They Don’t Give a $@!#

Before my first visit to Australia in February, I came across a humorous blog entry from another American expat on one significant cultural difference between Americans and Australians.

Danielle, who writes at From America to Australia, was waiting on her soy flat white when the barista asked if she thought living in Melbourne was better.

I proceeded to tell these complete strangers what I thought. I said, “Well nobody complains here. Nobody stands up for themselves.” The barista made a face and shrugged his shoulders. “We don’t give  shit.” And there it was – they just don’t give  a shit!

I’m beginning to really see this now and it’s not so funny after all.

It’s not really true, of course.  Aussies do care about many things. Alcohol, for example. But I’m beginning to see that certain things that I value are just not that important to people here.

It was my birthday this week, the most uneventful birthday I can remember. One obligatory gift from my boyfriend, no calls, no birthday lunches or dinners, or cake. Why? Because they don’t give a shit.

Theo’s birthday is coming up. I was thinking of planning something nice, but now I’m reconsidering. In the past, he’s shrugged at the idea. Why? Because they don’t give a shit.

I put up the Christmas tree last weekend. I tried to decorate it, but the prissy Martha Stewart in me couldn’t cope with the ugly, outdated, mismatched decorations. But they don’t give a shit anyway. This family hasn’t even put up a Christmas tree in years. I bought some new decorations, but they don’t give a shit. Theo finished decorating it while I was away engaging in some retail therapy. I quietly packed away the decorations I purchased. I’ve been Christmas shopping, but it’s been challenging because when you ask people what they want or ask for suggestions and ideas, they just shrug. Of course they do. They don’t give a shit.

Australians are laid back and that’s a great quality, but I really don’t understand the apathy towards some of the best opportunities for celebration life has to offer, moments of light and joy in a life that is otherwise filled with backbreaking work, stress, illness, separations, and despair. If Americans are over enthusiastic, and that is particularly expressed in their consumerism, Australians are at the opposite end of the spectrum.

The frequently used idiom that captures this attitude is “she’ll be right.” The “she” refers to everything and while this may sound optimistic, it’s frequently a cover for apathy and displays a willingness to accept a low-quality situation rather than seek a more desirable solution and positive experience. In other words, “I don’t give a shit.” Shrug it off.

The worst part is that indifference is just as infectious as enthusiasm. Just as someone can lift you up, they can knock you down. You can try doing things for yourself and your own happiness, but, when nobody around you gives a shit and they keep reminding you of that, it becomes isolating and depressing. I understand now why expats seek out other Americans. What they seek is support and camaraderie, others who will share in their excitement.

Homesickness is the worst part of expat life. Australians and Americans are alike in many ways, but the holiday season is really highlighting the differences for me. No Halloween. No Thanksgiving. No birthday or anniversary celebrations. Not much of a Christmas. Not much of a New Year’s. No parties, get-togethers, big dinners, or gift exchanges. They just don’t give a shit about any of it.

Comments

comments

49 Comments

  1. Oh wow… they don’t like to make a big deal about any celebrations over there? I think there is a middle ground when it comes to celebrating and making a big deal out of things. I once had a cousin refer to the USA as the “land of standing ovations” which left me going “Whaaaa?”

    He meant that in movies, it seems Americans love to stand up and clap and cheer each other on. I think this translates well to our enthusiasm for celebrating, like Thanksgiving, Christmas, birthdays, going away parties, anniversaries, etc. I like that about American culture but there are some things that are a bit over the top such as kindergarten graduations!

    I’m assuming weddings are kind of a big deal though? Those seem to be a big deal in every culture.

    • I agree that Americans can be over the top. Kindergarten graduations are a good example.

      I don’t know if weddings are a big deal. I haven’t been to any yet or know anyone getting married soon, but I would say that marriage in general doesn’t seem to be a big deal in Australia. I know more unmarried people than wedded and many Australians will just live together and never get married.

  2. Hi Cosette,

    I have to admit I agree with you.

