Recently I had lunch with a group of Silicon Valley executives visiting Sydney, and noted some of the big etiquette differences between American and Australian business culture.
Last week we reported on research into cross-cultural communication that noted the tendency of Australian managers to swear in meetings. It got us wondering about the other surprising elements of Australian business culture, so we asked some foreigners what takes them aback about working in Australia. Here’s a distilled version of what they said.
First, on the swearing.
Profanity has a natural place in the Australian vocabulary. It’s regularly used in workplaces to express frustration, used to exaggerate for effect, or for humour. For example, “bastard” is frequently a term of endearment in Australia and isn’t really considered swearing. But saying this, gauge the room. You wouldn’t drop the f-bomb in front of gran, or a conservative executive.
Australians often talk about race in a specific way.
Australians are proud of their melting-pot culture, but people are also proud of their own heritages. Playful ethnic epithets can be used by people to describe their background. For example, it is not unusual for a person whose parents are from Greek, Lebanese or Italian backgrounds to refer to themselves or their family as “wog”. This can really shock visitors. One Scot said it “absolutely startled me, legit”, when he first heard the term.
On the flip-side it’s never acceptable to address someone or refer to them by a racially perjorative name – it’s reserved for self-reference.
It’s rude to sit in the back of a taxi if you’re travelling on your own.
This comes down to “mateship”, the term for the culture of equality in Australia. You can have a chat with anyone, even a stranger, and therefore be courteous and sit next to the guy doing you favour. One of our colleagues from the UAE says: “Aussies are some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met. They’re happy to strike up friendly conversations with total strangers”.
Australians might be laid back, but being late is uncool.
Tardiness won’t win you any favours. But being too early can come across as over-eager and annoying. Overall, just don’t waste people’s time. Know when you’re meeting, and be prepared and keep it short, sharp and simple.
Casual conversation is expected at the start of a lunch meeting.
While we like to keep office meetings short and sharp, getting straight to the point at a business lunch could be seen as trying to rush the meeting, or as being too aggressive. If a person is taking the time to leave the office, it’s expecting it to be a relaxed and genuine catch-up where you have the opportunity to talk about common interests or topical subjects.
Australians socialise after work a lot.
While a Friday night drink after work might be the norm in many countries, in Australia the day of the week doesn’t define when you socialise. A few beers after work at the local pub offering “tight-arse Tuesday” pizza or parmigiana is totally fine.
Australians get 20 days of annual leave a year.
This is a divisive issue, depending on where you’re from. Americans are shocked at how many holidays we get, while the British are appalled. One of our English colleagues said: “For a laid back country, 20 days of holiday is shocking! The supposedly ‘more uptight Brits’ get 25 as standard- and up to 30 in many places”.
We don’t cause a fuss…
The laid-back attitude of Australians flows through most aspects of life and, to outsiders, people can seem surprisingly relaxed in stressful situations. One English colleague was pleasantly surprised to find we will happily (and politely) queue for anything. “Transport, food, at ATMs, for tables in restaurants,” she said. “For a country known for being ‘laid back’ the no-fuss order/structure is great.”
… but don’t confuse this with a lack of a work ethic.
Australians regularly feature in the lists of countries with the world’s longest working weeks. There’s even a well-worn saying for hard work – “hard yakka” – and it’s a badge of pride. Low levels of fuss are a way of keeping things on an even keel while getting things done.
Office romances are OK.
It’s not considered a big deal to be in a relationship with a colleague. This can freak out some foreigners, particularly Americans. As long as you’re professional during office hours and remain transparent, people don’t care what you do with your spare time.
How good is this rhetorical question?
Questions not requiring an answer are a common feature of everyday conversation. The classic is: “How good is that?” This isn’t an invitation to quantify the quality of something, but simply a statement that the subject of the comment is good. A simple “how good is this weather?” is often a polite way of filling an awkward silence.
Shoes are optional.
It’s perfectly acceptable to go to the shops or walking around your local area without them, which can freak people out. It’s also OK to wear thongs (sandals or flip-flops) while walking to work. Whether it’s the warm climate or our lack of interest in being cramped up in heels or suit shoes, Australians often will bring their work shoes in a bag and put them on when they arrive at the office.
Office hierarchies are notably flat.
Hierarchy doesn’t really exist in many Australian offices. A lot of companies encourage the same level of respect and engagement with all employees, so you need to be wary about fawning all over senior people while ignoring other staff.
It’s likely you’ll sometimes see more of colleague than you bargained for.
Seeing your work colleagues or business contacts at the beach on the weekend, and in their bikinis or boardshorts, is pretty normal. The same can be said for lycra, as riding to work is a popular mode of transport for those who work in the major CBDs.
Australians will often take on more work to avoid saying they’re too busy.
Refusing tasks isn’t on. One of our English colleagues said: “I soon learnt in my first job to pretty much respond with ‘no worries’, ‘too easy’, or ‘no dramas’. If you respond truthfully that you have a lot on or you’re finding it hard to deal with the workload it’s seen that you’re incapable or people distance themselves thinking you can’t handle the job.”
Care is needed with greetings involving kisses.
Most European countries kiss at least twice, once on each cheek when greeting or saying goodbye to someone. This is not on in Australia. In fact it is totally OK to simply offer a handshake, particularly in the case of a business meeting. You would not welcome a client with a kiss. In a social setting or once you get to know each other better, a peck on the cheek becomes acceptable between members of the opposite sex.
Alcohol plays a big part in the culture.
Exhibit A: The Prime Minister smashing in a few beers at the cricket recently while chatting to senior businesspeople. Yes, there’s work socialising mentioned above, but the open consumption of alcohol can rattle people from cultures where drinking is frowned upon, or an occasional pursuit. “You’d think I wouldn’t be surprised by how much people drink. But here Australians don’t binge drink, it’s just a thing that they do. All the time.”
Australians use blunt humour to diffuse tension.
This is particularly useful in awkward situations. Rather than letting a horrible situation continue painfully, Australians will often call it out and then move on with a few harmless, tongue-in-cheek jokes. For some this can come across a little harsh, but getting things out in the open is seen as preferable to sweeping issues under the carpet.
The amount of rules and regulations can be intimidating.
There’s a lot of government in Australia. National workplace safety laws called Occupational Health and Safety, or OH&S, lead to important reporting rules on spills or the most minor of injuries sustained at work. It can be very difficult for companies to dismiss staff – sackings on the spot are practically unheard of. On the positive side there are firm rules governing discrimination and inter-office behaviour to ensure everyone gets along and gets on with their jobs. There are all sorts of strictly enforced rules around outdoor cafe seating, smoking in public places, opening hours for restaurants and bars, and door policies.
Australians are exceptionally well-travelled.
If you’re visiting Australia, your complaints about your long-haul flight won’t receive much sympathy over here. Australians have to travel hours on a plane to get anywhere outside of the country. Even Australia’s favourite holiday destinations involve hours of air time – New Zealand is three hours away and Bali is six hours from Sydney.
This article was first published in February 2016.