Musing: Tall poppy syndrome, hipsters + yuccies

Haters are the people who will broadcast your failures and whisper your successes.

A little over eight months ago, I made the decision to move to New Zealand on a year-long working holiday visa. To be perfectly honest, I knew little about the country outside of Lord of the Rings, HBO’s Flight of the Concords, and the gorgeous collection of photos from my friend’s study abroad trip. All in all, I knew a total of two people in the country, one being my boyfriend whom I met in Seattle during his year abroad in the States and the other being his 34-year-old sister. It was time to befriend some Kiwis.

Being the 24-year-old, relatively outgoing and goofy American girl that I am, I figured my best bet was just to be myself and not worry about it too much. Naturally, that included me insisting to my boyfriend that we invite all of his friends over for some good old-fashioned Mario Kart and beersies (that’s Kiwi-speak for beer, get it?). I was eager to show off my finely-honed Nintendo 64 skills and engage in some intense Mario Kart trash talk. If that’s not the perfect icebreaker with a bunch of dudes, I don’t know what is.

Oddly enough, my competitiveness and what was meant to be humorous pompousness and boasting self-confidence in my video game abilities were not well-received. In fact, everyone looked mildly uncomfortable and immediately got awkwardly quiet. A few actually looked outright offended. My first thought was that I must have something in my teeth or else my accent was just too obnoxious for them to tolerate. Not the case. Maybe they didn’t realize I was joking around? I mean, I guess it’s kind of unusual for anyone to witness a strange girl from another country try to assert herself in your group of friends through old school Nintendo 64 and shameless name-calling of Bowser and Yoshi, but the unpleasant response to it was not at all what I expected.

When the evening was over, I was thoroughly bewildered. Although I admit that my tactics were a bit unconventional and probably kind of lame, I had never struggled with them to that degree. I was just trying to be goofy and get everyone involved in the game and loosen things up in an entertaining, silly way. I expressed my concerns to my boyfriend, and things got serious. He explained that Kiwis “just don’t talk about themselves that way” and that if I hadn’t been an American, whom I suppose that sort of grand talk is expected of, I would’ve been automatically dubbed a “conceited dick” because of the “bragging” I was doing. Hence, their complete and utter lack of response to anything I said was actually their attempt at being polite since I had committed such a social faux pas. Ouch.

That was hard to swallow. Like whoa, I admit I was being a little over-the-top due to my nervous habit of word vomiting, but that seems like a bit of an extreme conclusion to jump to about anyone who behaves that way in good spirits. I was most likely only excused from intense teasing because I was American and that attitude is supposedly to be expected from us, and because they didn’t want to totally harangue their friend’s girlfriend. So concludes my first experience with a facet of the social phenomenon here in New Zealand called “tall poppy syndrome” – where successful, talented people are regularly attacked, cut down, or teased for their abilities and success. Consequently, rather than celebrating and embracing your achievements, you take on an attitude that is almost too humble, by belittling your achievements, hiding your talents and skills, or deprecating yourself in order to avoid this type of response from others. All in all, tall poppy syndrome is a fancy term for socially accepted bullying.

This would naturally make for some unpleasant social interactions where you’re constantly feeling the pressure to avoid standing out. What I experienced was obviously minimal and in the silliest of forms, but imagine if I was an extremely talented musician rather than an above-average Mario Kart player? How would anyone ever know about my talent if every time I was given the opportunity to perform I was genuinely hesitant to do well because of the response I could reliably expect from my peers? It would be really damn difficult, especially trying to grow up and figure out who you are and what you’re good at under those circumstances. In fact, a study at the University of Waikato in New Zealand found that this culture of tall poppy syndrome can result in a 20% decrease in average performance when instituted in organizations. That is devastating.

As an outsider in this country, it is easy to spot the differences between New Zealand and the United States, and naturally I am a bit biased. Growing up in the States, which is so influenced by the capitalist and entrepreneurial spirit, you’re encouraged to be the best and to not be shy about your accomplishments. That’s just what you have to do if you want to succeed in such a huge country, or even if you just want a job as a recent college graduate in the current economy. New Zealand seems to embrace a different mindset and lifestyle, one which honestly may be healthier and more realistic. New Zealand epitomizes simplicity, natural beauty, a clean earth, and being content with what you’re given. This may explain the widespread aversion to anyone who appears to be trying to get ahead.