    This will be my first Christmas here and I am already trying to get my family to start new traditions in Australia as we did in the US. We will still celebrate Thanksgiving but we are now going to be grilling our asparagus on the barbeque and have plans to visit the beach each Christmas while my hometown in the US braces for a snowstorm.

    I think I’m lucky in the sense that although my husband who grew up here doesn’t give a shit about a lot of what you mentioned, I have 2 children ages 7 and 15 who do care. A lot. My 15 year old was devastated when he thought we weren’t having pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving because its what we always do. My husband couldn’t give a shit.

    I’m unlucky in the fact that many Americans just don’t move to Tasmania and seeking out Americans here is almost impossible, other than the occasional American I come across who has lived here so long they really have become Aussies.

    It does become lonely and depressing but my kids share in my excitement…for now. I hope to eventually move to the mainland where there are expat groups, get support and finally start making friends.

    • I’m glad your kids still have that sense of excitement and I hope they never lose it. I think it’s pretty sad not to care about family celebrations and rites of passages. Best of luck!

  3. And happy birthday Cosette!
    Terry

  4. Wow wow wow, Cosette. This is my favorite post so far and I have to say you hit the nail on the head. Especially w/the paragraph starting “Australians are laid back and that’s a great quality, but I really don’t understand the apathy…” I have been feeling this to a degree in France in regards to Christmas attitudes and the celebration and I couldn’t quite verbalize what I was feeling. But you did it perfectly and I’m so glad you did. I was trying to explain this to a friend and even to my husband the other day and now I can. Thank you!

  5. Well happy birthday! And that’s really interesting, I didn’t know that about Australia. I have to say one American thing I hate doing is putting up the lights outside – it’s a waste of energy as well as a huge pain in the ass. But everything else is great, and missing out on Thanksgiving this year was so sad!

  6. I love reading your posts, Cosette. It amazes me how often your experience is the exact reverse to what I experienced when I lived in America. Now, having lived in three countries, I am convinced that Americans and Australians are not as alike as other English speaking countries. I do feel we value different things, and the biggest lesson I struggled with was that although American values are different to mine, it doesn’t mean they are inferior in anyway. They are simply different and I have to accept that, although it’s difficult because our values are… Well, they are our values!

    I know some Australians put on a show of being apathetic about their birthday (I think it’s tied up with the ‘tall poppy syndrome – I’m sure you’ve heard about that), but my experience is that even those people who don’t give a sh*&, like the attention when you do make a fuss. My birthdays in Australia were always occasions for celebration, especially with friends. My American friends eventually caught onto the fact that I felt birthdays should be celebrated, but it took them a few years and it was all dependent on me making arrangements. What surprised me about America was the dependance on extended family for these celebrations. I think Australians depend more on friends to celebrate birthdays with them.

    As for weddings in Australia, they are a big deal for ONE day. A service, followed by a reception. No rehearsal dinners or wedding breakfasts. I like the one day. I see the American way as consumerism-driven overkill. It must cost a fortune to be in the wedding party of an American wedding.

    I loved the Christmas lights and decorations in America, but I was the one house in the street who put up lights even before we moved to America. I’m a kid at heart, especially when it comes to Christmas. There are streets around the Melbourne suburbs where most of the houses put on an American-style light show. If you google where to find them, I’m sure you’ll find out where there’s one close to you.

    I’m sorry your birthday was a let down, but persist with showing those around you that you’re a fan of the fuss. If you make a fuss of their birthdays for a couple of years, they should catch on and eventually do the same for you. The other solution is to go home at this time of year every second year. That’s how I do it.

    • Thanks, Juli! I think tall poppy syndrome has something to do with it. I agree; I think Aussies like avoiding the appearance of having a fuss made over them. But really? Who doesn’t enjoy being the focus of positive attention and being taken care of every now and then?

      Americans do have a knack for going over the top with pretty much everything. A wedding is often an event, not just one day, and I’m astounded at how outrageously expensive a it can be. Have you ever experienced the Hispanic Quinces? It’s like a debutante ball for girls when they reach 15. I always say it’s like a small wedding.

