfortunately has operated against George in the Australian community ... but on the other hand, a quiet man would not have achieved what George has.

Ian Burgess, AMP Bigwig, quoted in the Australian Financial Review, 8 August, 1999. 

I was trying to describe to sombre Germans, mainly academics, the way Australian irreverence subverted pomposity - instancing our habit of addressing our prime ministers by their first names and disapproving of any pollie who didn't sit in the front seat by the driver. Both propositions were proved inexplicable in Berlin and Potsdam. Germans simply couldn't imagine bowling up to Mr Kohl and saying, "G'day, Helmut"

Defeat, don't fail us now, Sydney Morning Herald, 25 August, 2001

Thou shall modify your vocabulary and speech patterns to fit the occasion 

That you Jim? Paul Keating here. Just because you swallowed a f***ing dictionary when you were about 15 doesn't give you the right to pour a bucket of shit over the rest of us.

Prime Minister Paul Keating expressing his thoughts on flash language

One of the most attractive things about Canada to an Australian is the language switching.  To speak French in one sentence and English in another is a feat that leaves most of us in wonder. And yet, to a lesser degree, we have our own language switching right here in Australia.

Canadians, and, one would imagine, Americans, appear to use the same vocabulary set for every conversation. Indeed, one Canadian claimed to use the most advanced vocabulary possible in every sentence. If the listener didn't understand the word, then tough. That was his problem, and you were smarter than them. 

Australians do not operate that way. Perhaps as a result of our working class background, our egalitarianism, and the fact that up until 50 years or so ago we were reportedly the least educated English speaking race in the world, we change our vocabulary and manner of speaking to suit the context in which we are speaking.  

It is not acceptable, in a social situation, to use flash language. If you are drinking with working Aussie blokes, then, if you want to be part of the group, then by Christ you will speak and act like a working Aussie bloke.  You will swear. You will use more colloquialisms and slang than you normally would. You will not discuss highly intellectual topics. And you certainly don't pull out any unusual words. If you do, then you will come across as a bit of a wanker. And you run the risk of being rejected by the group. 

But this doesn't mean that all Australians are permanently intellectually and linguistically gagged.  In an academic context, for instance, or if you know the intellectual and linguistic capacity of your audience, then by all means let it rip.  Similarly at work: lawyers or engineers don't dumb down what they say or do because they are Australian. It is only in a social context that you change the way you speak to match the 'most Australian', or common man. "Yeah mate, you know what I bloody well mean. F____ oath mate, tell the miserable bastard the way it is. Running around like a bloody chook like its head chopped off".

In many ways that is the beauty of the Australian. You can give him as many degrees as you like. You can wack him in a suit and have him teach jurisprudence or advanced calculus. He may well speak like a king. But throw him down the pub with a few of his good mates and a few jugs of beer and he will be swearing and laughing and making as good a use of our language as anyone.  You strip the layers of bullshit of an Aussie and you have the real thing. You strip the layers of bullshit off some other cultures and there is nothing left. That is who they are. 

I owe you a beer

Prime Minister John Howard thanking the head of the United Nations for his support in the East Timor Crisis, March 2000

Consider, for example, the Hereditary Peers of England - the old aristocracts who have inherited their pompus titles and, at least in 1999, can still vote in the Upper House of the British Parliment, the House of Lords.  Imagine, if you will, the way these people speak. It is easy, isn't it, to picture the airs and graces, the artificial way in which they live their lives, their refined and considered accent, and the contempt with which they hold the common man. And what is the chance one of these Lords would pop down to the local for a quick one or two with the locals.  Bugger all, according to Quite simply, the common man would be considered below them. 

Well, a very little known fact is that some of these Hereditary Peers had the good fortune of emigrating to Australia, and, although this would come to a shock to almost all aussies, we actually have Lords living among us now. Lords who were actually born here, and who can vote in the House of Lords should they choose.  How does this fit in with's contention that Aussies are a down to earth bunch who don't put up with any crap - especially refined English pretension or snobbery? Well, judge for yourself.

Aussie Lord Mauchline, otherwise known as Michael Hastings, will one day become Earl of Loudon and be eligible to vote in the House of Lords. His 80 year old English mother, the Countess of Loudon, retains this right until her death.  Has the English pomp and pretension continued down under? Lord Mauchline answered the question as he described this first job selling the Encyclopaedia Britannica in Sydney in 1960 (The Australian Magazine October 30, 1999) :

It was mid-summer and we had these samples.  We never got through a door - we were told to piss off by everyone.  It was hot, so every pub we passed we had a couple of beers and by the end of the day we were so drunk we'd forgotten what we'd done with the samples and we never went back again.

And as for the House of Lords? He did visit it, once, in 1997:

I sat in the House while it was in session and we had lunch. It was as boring as shit to be truthful.

So that's what one generation of Australian culture does to English snobbery built up over many centuries! 

"I called him an arse-licker, which I think is a fine Australian term, and it accurately describes the Prime Minister's behaviour in Washington where he rolled over for the Americans," Mr Latham told Radio 2GB. "Well, I do share the language of my electorate, and if I find a term like that is an accurate description of the Prime Minister's behaviour in Washington, why shouldn't I use it."  Mr Latham accused his critics of creating an English upper class.

[Politician] Latham Defiant on 'Aussie Term',, 26 June 2002

As with other cultural traits, such as mateship, and shout ethic, this 'lowbrowism' is not new.  R. Horne in Australian Facts and Prospects, 1859 reported that:

The majority of young men... possess no educational knowledge, no talents, no accomplishments or taste themselves, and they cordially hate and pretend to scorn and ridicule all those who possess any such acquirements.

The Bulletin declared some 60 years later (1920) that:

[there is] a tendency to ridicule and scorn anyone who is careful in speech. Many Labour leaders who know better, and can talk well, adopt the diction of the ignorant when addressing meetings of their supporters.... So it comes about that that the decently educated lad who enters an office or shop or workroom has an unhappy time until he conforms, and mangles his pleasant speech to the curious shapes affected by the "Lourumme" Australian or the harsh spoken Pommy. He is sneered at as a sissy if he ventures to employ an unusual term, and even in the matter of technical phrases he is called upon to adopt the substitutes invented by those who were either too careless or too ignorant to learn the right words. 

In 1929 the Sydney Morning Herald followed with:

The fear of being called a highbrow seems to have taken such a hold upon these [Australian] men and women that they use every device in their utterance to demonstrate that their brows are medium or almost low.

And Sidney Baker, in The Australian Language, 1945 confirmed that:

There is... a marked feature of 'lowbrowism' in our speech-a deliberate speaking down, an avoidance of polish and finesse in speech, the adoption of a hard-boiled, to-hell-with-the-King's English view..... At the present time Austral English is, more or less, a national possession. Everyone speaks it, educated an uneducated alike, and this is largely due to our national cult of lowbrowism.

Over a hundred years after our first observation, Ronald Conway in The Great Australian Stupor (1971), reported that:

One behaves according to the intimidating unspoken rules of one's peer group, whether this be a drinking school down at Charlie's pub or a board of directors in a large company.  To fail to behave like the other men is to risk ostracism or avoidance. 

And finally, in 1999, can confirm that lowbrowism is still alive and well in Australian culture.  While Australians can conform subconsciously to this social norm, visitors will have to choose their words carefully if they wish to avoid giving offence!

Take a break from drinking like the author of this article did - Read why and how in his book Between Drinks: Escape the Routine, Take Control and Join the Clear Thinkers