Sixty-five years ago, in May 1953, a young adventurer from New Zealand became one of the first two humans to stand atop the highest mountain in the world. It was a landmark feat. But what did Edmund Hillary, a self-described “average bloke” who reached the summit of Mount Everest alongside Tenzing Norgay of Nepal, say to fellow climber George Lowe on their way down? “Well, George, we knocked the bastard off.”
Hillary was not just being overly modest; he was being a true Kiwi. In many ways, New Zealanders are allergic to high achievement, or at least the overt variety. There is a widespread tendency in the country both to denigrate those who are openly successful and to downplay one’s own accomplishments before someone else has a chance to cut you down to size. In fact, this stigmatizing of success has a name — “tall poppy syndrome” (TPS) — because it involves cutting down those “tall poppies” who stand out too much from the rest of the field.
New Zealand’s self-effacing character pervades the country …
This sort of culturally sanctioned humility can be a breath of fresh air (especially for those coming from overly self-promotional cultures like Silicon Valley’s) — a way of forcing the most arrogant among us to check their egos at the door. Still, the sociocultural phenomenon is not without its problems and, according to recent research, New Zealand’s great leveling mechanism is likely cutting down much more than a few immodest flowers.
New Zealanders are not alone in their race to the middle. Tall poppies are routinely cut down to size in Australia and the United Kingdom, and in Japan the traditional proverb “the nail that sticks up gets pounded down” gets invoked for much the same reason. But in many ways, New Zealand, a nation of more than 4.5 million, is a more fertile environment for such a phenomenon because it is a smaller poppy field, one in which it can be easier both for individuals to stand out from the crowd and for a cultural tradition to take deeper root. The nation, founded by settlers escaping a rigid class system in Great Britain, also committed early on to an egalitarian ethic, including the provision of cradle-to-grave social welfare.
New Zealand’s self-effacing character pervades the country and its inhabitants’ interactions, from the way Kiwis use first names in formal settings to the often heard self-deprecating comments from someone who “knows a little bit.” But tall poppy syndrome also permeates critical social spaces like workplaces and schools, where it can have less-than-equal consequences. Like many New Zealanders, Catherine Knight, a writer and environmental historian, says she has deployed a number of strategies to avoid being perceived as “too clever” or “too big for her boots” in the workplace, from avoiding the use of her title “Dr.” to prefacing statements with a qualification of her knowledge to deliberately appear less confident in public speaking engagements.
A growing body of research suggests that TPS affects Kiwi business culture in various ways, including stifling the ability of entrepreneurs to grow and promote their businesses effectively. Research by Janet Holmes and other researchers at Victoria University in Wellington suggests that TPS acts as a disproportionate restraint on female business leaders. In workplace environments that can already punish assertive and capable women, TPS is just one more tightrope women must navigate to avoid coming across as overconfident. “I am constantly aware of not ‘crossing the line,’” says Knight of the TPS-imposed boundaries, so that “the person I am dealing with [particularly when male] does not feel undermined or threatened by my abilities in any way.”
Still, tall poppy syndrome’s long-standing existence suggests it may be serving a valuable purpose in a society that values fairness and equity above individual liberty and achievement. If a society is committed to egalitarianism, says Jay Woodhams, a research associate of the Language in the Workplace Project at Victoria University, then it is helpful, if not necessary, to have a means for dampening overt displays of wealth, higher status or self-promotion. But that may work better in theory, given the nation’s growing gap between rich and poor. “The trouble is that as income gaps widen,” says Woodhams, “tall poppy continues to enforce a symbolic commitment to an egalitarian ethic that may not even be reflected in reality.”
Thanks to new research, awareness of the potential side effects of tall poppy syndrome is growing in New Zealand, and the nation may yet figure out ways to soften the rough edges of its great leveling scythe. There are certainly worse problems to have, and even as Kiwis overindulge on humble pie, the country continues to top global polls when it comes to those nations considered to be the happiest, least corrupt and most desirable places to live. And that’s something that even New Zealanders shouldn’t be afraid to celebrate.
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