      Thanks for your comments!

  7. Hello, I am also going overboard with the holiday, I agree with most comments left here, it is not a big thing for the Aussies, I am trying to get my partner to see my ways.

  8. Hi Cosette – I’ve never read your blog before, but you must be on the Yanks Downunder FB group, and that is how I found you. I tend to favor Julitownsend’s point of view. I’ve lived in New Zealand and Australia for 16 years now: seven in NZed and nine here – started visiting NZed in 1984 with my husband, a Kiwi. I am far too familiar with the ‘tall poppy syndrome’, but I feel that the lack of celebration stems from lack, isolationism, and making do with what one has – that is all there is to it in my opinion. We have a difference of cultures, which is fairly great – many of us fall in love with a person from one of these cultures, and because they have a charming accent, and we can seemingly communicate in a similar language, we believe we are a ‘match’. We truly are different to each other and each other’s culture. We’ve got a fake tree up already because that is all we have been able to find, maybe closer to Christmas, we will find a real tree – remember, it is hot here, and trees don’t last long, lights are a luxury (yes they are), and it stays light quite late here in the summer depending on how far south you go, so what is the point of putting them up, if you can’t turn them on? Having said that, I have seen that the longer we are here, changes are taking place due to internet, satellite t.v., and such – people are now picking up the ideas of others. No point in disparaging the culture of others, instead keep your head up, remain positive, and know that we as Americans celebrate the success of others! We are taught to be happy for the success and not to cut them down. We have many Christmas traditions that have become very important to us as a American/Kiwi/Australian/English/Canadian family – one important tradition is making the effort to be together, despite living over the world. We don’t have heaps of money, but we make our choices. We would rather travel or help one of our loved ones come here to visit, rather than go all out for Christmas. Australians and New Zealanders don’t talk much about money – have you noticed? I suspect that the vast majority of them have to make the same choices we do, but they will not admit their perceived shortcomings. It just isn’t done – it’s a cultural thing – a private thing. So, all those things, I understand, but it is the ‘cutting down’ that I don’t and never will get! Enjoy your holidays, and Merry Christmas. Be strong, and ‘keep the faith’!

    • Sharon, yes, I’m on the Yanks Down Under Facebook group. My apologies if this post comes across as “cutting down”. That certainly wasn’t my intention. My (over)use of the not caring phrase doesn’t come from me. This is what I hear Aussies say often as to why they don’t do a variety of things. Nearly everything for celebrations that is available in the U.S. is available in my neck of the Melbourne woods so I don’t think it’s a matter of availability, but there is something to the idea of some things being a luxury. Energy is expensive here so hanging lights might be pretty costly. I just think it’s a cultural difference. The way Americans do holidays seems excessive to Aussies; the way Aussies do holidays seems meager to many Americans. Thanks for your comments!

  9. No apologies necessary – I did not for once think that you sounded as if you were ‘cutting down’ – that was meant in general as the Tall Poppy Syndrome was mentioned by more than one. Also, as I indicated, things are changing as the years go by, and yes, I realize party goods and decor are available. What I meant is the ‘meagerness’ comes from lack and isolationism from way back (that I didn’t make clear)
    . I truly believe it has been handed down through the generations, things have traditionally been hard to get and are expensive. And, yes, we can get everything that can be had in America, but our choices are still limited and still expensive, imo.

  10. wow, I don’t think I will hear ‘she’ll be right’ quite the same again 🙂
    it is very different culture, i like the carols by candlelight but the rest of it can be rather funny, serving potatoe salad because it is too hot and a frozen icecream pudding are the sort of things you just could not do anyplace else
    hope your birthday was fabulous

    • Those are funny observations. Aussies do and don’t do many things under the pretense of the weather. I come from Miami and it’s very hot and humid there. Our Christmases tend to be cool at best, but some people still put up natural Christmas trees and we don’t stop cooking in the kitchen just because it got hotter outside. Thanks for your comments!

