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.