Press "Enter" to skip to content

No worries! What Australians are really like

Anyone arriving in Australia, even if they’re just visiting, should learn two phrases: “No worries!” and “Thanks, mate.”

Which should tell you something about Australians. One of my readers was curious about what Australians are really like, so I thought I’d broach the subject. If I sound like I am hedging my bets a little, it’s because I’m loath to pass judgment on an entire nation when I’ve only experienced a very small part of it. Nobody would advise a visitor to South Africa to judge the country by Joburgers or Capetonians alone (the horror!) so it seems a little unfair to use Sydney as yardstick for national friendliness and courtesy.

Still, I will venture some initial observations. Cashiers are often a good way to assess a service culture, and for the most part, they’re friendly and polite. You won’t find American-style “pleased to serve you” attitudes, which I quite like. There’s a very strong streak of egalitarianism in this culture, and it is not done to look down on waiters or labourers. (South Africans have a reputation for being rude to service staff, as noted in this article which appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald recently.)

Just today, I had a very friendly exchange with a bank teller and his colleague, though whether it was because he was hoping to sell me a credit card, I can’t be sure. When you’re introduced to Australians, they’re very friendly — otherwise they tend to ignore you. Pretty much par for the course in a big city where everyone is in a hurry.

In the quiet suburban streets, it is not done to greet people when you’re out walking, and the locals are just as good at looking through you as South Africans. None of the French ‘bonjour” in acknowledgement of your presence, something which I found belied the Parisian reputation for arrogance and which is one of my abiding memories of France.

As in almost all societies, it’s a matter of the individual. Some are friendly, others are not. I have bus drivers with whom I exchange smiles and greetings; others who barely grunt in reply. On the ferries, there are those Sydney Ferries staff who enjoy a bit of banter with the passengers, and others who don’t. There are wonderful people here, and people like the abusive drunk I saw in the supermarket last week, who subjected the Indian security guard to loud and humiliating verbal abuse. And you do need to take cultural background into consideration; Australian-born Asians tend to be much more outgoing than recent immigrants, for example.

So, when in Australia, do as the Australians do. As a rule of thumb, be friendly and unconfrontational. (Joburgers might have a few problems with this.) Don’t pull rank — wearing a business suit won’t automatically earn you respect from a guy in shorts and work boots. Substitute “no worries” for situations where South Africans instinctively say “sorry”. Get all of that right, and you should be fine, mate.


  • During the day Sarah Britten is a communication strategist; by night she writes books and blog entries. And sometimes paints. With lipstick. It helps to have insomnia.


  1. vic vic 20 June 2008

    It is a super place …looks like you are settling in nicely.

    Good on yer mate.

  2. Irritated Irritated 20 June 2008

    “Some are friendly, others are not.”

    What an INCREDIBLE insight. This truly is one of the most useless articles i have ever read on this normally informative site. Perhaps we should change thoughtleader to “speculationleader”, or even worse “pointlessthoughtsleader”.

    Please, when trying to give us more of your Aussie drivel, at least come to a point, not this ” one size fits all i dont want to offend anyone ” rhetoric we are reading weekly from you.

    As an aside, perhaps once you have covered the weather, the bus driver, your neighbourhood, the politicians and your partner, we can get back to you reporting on something interesting, or even GASP, something informative.


  3. Jon Jon 20 June 2008

    Yeh … cheers, mate.

    Gidday, mate. Airgun, mate. (That’s “how are you going” rather than a pellet gun.


  4. Jon Jon 20 June 2008

    And NEVER say “ja” or “yar” or “yah”.

    Always say “yeh”.

    If you say “yar” they’ll call you a “yarpie”.

    So say “ehh” or “yehh” when umming and ahhing.

  5. michelle chesno michelle chesno 20 June 2008

    thanks for keeping me so entertained and as i am coming to australia in december its really been helpful and inspiring to read your eloquent thoughtful experiences.thanks
    keep it up!

  6. Huh? Huh? 20 June 2008

    “And you do need to take cultural background into consideration; Australian-born Asians tend to be much more outgoing than recent immigrants, for example.”

