The tall poppy syndrome - how achievers cut themselves down


The tall poppy syndrome is a phenomenon where high-achievers are attacked or resented for their success - New Zealand is particularly known for its intolerance of people who achieve success. A PhD student at Victoria University recently completed a thesis about the syndrome. A linguist, Jay Woodhams concluded that many people pre-empt these attacks by using self-deprecating language about themselves. This is not surprising, and accords with my own experience. However, what is a little more surprising is his conclusion that this desire to cut others (and ourselves) down stems from 'entrenched Kiwi ideas about egalitarianism [which is not] 'necessarily a negative thing. If you believe in an egalitarian society, then it's a good thing, to maintain that.'

In fairness, I have not read Woodhams' thesis, and the newspaper article ('Kiwi tall poppies cut themselves first') has more than likely over-simplified or taken his conclusions out of context, but I can't help having a real problem with this conclusion. First of all, if egalitarian society is such a deep-seated desire of us as New Zealanders, how is it that we tolerate a situation where hundreds (perhaps thousands?) of families with young, vulnerable children are living in rat-infested homes, or freezing-cold garages or cars for weeks or even months on end? Perhaps we have been too busy cutting down our neighbour or colleague for their success to notice? Secondly, the Nordic countries are well known for not only aspiring to egalitarianism, but of having achieving it (at least more than most countries). So are these countries also intolerant of people who are successful? I suspect not.

I also think it is a mistake - as the article does - to equate humility (an authentic and desirable attribute) with self-deprecation as a deliberate strategy to avoid being attacked for being successful.

This rather rosy view of the tall poppy syndrome also fails to reflect the personal cost to people, and my suspicion is that, at least in a professional context, it affects women more than men (I would be interested in Eleanor Catton's - below - view on this). In coming to this conclusion, I draw on my own painful experiences of a version of the phenomenon - I say 'version', because I would not by any means regard myself as a 'high achiever', but perhaps that is just my trusty self-deprecation at work. In my own experience, generally the perpetrators of such attacks were male, and the worst by far was a manager who I suspect felt frustrated by his own lack of progression and gained a twisted form of satisfaction from seeing other suffer like he was.

My strategies have been exactly as Woodhams has described: to constantly refer to myself - and especially my intellectual ability - in self-deprecating terms, to rarely use my 'Dr' title in my signature strip in a work context (this has triggered sarcastic outbursts in the past, again by male colleagues), to appear less confident in public speaking and external stakeholder engagement situations than I actually feel, and so on.

I don't regret taking these strategies: they have made my professional life much smoother, and I have so perfected the art, I am rarely subjected to resentful attacks (I say rarely, because these attacks are usually linked to the insecurities of others, and I cannot control how they feel about themselves). But I can say with absolute confidence that my self-deprecation has absolutely nothing to do with a deep-seated belief in egalitarianism - it is solely to do with wanting to survive and get on in a society that is suspicious of confidence, assertiveness or success (except on the rugby field) - especially when it is displayed by women.

See also Does New Zealand have a humility problem? on OZY.com

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