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Common cultural misconceptions about Australia

Our breakdown of common misconceptions and myths about Australia, the culture and the people.

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With rugged deserts, impossible shorelines and myriad of beasts that can kill you, there’s no place in the world quite like Australia. But despite the nation’s dynamic, cosmopolitan cities and international ties, many still imagine Australian life as a succession of barbeques and wrestling matching with crocodiles. We’ve dissected some common misconceptions and myths about Australia, its culture and way of life to help set the record straight.

 

She’ll be ‘right, mate

One of the most commonly held notions of Australians is that they’re incredibly laid back. Romantic images of bronzed Australians ‘throwing another shrimp on the barbie’ instead of worrying about paying rent are only too easy to conjure (for the record, Australians call them ‘prawns’).  It’s also just as easy to draw links between the nation’s consistent high scores on international happiness surveys and its popularity as a holiday destination.

Most Australians are actually far too busy to lie on the beach. A recent 23-country study found Australia to be one of the hardest-working nations in the world, with some of the longest working hours and poorest work-life balances. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, by 2007 almost one third of Australians were working unsocial hours. With an unemployment rate of just 5.8% as of December 2013, the Australian economy is one of the largest capitalist economies in the world, and comprises approximately 1.7% of the world economy. These are not statistics of a people too sun-kissed to care.

This misconception is also perhaps owed in part to Australian fondness for conversationally abbreviating words. For example, words such as ‘afternoon’ and ‘service station’ are affectionately shortened to ‘arvo’ and ‘servo,’ whilst names like ‘Christopher’ and ‘Stephanie’ will invariably become ‘Chris’ and ‘Steph’. As a result, conversation can seem lacking or half-finished to others. It’s not that Australians are too lazy to pronounce the entire word: it’s just their unique way of using language.

 

Wildlings

Everybody knows the khaki-clad, crocodile-wrestling Australian. Immortalised by Paul Hogan in the Crocodile Dundee films, the idea that Australians deal with life-threatening monsters at every turn has become the common perception of Australian life.

It’s easy to see where this misconception comes from. Australia is a natural anomaly, with landscapes and wildlife that differ radically from the rest of the world. Images of the sparse, red outback and terrifyingly huge emus can’t help but stick out in people’s minds, and so become inextricably tied to their perceptions of ‘what Australia is like.’

However, most fail to perceive just how big Australia actually is. Whilst these landscapes and dangerous creatures do exist, they do so in the wild. Approximately 40% of Australia’s land mass is uninhabitable, and most of the nation’s 22.68 million people live in cities speckled along its coast. About 4.6 million of those people live in Sydney, with another 4.1 million in Melbourne i.e. developed cities with walls and doors to keep anything wild out and at bay. Everyday Australians might have to kill the odd spider, but that’s about it.

 

Backwards

The conception of Australians as brash, harsh or even crude is simply a misunderstanding of Australian social codes, politeness markers and sense of humour.

Australian humour is incredibly dry, sarcastic and at times self-deprecating, and gleans its material from social values of openness and directness. Humour may come across as brash or even crude to those who aren’t used to it, but is really just a unique way of commandeering irony and sarcasm. Humour is a key part of Australian culture, and always comes from a place of good intent: to make people laugh.

Whilst Australian culture favours traditional politeness markers such as ‘please,’ ‘thank-you’ and outward friendliness, it firmly and simultaneously places directness before diplomacy. Topics considered taboo or a threat to social face may in other cultures be treated with delicacy or even avoided altogether, whereas in Australia, failure to honestly express what you mean can be considered evasive, hypocritical or even cowardly. This can be quite abrasive to foreigners, who may misunderstand this directness as undignified.

Encountering Australian slang may similarly encourage this idea. Slang is traditionally associated with those who are under-educated or of the lower-class, and so when used conversationally, may colour Australians to some as somewhat rough-around-the-edges.  However, as with use of abbreviations, this is simply an alternate system of communication, and in no way reflects an inherent rudeness or ill-breeding of the Australian populace.

 

Now that you are no longer put off by the thought of giant spiders invading your bedroom or the Australian sense of humour, start browsing courses in Australia now.

 

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About Author

Monica Karpinski received her BA (Media and Communications) and Diploma in Modern Languages (French) from the University of Melbourne, Australia. An art and culture aficionado, in her spare time Monica enjoys film, reading and writing about art.

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