We all know that we don’t pat the back of a colleague in Korea to thank them for a “job well done”. Or eat with your left hand in India, or sip vodka in Russia. In many countries, these actions are harmless. But in others, they can give a wrong impression or cause offense.
In fact, whatever culture you’re from, it’s likely that you routinely do something that could cause offense somewhere else in the world. So here is:
A primer on how to avoid mistakes in Australia
Australia has a multicultural population practicing almost every religion and lifestyle. Over one-quarter of Australians were born outside Australia, and another quarter have at least one foreign-born parent. Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney are centers of the multicultural.
All three cities are renowned for the variety and quality of global arts, intellectual endeavors, and cuisine available in their many restaurants. Sydney is a hub of art, culture, and history containing the world class architectural gem, the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Melbourne especially promotes itself as a centre for the arts, while Brisbane promotes itself through various multicultural urban villages. Adelaide must be mentioned in addition, as it is known for being a centre for festivals as well as Germanic cultural influences.
Perth, also, is known for its food and wine culture, pearls, gems and precious metals as well as the international fringe arts festival. There are quite a few more that deserve mention, but this gives an idea via introduction. Smaller rural settlements generally reflect a majority Anglo-Celtic culture often with a small Aboriginal population. Virtually every large Australian city and town reflects the effect of immigration from Europe, Asia, the Middle East and the Pacific that occurred after World War II and continued into the 1970s, in the half century after the war when Australia’s population boomed from roughly 7 million to just over 20 million people.
There are approximately half a million Australians who identify as being of Aboriginal descent. Less maintain elements of traditional Aboriginal culture. Descendants of the population of convicts mentioned in the country’s history are currently a smaller minority compared to the estimated 50% of the population originally comprised of them when Britain and others landed on the shores and inhabited the land. Long ago during the involuntary transportation and relocation from Europe and other places, it must be noted that all records were not kept nor available to others, nor have those records that existed all survived the uses of people throughout history. The English of Australia were once known for local colour and colloquialisms but that largely has been lost to outside influence and influx.
People in rural areas still tend to speak in a broader, colloquial accent and have a different manner, using many of the slang words that have become outmoded in metropolitan areas. Accents tend to be broader and slower outside of the large cities. There are overall small pronunciation differences based upon culture of origin in the cities, but these are becoming less common.
Speech has become more generic. For example the word “you” colloquially, is often rolled off the tongue sharply on the south east coast, almost as “ewe” as opposed to the west coast and other regions. Another modern variation based upon migrants from Africa is found in Afrikaans accents on the west coast, modifying the local accents slightly due to the larger population and numbers of Afrikaans and Boer African immigration there.
In the urban English speaking world, an educated, white-collar and/or conservative Australian accent is softer or generic in tonal quality, rather than the sharp tones in some rural areas. Regarding other variations in speech, usually native speakers can recognise the subtle regional variations.
A trend among Australians is social conservatism compared to some European cultures and an acquired balanced attitude, defining their European origins within a preference for the growing Asian influence. They tend to be relaxed regarding religious observance. The Australian sense of egalitarianism in its gungho form has moderated; while modes of address still tend to be casual and familiar compared to some other cultures, such as Asian. Most Australians will tend to address you by your first name and will expect that you reciprocate.
Unless you are actively trying to insult someone, a traveller is unlikely to insult or cause offence to an Australian through any kind of cultural ignorance. Australian modes of address tend towards the familiar. It is acceptable and normal to use first names in all situations, even to authority figures or people many years your senior. Australia is a nation that prides itself on witty and imaginative nicknames and thus fond of using and giving nicknames – even to recent acquaintances. It is likely being called such a name is an indication that you are considered a friend and is it would be rare they are being condescending.
While attitudes towards alcohol in Australia have moderated in recent years, there is still much goodwill in venturing and accepting the sharing of a drink (mainly beer) amongst newly made acquaintances. In rural locations especially, refusing the offer of a quiet drink is still something that is capable of causing offence. Within the bounds of health, safety and culture, one should try and accommodate this custom, even if you only partake of a glass of lemonade.
It is generally acceptable to wear revealing clothing in Australia. Bikinis and swimming attire is okay on the beach, and usually at the kiosk across the road from the beach. It is normal to wear at least a shirt and footwear before venturing any further. Most beaches are effectively top optional (topless) while sunbathing. Just about all women wear a top while walking around or in the water. There are some clothing optional (nude) beaches, usually a little further removed from residential areas. Thong bikinis (more commonly called g-string bikinis in Australia as thongs refer to flip-flop footwear) are fine on all beaches and some outdoor pools for both women and men although they are not as common as conventional beachwear. Some outdoor pools have a “top required” policy for women. Cover up a little more when visiting places of worship such as churches or mosques.
In warm conditions casual “t-shirt and shorts” style clothing predominates except in formal situations. Business attire, however, is considered to be long sleeved shirt, tie, and long trousers for men, even in the hottest weather. (In the northern part of the country, a short sleeved, open neck shirt with slacks, known as ‘Darwin Rig’, is acceptable).
Using Australian stereotypical expressions may be viewed as an attempt to mock, rather than to communicate. If you pull it off well, you might raise a smile. Australians are often self-deprecating, and are rarely arrogant. However, it is rude to ever agree with a self-deprecating remark. Boasting about achievements is rarely received well. Most Australians are happy to help out a lost traveller with directions, however many urban dwellers will assume that someone asking “Excuse me”, is going to be asking for money, and may brush past. Looking lost, holding a map, looking like a backpacker or getting to the point quickly will probably help.
With this, you had the primer on key facts about Australia, and key facts on culture and customs. Another important part of the culture is the local food and the local drinks. Make sure you read our posts on Australia food and drinks: Local food you should try in Australia and No miss drinks in Australia.
Other tips that you’d like to share on mistakes to avoid in Australia? Please comment below.