While these cultural differences are certainly valid, there are plenty of cultural similarities between the two nations as well, although it is sometimes a  difficult and complex process to identify them below the surface. Although we don’t have a widespread term for the “tall poppy syndrome” social phenomenon in the States, it does exist. Cyberbullying is the obvious first response, but that seems to be an issue that primarily affects teenagers and then peters out. I believe that our most similar version of this phenomenon is most obvious in our culture’s attitude towards hipsters, or really anyone involved in the “alternative” scene.

I recently read an article about the “new hipsters,” whom the media has begun referring to as “yuccies” a.k.a. young urban creatives.

Let’s consider something new: Yuccies. Young Urban Creatives. In a nutshell, a slice of Generation Y, borne of suburban comfort, indoctrinated with the transcendent power of education, and infected by the conviction that not only do we deserve to pursue our dreams; we should profit from them.

If you haven’t picked up on it already, the term is meant to be punny, in that the “yuccie” personality type is yucky. These “yuccies” are the American version of tall poppies because they are aiming for success, but not following the mainstream path. And how do Americans respond to them? We discredit them and their ideas on success and life, first example being that terribly offensive nickname. Everyone knows, if you’re called a hipster, and I guess now if you’re called a “yuccie”, that it’s usually meant as a sarcastic insult that insinuates that you think you’re cooler, better, smarter, etc. than everyone else, typically accompanied by an exaggerated eye roll and and a judgmental smirk.

Why are we so repulsed by those who want to be different, who want to be acknowledged and paid in full for their unique, creative take on the world? Who don’t want to immediately take a corporate 9-5 job right out of college and relive the theme of Office Space? Why are we so threatened by anything outside of the mainstream? The most disturbing part of this dislike is that we’ve allowed it to be fueled by what can only be described as an inherent inferiority complex combined with intense jealousy. And that we have allowed it to manifest itself in such a widely accepted and derogatory manner. The name and manner of delivery may differ between the United States and New Zealand, but the sentiment and principal is the same.

As a psychology student, I naturally find this phenomenon to be compelling, albeit sad and concerning due to what it implies about human nature. Tall poppy syndrome, and the anti-hipster/anti-yuccie sentiments, are at their essence the antithesis of a supportive, loving, and nurturing community which is what we strive for at Be Your Own Muse. When we cut each other down, we stagnate progress and we inhibit healthy personal growth, both for ourselves and for others. We don’t grow any taller by cutting someone else down. And it shouldn’t matter how you “bloom,” so long as you do (please excuse the excessive flower metaphors).

Instead, we should be lifting each other up and supporting one another, showering each other with admiration for what we have been able to accomplish. Supporting those who think outside of the box and who want to clear a new path for themselves where they feel fulfilled and validated. What is really so wrong with that? If you’re dreaming big and being true to yourself, and I hope that you all are, isn’t that the ideal? Your own unique niche in the world defined by your personal thoughts, beliefs, and efforts. It sure sounds good to me.

Be gracious, selfless, and open enough to allow yourself and others the opportunity to fully and shamelessly chase that dream.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. I think your thoughts on this issue are really interesting – and I think you’re very brave for making such a big geographical move! I live in a small(ish) town in Australia, and we also have an ingrained culture of ‘tall poppy syndrome’. I think in Australia (and New Zealand) we value egalitarianism more than we value confidence or entrepreneurship, which is why we appear to tear down successful people. In my own community, however, it’s mostly a reaction to people who think that they are better than others – we can be extremely encouraging and supportive too, it’s just that we prefer to do this for those we regard as being ‘underdogs’. It’s the same with hipsters – many people who identify this way alienate others by presenting their views and lifestyles as superior, prompting criticism. I do agree that we should all strive to be more supportive and non-judgmental towards one another though – and aim not to take ourselves too seriously either 🙂


    1. kinsey lane says:

      Wow! Thank you for sharing your perspectives – this is giving us a lot to think about. And of course, you’re right about not taking ourselves too seriously. 🙂


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