  11. I think it is more of a lack of you having no friends in Australia – it so untrue that Australians don’t celebrate Christmas, Birthdays. New Years Eve – you kidding me right? Maybe jump on a plane and see one of the most spectacular Fireworks display in the entire world at Sydney Harbour. Or possibly being a Melbourne resident try being in the dining room at midnight at the Hyatt Hotel. We don’t celebrate our birthdays with a party or dinner party – so not true – of course we do! And the one thing we care about is alcohol? I think you give Americans a bad name with this blog ….

    • I’m sorry you feel I give Americans a bad name with my blog. I don’t claim to be representing all of America here though. My blog is about my experience as an American expat and this is a point in which many other expats agree upon. I invite you to re-read the post and note that I didn’t say Aussies don’t celebrate at all. My observation is that they don’t celebrate much and, in contrast, view American celebrations as excessive. I also didn’t say that alcohol is the one thing Aussies care about. Again, I invite you to re-read the entry. I also invite you to read my comment policy before the next time you decide to leave a comment.

  12. And happy birthday – I truly hope you had a great birthday and your life in Australia turns around for the better – Go for a drive to the Mornington Peninsula – Sorrento – – Rye back beaches – gunnamatta- the wineries of Arthurs Seat and Red Hill too – the drive up is spectacular – I just read about you – and now see you are just really settling into Australian life – for any expat the transition can be extremely difficult – you will get there! Merry Christmas ;-D

  13. Thank you. Going on Sunday drives to the country and other surrounding areas is one of my favorite things to do. Australia is a beautiful country.

  14. Cosette, I am so honoured that you were inspired by my blog post! It is so frustrating at times, the “no worries” attitude. I find myself often looking at all the cars on the road and noticing the complete lack of bumper stickers. That in itself tells me that people are not publicising their opinions, which is the complete opposite of the US where people love to tell you what they think and how they feel. Right? It drives me insane that people are so apathetic. So glad to have found your blog 🙂 And Happy Birthday!!!

  15. Why would we need bumper stickers when the opinion is unanimous, “We don’t give a S#@T”.

  16. Yes, it is true – Australians are reluctant to say what the want for Christmas presents etc, not so much because they don’t care, but because it is not seen as appropriate to actually say you want something specific. It is like you are putting a burden on someone else if you actually specify something you want which might cost a certain amount, for example, and it makes us feel uncomfortable to set up an expectation. It is easier to avoid being direct about such things which might create discomfort in the relationship. In that respect Australians are probably more like Canadians, but in addition we often hide this discomfort behind a “don’t care” facade to avoid acknowledging the discomfort itself. People wont necessarily take the initiative to set up a party for someone else unless unless it is close family or friends, but if the person in question (having the party) actually mentions that she is going to have a party in advance to friends/colleagues and opens a channel of discussion, Australians usually love to be involved. This is the reverse of the US approach, where people go out of their way to invite others (even strangers) to things. Here, it is all about the context, which is much harder. Once you learn to get past the reserve and insecurity based on interpersonal comfort, hidden behind a facade of disinterest which people adopt without really being aware of it, you will be fine!

    • David, thank you for this thoughtful and insightful comment. As an aside, it was Theo’s birthday this past weekend. I invited his family over, we barbecued, there was cake and a few presents, and a great time was had by all.

  17. I would love to live in a culture where people actively/energetically went out of their way to include others and make events special, but I guess we are stuck with our own culture (and blessed compared to much of the world). As a younger man, I used to go to considerable lengths and expense to create fantastic dinner events and parties (“dead straight!” as we say) but tended to find a lack of interest/reciprocation as described in this blog. As a married middle aged Aussie with children, have to be content with the back yard barbie, as it’s what people feel comfortable with. But I do miss a real Southern style Turkey with all the trimmings and that amazing seasoning, I have never been able to replicate it here. Even approximating the right ingredients it just doesn’t tast the same. Happy Birthday by the way!