    I agree with irritated. This is absolute drivel. You should blog for the Times or the SUN newspapers and not thought leader. The above statement is useless as the same applies to any country. Aboviously the person who asked you to write about this bit of useless information has never traveled out of their country or they would not need to be informed that you need to take cultural background into consideration. I mean who doesnt know that?

    This article is like an essay subject you given in primary school “What I did during the holiday”


  7. BenzoL BenzoL 20 June 2008

    You say: “South Africans have a reputation for being rude to service staff, as noted in this article which appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald recently”.
    With all due respect, have you been in a SA shop recently? Staff has been trained to be polite and sometimes even entertaining. There is a natural reciprocal greeting ceremony of “how are you?” and “how are you”. Sometimes a little elaborate when you are in a (european) hurry but if you get into it very friendly. Just respond the right way!
    I have had my Australian experience at Sydney airport on my way to NZ. I would not dare to judge all Australians on this.

  8. Alisdair Budd Alisdair Budd 21 June 2008

    All Australians are Blackfellas, everyone else is an illegal immigrant descended from poachers, whores, peasants, murderers, drunkards and tories.

    At least in the Sydney area because that was where the first penal colony was. Before the Whiteman stole a country after illegally declaring “Terra Nullis”.

    When talking about Ozzers, were you talking about the immigrants and penal colonists, or where you mentioning the Nurri, Koori, Yolgnu, etc etc etc.?

  9. Nick Nick 21 June 2008

    Interesting that South Africans have reputation of a sense of entitlement and being rude to people in service industries…

    Not sure I agree though. I’m an Australian and i’ve worked in service jobs as a student in Australia and in Cape Town and I think they are on a par..

    The article you provided a link to, mentioned the suburbs of Sydney most South Africans live in and they would have to be in the most expensive half a dozen suburbs in Sydney – which puts them right up in the top bracket of areas in the whole country!

    My reading of it is the South Africans most Australians come into contact with are largely upper-class snobs who do have a tendency for entitlement that knows no geographical borders…

    There just isn’t the ordinary cross section of people to water down the stereotype that ALL South Africans behave like this…

    But, it sounds like you’re settling in Sarah!

  10. Bernice Bernice 21 June 2008

    Keep up the good work Sarah,it is great to see that you are enjoying your new life in Australia.
    It is very useful for all of us who are about to make a move to get as much information as possible.
    Hope to see you there soon,keep up the good work it is very encouraging to all of us waiting to leave.


  11. RichardP RichardP 21 June 2008

    Sounds like you are having a great time Sarah.Must have been a huge relief getting away from all that stress in SA.Enjoy your new lifestyle and embrace your new country in the same manner you embraced your old one. You have a wonderful future ahead of you in a fantastic city.

  12. amandzing amandzing 21 June 2008

    irritated and huh, get a life please, if you don’t like it dont read it.

    Sarah, lol, really enjoying this, loving the isight, even vic is posting here!

  13. Mark Mark 22 June 2008

    Nice one Sarah, ignore the nay-sayers, they are just jealous… :) Great article.

  14. OneFlew OneFlew 22 June 2008

    Abiding memories of France?

    I’m presently in France for the first time in some months. A modest amount of bonjouring does go on, but it’s just the civilised norm. You get greeted as much pretty much everywhere else in Europe.

  15. Sarfeffrikin Sarfeffrikin 22 June 2008

    Oi wey Sarah,

    It seems you just can’t please all of the people all of the time.

    Some people just don’t seem to “get” the idea of a blog. The point is that there is no specific agenda required, even on “Thought Leader”.

    To draw a musical comparison, to me blogging is like Jazz. The Jazz muso is an accomplished virtuoso musician but the music is not rehearsed, rather it is spontanious. No doubt some of the improvisations are appreciated to a greater or lesser degree by different audience members but it is “free style” music.

