Australia

English

On Top Down Under

By David James

Bill Fisher, a career Australian diplomat and a former Australian ambassador to Canada, always had a large globe of the world in his office.  A visitor will sometimes comment that the globe is turned upside down, and Fisher will say, "Not at all.  Australia is always on top."  This remark says a lot about the ebullient Australians, those fun-loving, competitive, and often raucous “blokes” who live in "the Land of Wonder, the Land Down Under," as Australia was once described in some of its tourist advertising.

map of Australia

Australians are proud and sensitive people.  Strongly aware of Australia’s achievements, yet also conscious of not always being taken seriously by their counterparts in the Northern Hemisphere, their threshold for feeling slighted is often a notch lower than that of most Westerners.

Australians’ sensitivities are due in part to the uniqueness of their political and physical positions in the world.  They are linked by their early national history to England, Ireland, and Europe, yet they are situated on the other side of the world from these origins.  They inhabit a land full of unusual creatures and resources:  uncommon flora and fauna, vast mineral wealth.  The indigenous Aborigines are unlike any native groups on earth.

Sydney Opera HouseSome say that the sensitivities of many Australians are also due to the country's national beginnings as an English penal colony.  In 1788, after the American Revolution eliminated North America as a destination for unwanted convicts, England began sending prisoners to its settlement at Sydney Cove, known back in England as "Botany Bay."  Over the following 80 years, some 157,000 convicts were sent to Australia.  Most of these were eventually released and made their homes in Australia, some becoming leading citizens.  But resentment lives on:  One Australian likes to tell the story that when his grandmother sent his father to mail letters at the post office near their home she insisted that he buy penny stamps.  His father, then a small boy, would have to lick and paste large numbers of stamps on each letter.  The reason for the penny stamps was that stamps of larger denominations bore portraits of Queen Victoria, and his mother was "damned if she'd have anyone in her family licking the backside of a British Queen."

[Tip  —  Conversation:  Although the penal colony beginnings of Australia are part of history, many Australians today are descendants of the early convicts.  In the past, this was a source of embarrassment to many Australians.  Today, some Australians find it fashionable to boast of convict forebears.  To be safe, people from other countries who communicate with Australians should look to other topics of conversation.]

Apart from convicts, many free settlers came to Australia beginning in the late 1700's.  Many came from Ireland and Scotland in the 1800's, and none of these groups held warm thoughts toward England.  As newer generations of immigrants have tended to be from the surrounding Asian region, feelings toward England are increasingly ambivalent among Australians today.  Although their country remains a part of the British Commonwealth (and the British Crown is independently sovereign of Australia), Australians maintain a strong independence from Britain and perhaps today feel a greater kinship toward Americans.

[Tip  —  National Identity:  In communicating with Australians, go easy on references to the country's ties to England.  For example, avoid references that might imply that Australia follows British government policies or that Australians emulate British tastes.]

It is probably due in part to this national history of contentious beginnings and British dominance that Australians are typically resentful of class distinctions and the exercise of authority.  Australians seem to love a class-less camaraderie, resenting anyone who acts "upper teeth" or "puts on airs."  Taxi drivers have been known to feel insulted if a lone male passenger rides in the back seat rather than up front with the driver.  Australians want to be on a first name basis with new acquaintances almost from the start.  In business, there is a restless tension between management and workers  —  trade unions are exceptionally strong in Australia  —  and foreign multinationals that own businesses in Australia find that the local management strongly resists direction from headquarters.

Although English is the official language, Australian slang, called "Strine" by some, and the Australian accent, constitute a formidable challenge for non-Australians  —  even those whose first language is English.  On average, Australians employ more slang in their speech than any other English language speakers, and English words sound quite different in the mouth of an Australian.  For example, the word "mate"  —  meaning close friend, not spouse  —  is often pronounced "mite."

Australian slang could be the subject of an entirely separate book.  Here are just a few examples of Australian slang words that can be heard even in business conversation:

 

 

Word or Phrase Meaning
Aussie Australian
Bloody All purpose adjective;
not necessarily profane
Bush Countryside; rustic
Cuppa Cup of tea
Dinkum Fair, honest
Fair go A fair, reasonable chance
Good on ya! An expression of approval,
sometimes ironic
No worries!  She'll be right. Everything will come out fine.
Ta Thank you
Tall poppy High achiever
Tucker

Food

 

 

[Tip  —  Communications Style:

Friendliness and informality should be your style in communicating with Australians.  After initial introductions or correspondence, address Australians by their first names.  Do not expect an Australian to pay attention to the protocol of organizational hierarchies.]

 

Ayers Rock, Ululu, Northern Territory

In business, slang phrases often come from the sporting or gaming world.  For example, Australians will say, "Let that one go through to the keeper," a reference to cricket, meaning "Don't bother with it, don't pursue the point."  They will also say, "Take a punt," (a punt is a bet), meaning "Go with it, bet on that."

Australians also often add an "s" to a word for a short-form reference, for example in calling Dillingham Corporation "Dillingham’s."  They also like to use diminutives; for example, they will refer to a biscuit (cookie) as a "bickie" and a man named David as "Davey."

In international communications, some Australians tend to be too informal, especially in observing hierarchical protocol when dealing with Asians.  There is also a tendency of some to be too casual in responding to communications from others whose Formality Factor might be one or more degrees higher.

[Tip for Australians  —  Slang:  Watch that accent and those slang expressions, especially in communications with people whose first language is not English.  Also, be quick to respond to overseas communications, and use extra care and greater formality in your correspondence, especially your correspondence to Asians.]

Once known for its White Only immigration policies and anti-Asian attitudes, Australia is rapidly adjusting to the realities of its proximity to Asia.  More than sixty percent of its international trade is now with Asia, and Asian immigrants, now more than seven percent of the population, make up the largest annual proportion of immigrants.  Thousands of Asian students graduate from Australian universities each year; Japanese are heavily invested in Australian industry; Vietnamese refugees from the 1970's are now valued members of the work force.  The traditional image  —  and outlook  —  of Australia is swiftly changing.

Additional resources:

CIA World Factbook: Australia