Avoiding the tall poppy bring down

CECILE MEIER
Last updated 05:00 21/02/2014

Successful Kiwis have been all over the international news lately, be it in music, literature or sports. In this context, it's hard to imagine there's such a thing as the Tall Poppy Syndrome (TPS) in New Zealand.

Yet, when Brendon McCullum scored 300 against India this week - a monumental achievement by any standards - he remained humble.

He even said in an interview that he felt a bit embarrassed because he was nowhere near the calibre of the legends of New Zealand cricket.

After more than a year here, I have experienced the TPS in many ways.

During the journalism programme at Canterbury University, we often had to show our assignments to others for feedback. Many times a classmate would barely want me to look at their work.

"It's terrible, I hate it," they would say.

Worried, I would rehearse encouraging feedback in my head and prepare myself for the worst.

But then, when I finally saw the assignment, I was blown away by the quality.

"It's freaking HAMAZING!" I would say.

But they would shake their heads sadly, like I was lying to comfort them.

"No, it really is," I would say, almost starting an argument about the value of their work.

After a while, I realised it was normal to downplay skills and successes. It did not mean you could not be successful, it was just culturally inappropriate to mention it. Roger Federer could be mistaken for a Kiwi; Kim Dotcom not so much.

If someone asks me if I'm happy with my work, I won't pretend I hate it if I am proud of it. If someone pays me a compliment, I'll say thanks and smile. However, some of my European friends who have affectionately called me "insufferably smug" on occasions might barely recognise me after a year here.

I've learned to keep my smugness in check for fear of being labelled arrogant or offensive.

A few weeks ago, a letter printed in The Press stated "I love that girl. Cécile Meier."

Yay! Someone liked - no, loved - my work. Someone loved me!

Back in France or in Switzerland, I would have showed it to my friends and colleagues. Here, I read it quietly hiding in a corner and told no-one. I just gave my wall shadow a tiny fistbump.

Thankfully there is a way around the TPS: it's called the humble brag and it is what I've just done here, shamelessly boasting about the letter to illustrate my point. I could also pretend to complain about something in a way that highlights my achievements:

"It's so weird to get fanmail. It's like I have a stalker. Creepy!"

In contrast to the myth, I haven't seen New Zealanders flock to cut down tall poppies only because they're successful.

If you go on Twitter you'll see that humble brags happen all over the world, not only in New Zealand.

Exceptional performances are celebrated. Acting as if being tall and colourful in your domain makes you somehow superior that will earn you a visit from the weed trimmer of public opinion. Humility is a virtue, but pride in success should be permitted. Getting 300 runs, winning a Grammy, winning the Booker Prize - all of these are incredible achievements.

Should McCullum, Lorde and Eleanor Catton act as though it was no big deal?

Have you experienced the Tall Poppy Syndrome? Comment below, email me at cecile.meier@press.co.nz or follow me on Twitter

- The Press

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