    Similarly a blog is a free style diary. The subject matter will vary depending on the mood and experiences of the writer. Sometimes one reader will not find anything of interest while ten others will. Isn’t democracy great? Here is an unedited piece of writing by a competent writer without the added agenda of a newspaper editor pandering to advertisers or governement to steer it in a certain direction. If you don’t like this writer, there are at least twenty others to choose from. I feel privileged to read a published writer’s personal diary experiences.

    I concur: I am often embarrassed by other South Africans overseas and at home. A nice South African in my experience is the exception to the rule. Other nationalities find us arrogant, pushy and plain rude.

    The point I have taken away from this blog is that Sydney is a typical, Anglophile, functioning first world westernised city with a cosmopolitan mix of people. Some of us like to have it reinforced.

    Pity about the usual spoilers. You must be doing something right then.

  16. Oosthuizen Oosthuizen 23 June 2008

    South African hospitality and retail service is among the best. Walk into a restuarant in NSW Sydney or Newcastle and tables laden with dirty dishes greet you while waiters stand idly by. Goods purchased at many retailers are of a poor quality and often need to be returned or repaired, that is if you get the co-operation of the store from where the item was purchased and if you get some response you will probably be sent on the run around between the store, warehouse and manufacturer.

    In comparison South africa still have spectacular customer service. Give me an SA version of woolies a Mimmos or Mugg and Bean any time. Oz has a long way to go to catch up.

  17. japes japes 23 June 2008


    Something I heard this weekend from an Aussie working in SA came to mind when I read this post. He calls people who use the subject of migration to Oz for their own benefit whenever they can as “emigration whores”.

    If the cap fits.

  18. Joubert Joubert 23 June 2008

    “My reading of it is the South Africans most Australians come into contact with are largely upper-class snobs who do have a tendency for entitlement that knows no geographical borders”

    Partly true and significantly probably all white snobs.
    Apartheid among Soutie expats are alive and well in Sydney. on the assumption that Sarah is white just how many Souties of OTHer racial groups does she socialize with ?
    Like in ZAR they keep apart and not many of them attempt to meet South Africans of other racial groups.

  19. Wayne Roberts Wayne Roberts 23 June 2008

    Been in Aus for about a year. The perception of Australia in South is so far off the mark its scary. My God, I shudder to think how people in SA knock this place constantly without ever having been to it. The stuff I was told about the place has been so far off the mark its ridiculous. In fact, it just sums up why South Africans have developed such a poor reputation overseas.

    This will be my last visit to a South Africa news website. I came here to catch up on the Zim fiasco and stumbled on yet more examples of people knocking a country that has got so much right South Africans should be asking for advice.

    Good bye South Africa and good riddance. I hope all the arrogant, IGNORANT idiots who actually think we were living in a normal society never come out here. Australia is the worlds best kept secret and I hope it stays that way.

    Believe what you want to believe. I should have come here 15 years ago. You can keep that crime infested, expensive, corrupt, collapsing pit to yourself thank you very much. It took me a month to realise 90% of the crap I was told about Australia was just that. CRAP

    For those who have taken the decision to come out? Leaving family behind is not easy. The culture shock is also quite tough on you. Hell, it even has a few of its own bad points. In comparison to what you would have come from? You wont believe how chuffed you and your family will be once you settle.

    The more I think about it, I dont even know why I wanted to see what was happening in Zim. What a waste of time.

  20. Misha and Mvulane Misha and Mvulane 23 June 2008

    Sarah why did you leave? Is it because of the prospect of JZ becoming president? You left so suddenly. How did you find a job there. Was it hard? Do you teach?
    Nothing is as painful as the prospect of JZ becoming Prez, not even the crime situation but what can we poor wreches do but stay in this wretched country- at least till we finish studying.
    Anyways goodluck over there.

  21. Oosthuizen Oosthuizen 24 June 2008

    Just this week somebody again got attacked in Sydney NSW by an intruder weilding a knife. Also a famous australian actor Viginia Gay, got badly beaten up two people who minutes later murdered a chef. Horrendous stories of fatal child neglect and abuse also raises its ugly head regularly in 1st world Oz. The the usual deteriorating hospital services, food and fuel price increases and run away interest rates… same ole same ole !!