    • Thank you, David. I’m not invested in replicating American traditions here. Well, except for Halloween; Australia needs Halloween! I noticed early on that everything tastes different here – not bad, mind you, just different. But I’m with you; I wish people were more enthusiastic about personal life events and other types of celebrations.

  18. I just moved to perth about 3 weeks ago and have never in my life been so homesick! you hit the nail on the head. While I have my 5 kids, I haven’t connected with anyone… im glad I came across your post, it actually made me feel better 🙂

    • Most of us make lifelong friends in school or work. It can be really hard to make new friends as an expat when you’re not doing either. I’ve been here almost a year and I haven’t made any friends yet beyond my partner’s circle of friends and family. Hang in there! Have you joined any social groups or Meetups?

  19. I can’t say I’ve had this experience, but I’m looking at it from a “stiff upper lip” British perspective. I don’t really notice the lack of enthusiasm around celebrations, but I suppose I do miss the pomp, tradition and routine – perhaps formality – that comes with, say, Christmas in the UK – and I suppose some of that is present in the USA. Christmas Dinner in Australia feels very much like just another meal – there’s nothing that we only ever eat on Christmas Day like there is in England. We don’t get dressed up in semi-formal clothes to spend a day in the house – jogging pants and a T-shirt are acceptable. So that’s my perspective – not that they don’t give a shit about WHAT they celebrate, it’s more they don’t give a shit how they go about it.

  20. This is interesting and now I am thinking back to the year I spent over there and trying to see if this is something I picked up on. Your observations are well expressed and I have to smile because it does seem to fit the bill. It’s the 20th anniversary of my year in Australia – based in Sydney as an exchange student. I’m posting my verbatum journal entries as they occured to the day 20 years later. I was so willing to blend and be a part of the culture I’m not sure I would have added this insight. Then again in highschool my main priorities where boys and entertainment. I did however note huge differences in the school and teacher student relationships – one word COLD!! http://www.fallingdownunder.com

    • Thanks for your comments and for leaving a link to your blog. It’s a cool experience and I look forward to reading more. I haven’t studied here and I don’t have kids so education is one area that I really don’t have any insight about. I recently learned that schools here don’t generally have cafeterias and was shocked to discover that kids eat their lunches generally on the playground even in this terribly cold weather.

      • fallingdownunder

        That’s exactly what we did, in both schools there was a canteen where we could buy food and we would all loom around in our “areas”. I would love to say it’s about the schools, as its really about nightlife, lingo, etc. think mind of a 17/18 year old! Thanks for checking it out! My real life gives me little time to be out in the blogosphere and explore other blogs:)

  21. I’ve been going through your blog all day, and this has to be the most surprising post yet! In Canberra Christmas is everything. Me and my family put lights all over the house and, on the nights leading up to Christmas, drive around town and go to the really fancy places where the streets absolutely glow. Its fantastic! All of our stores are full of fake trees (my mother and stepfather brought a new one last year, which is okay), and decorations can be found all over. My father, who lives in Sydney, also invests in a tree- but his is real! Unfortunately this year I will be travelling and will miss out on time with my entire family, but I will try and make the best of it 🙂

    • I’m glad! I’m always happy to hear of people celebrating the holidays with gusto. I hope you still have good holidays during your travels. Thank you for reading and commenting.

  22. I think this is a slight exaggeration. I have lived in Australia all my 24 years and my family and social groups have always celebrated Christmas season with gusto – huge family lunches, epic gift exchanges, and just lots of fun in the sun. Same with birthdays, anniversaries, etc too – we may not have parties for our birthdays every year, but they certainly never pass unrecognised! Perhaps the group of people or families you are personally spending time with are different, but don’t generalise that to the whole population – Australians as a whole are far from apathetic when it comes to opportunities for fun and celebration.
    Secondly, it’s a shame that you have to miss out on traditions like Halloween and Thanksgiving while you’re here, but to be clear it’s not that we ‘don’t give a shit’ about these holidays, it’s just that they are specifically American holidays which are not part of our culture. Much as we don’t celebrate 4th of July and Americans wouldn’t celebrate Anzac Day, these holidays are just not part of our nation’s history and identity.

