The Indigenous people of Australia were custodians of the land for an estimated 60,000 years before it was colonised. In the late 18th century, settlers established the country as a penal colony for the convicts of the British Isles. As the land was colonised, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations were dispossessed of their land and their societies were fractured and marginalised. The social makeup of the country was dramatically changed and a European-like cultural mainstream came to be established. The following cultural information depicts this newly dominant culture – a Westernised society whose values have been influenced by continual migration to the Australian continent in the last 250 years.
- Common sense
Australia’s society reflects its British penal history as well as the subsequent waves of migration from elsewhere in Europe and almost every other continent. Australians (or Aussies) have been inventive in adapting their cultural roots to suit the new environment, climate and resources of the country. Modern society is asserting a confident and unique identity through its diversity, language(s), architecture, ‘Australianised’ cuisine, bush identity and sporting prowess.
Australia is the 6th largest country in the world, yet its population is comparatively small at only roughly 24 million people. This makes it one of the least densely populated land masses in the world. Nevertheless, it is also highly urbanised with people grouped into relatively small areas around the major cities. Many Australians enjoy a high standard of living with enough social and economic security to give them a reasonably optimistic outlook on the freedom and possibilities around them. A common national narrative hails Australia as the ‘lucky country’ for the comfortable quality of life it’s population enjoys. In a recent large-scale survey, SBS found nearly two thirds of Australians believe that their country has the best lifestyle in the world. Despite their good fortune Australians tend to resist overt displays of national superiority (with the exception of their sporting prowess). Moreover, at times they have criticised their own country as somehow lacking cultural refinement compared to their European counterparts.
Egalitarianism strongly underpins interpersonal values in Australia. People believe in the right to a ‘fair go’ regardless of a person’s background. It has often been described as a classless society as Australians tend not to think in terms of one person being better than another – rather, those who are privileged are simply acknowledged as "better off" than others. A person’s level of education and wealth does not necessarily earn them status or respect. Instead, it is acknowledged that they have an advantage or a leg up in life. Sociologists have argued that this dismissal of social stratification arose out of the egalitarian beliefs that helped Australia transition from penal society into an equal federation.
Broadly, there are not many social indicators that can define class distinctions in society. People with university degrees are not necessarily wealthier than those without, and affluent Australians also tend to prefer casual clothing most of the time. Furthermore, unlike in the UK, a person’s wealth, education and place of birth tends to not make a significant difference to their accent in Australia. The only substantial social conclusion able to be made from the way a person speaks is usually their age (through their use of specific slang).
Of course, Australia is not entirely ‘classless’. Social divisions do exist – particularly for the chronically unemployed and some marginalised populations. Society is also becoming arguably more stratified by competitiveness in the market economy. To this point, a 2015 study conducted by SBS found that Australians believe that they are more materialistic than ever before and also feel collectively guilty about it.
Australian friendships run deep and are especially loyal. It is common for people to rely upon their friends or ‘mates’ in hard times more than family. Migrants and foreigners are often surprised by how openly and quickly Australians begin to establish the basis for this mateship. Moreover, relationships tend to be built on camaraderie rather than hierarchy. In this way, people tend to show respect to friends and peers through gestures of equality instead of deference. Considerable effort is put into being fair to everyone in social interactions. For example, it is considered bad taste to ask someone to do anything you would not do yourself. People who hold themselves in higher esteem than their mates are quickly reminded of their place. Furthermore, Australians tend to strongly dislike it when friends knowingly put them in awkward situations that oblige them to do something without having necessarily wanted or offered to. ‘Dobbing’ (reporting their misdemeanours to authorities) is also seen as unacceptable in a friendship.
Australians seem to have an implicit preference for those who seem down-to-earth and straightforward. They often perceive simplicity as an endearing personal quality; to be called a "classic" is a compliment among friends. On the other hand, people who exhibit strong signs of intellect or perhaps consider themselves ‘cultured’ are more likely to be approached with suspicion or even resentment. This is related to tall poppy syndrome by which those who show signs of arrogance or achievement above their peers are swiftly cut down or diminished. In this way, humility is essential to social interaction.
Australians are often very modest about their accomplishments and commonly self-deprecate to avoid seeming pretentious. This can sometimes be taken to extreme lengths in social circles and workplaces. For example, people have been known to refuse national awards due to the alienation it might engender from their fellow Australians. Country leaders also tend to downplay their socio-economic status or educational prowess to appeal to the ‘true-blue Aussie’. Even the common descriptor, “the lucky country”, conveys modesty as the nation’s success is attributed to ‘luck’ rather than the work or competence of the Australian people.
