On a late Wednesday arvo in North Sydney, my entire office knocked off work early to play a game of barefoot bowls in the summer sun. This is a relaxed, Aussie version of traditional lawn bowls, so when it was the boss’ round to buy drinks, he just called in a sub. While Dave was at the bar (not Mr or Sir; just ‘Dave’), his game was openly mocked by 20-something colleagues with their suit trousers rolled up, a joke that only grew louder when he returned with a tray full of cold beers and joined in on the jest. We may have been at the second oldest bowls club in New South Wales, but there were no stiff white jackets. Just bare feet and beers. Everyone was called ‘mate’. Every second word was abbreviated.  

This kind of scene is nothing out of the ordinary. Australians have long been known for having a relaxed and casual attitude to life – everywhere from this Sydney bowls clubs to the barstools of Outback pubs to the surf beaches of Victoria. 

According to Dr Tanya King, senior lecturer in anthropology from Victoria’s Deakin University, “it’s Australians’ egalitarianism, sense of humour and informal language that are most commonly cited as examples of this attitude”.

An egalitarian spirit was worn as a badge of honour

These traits are nothing new – they can be seen in the irreverent wit and sardonic prose of famous late 1800s Australian bush poets and writers Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson. They were obvious in 1977 when ex-Australian cricketer Dennis Lillee greeted the Queen with a ‘G'day, how ya goin'?’. They were on show in 2012 as former prime minister Bob Hawke chugged a beer on camera. And they could be clearly seen at my post-work bonding session.

But I wanted to know where these aspects of Australian culture stem from? What is it that makes Australians so laid back – or at least seem that way?

According to Dr King, this sense of ‘mateship’ – of everyone being equal – is rooted in the history of the country’s white settlement. “Egalitarianism stems from the way that the nation was built,” she said, explaining that in Australia’s founding era in the late 1700s, convict settlers were often cruelly treated and deprived of their basic human rights by governors and other authority figures. The convict class, who were mostly working-class Brits and Irish, was unable to aspire to civic positions that were reserved for immigrants who were not of convict stock, with the latter arguing that if convicts gained equal rights it would be ‘rewarding criminality’. Because of this, an egalitarian spirit was worn as a badge of honour by many convict settlers. They may not have had power, education or wealth, but they had a shared belief in equality.

Interestingly, migrants coming to Australia since the 1850s from less egalitarian societies such as Britain, Ireland and China, may have also played a part in creating this national characteristic.

“People come over here to get a fresh start and to get away from intensely stratified class system in the UK and other parts of the world,” Dr King said.

People come over here to get a fresh start

Australia’s egalitarian ethos persisted through and beyond the 19th Century and has become a defining feature of the culture today. It’s why, at dinner in one of Sydney’s plethora of restaurants, the bill is often split evenly, regardless of differences in wealth (which is uncommon in many countries). It’s also what makes it acceptable to greet the Queen with a ‘g’day’; while the British might have been shocked and appalled by this, most Australians lauded Lillee as a true Aussie.  

There are times, however, when this fierce sense of equality has a less-desirable result. ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome’, a tendency to discredit or disparage those who have achieved notable wealth or prominence in public life, means Australians sometimes portray a more laidback attitude than is truthful, as those who try too hard are frequently mocked. Earlier this year on Late Night with Seth Meyers, Australian TV personality Ruby Rose hinted at this after the host called her famous, saying: “I’ll get in so much trouble if you say that. They don’t like hearing that back home.”

On a road trip from Sydney to Melbourne, driving along the Princes Highway past coastal towns such as Wollongong, Narooma and Mallacoota, I was struck by another well-known Australian trait. Laying on the beach in Pambula, I overheard some bare-chested local fishermen speaking in the kind of slang you must be Australian to understand, as they passed around ‘arvo tinnies’ (afternoon tins of beer) and talked about that bloke who got a little too ‘aggro’ (aggressive) at the pub last night.

The informal way Australians use language, using ‘ockerisms’ (an ocker is an uncultured Australian) and abbreviations, is also believed to stem from convict times – in The Australian Language, philologist Sidney Baker writes that ‘no other class would have a better flair for concocting new terms to fit in with their new conditions in life’. Cockney rhyming slang brought over by the British working class was shortened even further – so ‘have a Captains Cook’ (have a look), became ‘ava captains’. This same practice was used to economise ordinary clauses. Words like ‘good day’ became ‘g'day’, afternoon is ‘arvo’, journalist is ‘journo’ and barbecue is ‘barbie’.

Dr Tanja Luckins, lecturer in Australian Studies at Melbourne’s Deakin University, believes this type of language is indicative of our casualness. “Australians tend not to want to formalise stuff,” she said. 

The tough conditions of settler times also played a part in Australians’ dry, self-deprecating and sarcastic sense of humour. While in many countries it’s considered poor taste to find humour in difficult circumstances, Australians tend to look at the lighter side. On the same road trip, as I hit the state line and entered Victoria, I drove past some blackened trees, the remnants of a recent bushfire. A road sign warning drivers about wildlife was half-melted and bent, but the silhouette of a hopping kangaroo was still distinct. Behind the figure, someone had drawn flames making it look as though the animal’s tail was on fire – perhaps a reference to the famously altered lyrics of an Australian kids’ song in which a kookaburra’s tail catches fire as it sits on a telephone wire. I couldn’t help but laugh – it was a brilliant reminder of the country’s ‘nothing fazes us’ and anti-authoritarian attitude, something that Dr King later described as “part of our effort to disrupt the status quo” – perhaps a darker side to the character trait that shows every joke may not be as laidback as it seems on the surface.

And one thing you can’t help but notice when driving around Australia – even more so in the west than on my national park-strewn course from Sydney to Melbourne – is the country’s copious amounts of space. This, according to Dr Luckins, along with an abundance of leisure time plus favourable climate, all contribute to Australians’ relaxed attitude.

“We can trace our generous leisure time back to the 1850s,” she said. “Victoria was the first place in the world to introduce the eight-hour day: eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, and eight hours for recreation.”

And although the work-life balance may not be as good nowadays (2007 Australian Bureau of Statistics data showed a third of Australians work ‘unsocial’ hours), it’s still a nation that makes the most of its leisure time.

Arriving in Melbourne on a late weekday afternoon, the suburbs were dotted with fathers and sons playing cricket in the street (using the wheelie bin as stumps), while in the city’s Botanical Gardens, groups of friends enjoyed an after-work barbie and beers in the sun. Feeling relaxed and at ease myself, it would be simple to say the stereotype is entirely true – that Australians are laidback and don’t just seem that way. But, as Dr King said, it’s actually a bit of both.  

“Like our sense of humour, there’s a little more to that label than it first seems.”

Why We Are What We Are is a BBC Travel series examining the characteristics of a country and investigating whether they are true.

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