    • It is an exaggeration, but I still stand by this entry. It was written just over a year ago and I’ve since met more people, seen my birthday uneventfully go by as well as those of others, and am approaching another Christmas. Australia just doesn’t feel all that festive to me. As for American holidays, I don’t expect to celebrate those while I’m here for the exact reasons you noted – it’s not part of Australian history and identity. Expat communities often get together for these, but I choose to pass on them and I feel okay with that. Instead, I’ve adopted Anzac Day, Australia Day, and so forth. As for Halloween, that’s not specifically an American holiday and variations of it are celebrated all over the world, but there’s a strong anti-Halloween sentiment as if Easter and Christmas were Australia-grown. Meanwhile, the Day of Dead is happily embraced in Melbourne. Thankfully, that all seems to be changing. Perhaps I’ll be celebrating Halloween again in a few years. Thank you for your comments, Suse.

  23. I’m a British expat living in Adelaide, and I have to agree that on the whole, Australian’s don’t seem to be as big on Christmas. I always think part of it comes down to the fact that in the UK it’s this massive event, and it works really well to break up an otherwise long and depressing winter, whereas in Australia it’s in the summer, right in the middle of the school holidays for children everywhere, and there’s just so much else to enjoy – going to the beach, holidays interstate, general summer fun. It kind of gets lost amongst that.

    • That’s a good point. Christmas is competing against the summer and when people are away on holidays. It does lose its special vibe. Thanks for commenting, Emily!

  24. I’m a Melbourne native currently living abroad after 30+ years in Melbourne and I’m always fascinated by expats’ perceptions of Australia. I really enjoy your blog and I think you manage to capture the nuances of Australian culture really well. Unfortunately, however, I think you’ve missed the mark with this post (although I’ve come to it quite late!). While Australians are undoubtedly relaxed and laid-back, as some earlier posters have eluded to, I don’t believe we’re disinterested in annual celebrations or consider them any less important. Perhaps we celebrate them in a more understated manner than Americans or without the formality of celebrations in Europe or the UK, but that doesn’t mean they’re considered any less important. My family and my husband’s family always celebrate birthdays, without exception and always with cake, and the same goes for virtually everyone we know. Christmas too is a big deal ( I can honestly think of only one person I know who doesn’t put up a tree), but I think it’s worth noting for us it’s very much a summer festival – attempts to mimic the northern hemisphere vibe always fall flat! It’s rude to tell someone exactly what you want as a present – this is why people seem apathetic and deflect the question. Australian culture is very social and inclusive – there’s always a party or get-together or coffee meet-up happening. Maybe it’s more difficult to meet people as an expat, but once you’ve made friends I have no doubt you’ll receive a steady stream of invitations to social events. Perhaps because our overall lifestyle is more relaxed and less about work than in America, it’s harder to spot enthusiasm for annual festivals/celebrations? Australians do give a shit about celebrations – just not in the way you’re used to.

    • Hi Genevieve. Welcome and thank you for your comment! This post is from 2012 and I have made many more friends since I wrote it. My take hasn’t changed, but I’ve adjusted my expectations and am learning to be okay with the lack of celebrations.

      • I’m sorry, I just don’t see it that way. Perhaps growing up in Melbourne gives me a different perspective, especially the opportunity to build up friendships through school, university and work. I love Christmas and birthdays in Melbourne, but I think Australia would do well to change the emphasis of Australia Day and especially Anzac Day, which just seem so jingoistic and exclude huge numbers of Australians. We should have a national day that celebrates all of our heritage, from Aboriginal people to British settlement and post-WWII migrants, rather than focusing on narrow, exclusive elements of our history. Perhaps this is a discussion for another time!

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