Rules and Relaxation
Australia has many national narratives that idolise the ‘scallywag’ or ‘larrikin’ (such as Ned Kelly). These are underdog characters that show little regard for rules. Australians often express a light disregard for authority (especially in their humour), which may be another residual attitude reflecting their convict past. Nevertheless, most are very conscientious about following the rule of law. Society is circumscribed by a vast number of practical regulations that stringently control the behaviour of the Australian public. For example, cyclists can be fined hundreds of dollars for not wearing a helmet. Foreigners are often surprised to see how much of an emphasis is put on safety in a society often stereotyped as ‘laid-back’. Indeed, many Australians do find these regulations overly precautious or too tightly enforced by police. Those who criticise this aspect of Australian law and order dub themselves as living in a "Nanny state".
However, most people do generally maintain a relaxed approach about things. There is a cultural tendency towards procrastination in the way situations may be approached. For example, problems may be met with an answer of “she’ll be right” (just leave it, she will be okay in time without our intervention). Australians also tend to avoid putting themselves under pressure. They like to prioritise their energy, placing emphasis on relaxation, holidays and winding-down. Some may even find people who exert themselves a lot (in their eagerness, impatience, stress, etc.) to be exasperating. This reflects a cultural aversion from complaining, worrying too much, reflecting on mistakes and dwelling on the past. Instead, people are expected to have an easy-going, ‘can do’ attitude.
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Experience
A cultural tendency to discount uncomfortable facts of Australia's history has particularly hurtful implications for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Many continue to seek political redress through reconciliation and formal recognition of their status as the initial inhabitants of the continent. Colonisation has had devastating impacts on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The original population was reduced by approximately 90% as they were exposed to foreign diseases or killed; many were dispossessed from their traditional lands and separated from their cultural identities. The trauma of this remains difficult for many in the community to process – especially as some traditional knowledge and entire language groups were lost. The marginalisation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people has persisted through institutional racism, assimilation and discrimination. By common statistical measures, the general population remains chronically disadvantaged – socially and economically. Almost every Aboriginal family has been directly affected in some way by the harsh realities of Australia’s post-colonial policies and practices.
Yet in the face of adversity, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people remain connected with their culture. Many have a deep affinity with their Indigenous identity and practice their culture in varying forms. The degree to which a person integrates traditional Aboriginal behaviours, belief systems or social codes into their lives differs between individuals.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people possess the most ancient continuous culture on Earth. Before colonisation there were at least 250 distinct language groups, with approximately 700 dialects spoken across 500 different clan groups or ‘nations’, reflecting incredible diversity. There remains an extensive mix of traditions, spiritualities and customs among today’s Aboriginal population. Across regions, languages and dialects, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people share a common philosophy based on spirituality, ecology and consensual-communal organisation. This involves a custodial relationship to the land that many believe confirms their Indigenous identity.
The Aboriginal culture and worldview is complex and multifaceted. We encourage readers to learn more at www.sbs.com.au/nitv,www.aiatsis.gov.au and www.ccca.com.au. For guidelines on how to sensitively refer to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait minority, see Other Considerations.
Multiculturalism in Australia
The Australian mainstream has generally adopted Anglo/Celtic-Western customs. However, this description is becoming less relevant for depicting modern society’s social make-up as many Australian households have a multicultural identity. Whereas previously most immigrants came from Europe, many people are now arriving from Asia, Africa and the Americas. According to the 2016 census, roughly 26% of Australian residents were born overseas and 49% had at least one parent born overseas. In a recent SBS study on Australia’s social attitudes, most migrants identified themselves as Australian – with 76% thinking of themselves as at least part-‘Aussie’.
Most Australians accept multiculturalism and believe it to be the future of the country. However, a reactionary attitude has lingered as some people remain uncomfortable with divergences from a Western standard. This can be witnessed in the the debates that surround current immigration policies and politics. For example, a 2016 Essential Vision Poll found 49% of Australians support a ban on Muslim immigration.
However, outside of national politics, Australians generally treat and accept people of all backgrounds equally and may simply relate more to those whom they share similarities with. Australians have largely embraced the cultural diversity immigrants bring, and the country constantly draws upon these influences to build its own developing national character. SBS found that most Australians would agree that they "are all immigrants to the land anyway". This is exemplified in the way the majority of Australians continued to identify their heritage elsewhere in the world; in the 2011 census, only 33.7% of the population identified their ancestry as ‘Australian’.
Increasingly, a bi-cultural identity is being seen as an asset to be treasured and proud of in Australian society. The younger generation in particular, is becoming increasingly culturally aware with many seeing overseas experiences as a rite of passage towards maturity. Moreover, world travel is now a popular aspiration in the minds of most seeking more international exposure. Broadly, the Australian public is developing an appetite for new experiences and actively seeking different things.
Many of the statistics regarding the attitudes of the Australian public were drawn from the Cultural Competence Program. For more information on this course, please visit www.cultural-competence.com.au.