    I often just give a weak smile when Saffies, fresh through Sydney International Airport customs, tell me, with gleeful eyes, how glad they are to have left “crime infested” and bad SA behind. Yeah right, welcome to the real world. Or rather welcome again to the real world.

  22. Wayne Roberts Wayne Roberts 24 June 2008

    Oosthuizen, you are quite possibly the most blinkered ostrich I have encountered in a while. If you are honestly going to try and compare South Africas crime statistics with ANY other country in the world that is not currently at war then you need a serious wake up call. Comparing crime in Australia to South Africa?


    I honestly dont know how you can do that with a straight face.

  23. Scarface Scarface 24 June 2008

    Thanks Sarah, I echo the sentiments that we need as much info on Australia – we are moving before the end of the year and would like to be prepared as much as we can.

    Perth though, know anyone in Perth :-) Perth must be very popular with Saffers because I can find maps of everywhere in Aus except Perth!

  24. Oosthuizen Oosthuizen 25 June 2008

    “automatically earn you respect from a guy in shorts and work boots.”

    That is what draws me to this country. The true blue dinkum ozzie is not really impressed with what you wear, drive or earn and you can really live your life as wish with out getting the quaint stare down the nose at wearing beach thongs(for the feet- damn !) to a wedding function. The other thing I learned is that many respectable,hardworking, loyal family men wear tattoos and piercing.

  25. Oosthuizen Oosthuizen 26 June 2008


    quote:”My reading of it is the South Africans most Australians come into contact with are largely upper-class snobs who do have a tendency for entitlement that knows no geographical borders…”

    Oops Nick, many a south african died or spent 27 years in jail for stating that truth. Hopefully you safely back in Oz now.

    The SA snobs in oz have been neutralised by the freedom loving society in which they newly find themselves and seem to enjoy. Just a pity they learned it so late in their lives else SA would have been a much better place.

    Good on ya mate !

  26. hedmekanik hedmekanik 26 June 2008

    Christ on a bike, stick your head above the trench and that’s it for you round these parts. Damned if you do, and, it would seem, equally damned if you don’t.

    What’s with these bitter and twisteds?

    Godsakes people, get on with your lives and let recent emigrants share their impressions. As for the devoutly anti-SA diehards, surely if you’re SO over SA you wouldn’t be poking your heads in to get an update?

    Methinks/protest etc etc.


  27. Johnson Johnson 26 June 2008

    My impression of south africans was that they were nice people but very scared of the whole crime scene.

    People were getting murdered and raped every day it was in all the papers and on the news. Many of the houses in Johannesburg were all fenced in with electrics and cameras. People were so scared.

    Here in Sydney there is none of that. You cannot live your life in that way.In a place like that it is better to leave and start again like Sarah has.

  28. Chris Chris 2 July 2008

    @ hedmekanik
    Good one.

    @ irritated and huh
    If you don’t like what you read, then why the **ck are you reading it, and taking up space commenting about it? Jeez. A quick count shows that there are 147 blogs on Thought Leader. Pick the next person’s blog to read, instead of picking on Sarah, for goodness sake. Move on. Please.

    @ Sarah. I agree that this is not thoughtleader material – I would have preferred more depth and analysis – but it is informative and entertaining and a blog. Light reading when a lot of bad things are happening elsewhere. I will keep reading for those reasons. Forget the nay-sayers.

    Good luck.

  29. Krystal Krystal 30 October 2009

    Sydney is the most horrid rudest part of Australia. Not a fair place to judge us on. Sydney people are rude and arrogant in the eyes of many other Australians. You def need to get out past Sydney to have even a clue about this country.

  30. Outsider Outsider 8 February 2012

    dont come to australia unless your white, you will be told to go home, racialy abused, and made to fell like an outsider even though all non Aboriginals are outsiders, its a weird place, if your not white and are thinking about coming here, seek comments from people who are considered “outside” of the majority, but yes Sydney is not a great example of the real Australia

  31. Emma Emma 20 September 2012

    I live in Australia and I NEVER use phrases like “no worries” or, “thanks, mate”.

Leave a Reply