• Tue, 16, Apr, 2019 - 5:00:AM

Land of milk, honey and tall poppy syndrome

Poppy in a meadow / Dani Geza /

Tall poppy syndrome has been a part of New Zealand culture for nearly as long as we’ve been a country. It denotes the cutting down of individuals who stand out from the masses, like tall poppies.

We are so averse to over-achievers, celebrities and people of high status that we are often guilty of cutting ourselves down before others get the chance. Sometimes it might be unconscious, like withholding ideas in a brainstorming session or the language we use, other times it can be a conscious decision to keep your ideas, talents and achievements out of the spotlight.

I experienced the latter recently, when tasked with an ice-breaker of picking one word to describe oneself. I juggled between ‘smart’ and ‘dedicated’ before settling for ‘dedicated’ — the more modest-sounding one. My aversion to tooting my own horn wasn’t the only thing I noticed; as the session progressed, more negative and self-deprecating words began to spring up from the other participants.



“Boring,” followed by a wry chuckle.

The self-deprecating humour is one sign of our battle with tall poppy syndrome. Being a small country, New Zealand has come to adopt a set of values unique to us. We are humble, down-to-earth, friendly and approachable. We value equality between one person and the next. This sounds all well and good, but maintaining this egalitarian set of values requires that everyone be kept at the same level of success, fame and prestige.

These attitudes start young. Intelligent children who eagerly answer questions in class are labelled teachers’ pets, show-offs and arrogant know-it-alls, and they quickly learn not to put their hand up any more. They stifle their enthusiasm for learning because of tall poppy syndrome.

In the corporate world, especially for women, ambition is branded as power-grabbing, opportunism or climbing the corporate ladder. Amongst our celebrities, a loveable, relatable theme of humility recurs, like they never believed they could achieve such greatness.

When asked about his Australian Idol experiences, Stan Walker shared, “it’s kind of like a dream that, you know, where I come from, never becomes a reality.”

As a whole, there are really positive aspects to our underdog culture. We can approach celebrities in the street like they’re our neighbours, and our love for our roots is undying. But the hostility that people in the spotlight face has adverse effects on New Zealand’s economy and advancement.

Some entrepreneurs are less motivated to try again after setbacks, reluctant to promote their businesses or even start a business in the first place. Other bright sparks are motivated to go overseas for environments that are more accepting of people who own and declare their strengths, like Silicon Valley.

In terms of innovation, tall poppy syndrome makes it hard to retain potential within our STEM industries, not to mention discouraging countless people from entering these industries at all. We should be supporting our most gifted and capable individuals because at the end of the day, their talents will only help our country.

Let’s celebrate the passionate babblers, over-achievers, show-offs and ambitious people for who they are: driven, confident individuals that have the power to change our future for the better — should they be empowered, not cut down.


  • Shame /
  • Ambition /
  • Tall Poppy Syndrome /
  • Entrepreneurship /
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