I was in the queue in a canteen today, plastic tray in hand, when I noticed something had gone wrong with the food-ordering system. Ahead of me were five or six other blokes, each with a plastic tray of their own, looking over the counter into the kitchen. Four of the staff there were moving around in a gaggle, like eight-year-olds on a football pitch, discussing what a docket meant and looking for the relevant food-order, all four of them in one place, then all four of them in another. The other five or six kitchen-staff were looking on, or chatting about what had happened, or staring into space, whilst behind me more people grabbed trays and joined the queue. I caught the eye of the guy ahead of me.
‘What are they doing?’ he said. ‘What are any of them actually doing?’
‘I want to film them’ said the man ahead of him. ‘I could use them in a training course about how not to run a kitchen.’
We all laughed, and then one of the kitchen-staff broke away from the gaggle and came over to the counter.
‘Anyone waiting?’ she said to the lengthening queue.
Now, if this was the UK, someone – anyone of us – would have made a sarcastic comment. ‘No love, we’re just keeping out of the cold’. Or tutted and rolled their eyes, or even asked to speak to the manager. Some of the queue had been waiting twenty minutes for their lunch, we were all getting hangry. But this is not the UK, this is Australia. So I said ‘Yes, actually’, someone behind me sniggered and that was that. Anything more would have been completely inappropriate.
There’s a stereotype that the Australians think of the English as ‘whingeing poms’ but you don’t actually hear that expression very often. In fact, I’d forgotten it was even a thing until I first went back to the UK for a visit. I’d been out of the country long enough for England to be a bit foreign to me already and, apart from the crowds and the dirt, the biggest shock was the extent to which, oh my lord, we poms really do whinge. Not ‘whinge’ as in the voice of a five-year-old asking for a treat, but ‘whinge’ as in complain. We complain all the time. It’s our birthright, but more than that, it’s how we bond. If you’re sitting at a bus stop in England and you don’t complain about the weather and the bus service and the graffiti and youth today and the government, you’re just not making an effort. But you try that in Australia and, weather excepted (Australians love complaining about the weather), you’ll find yourself facing a barrage of ‘look on the bright side’ responses. ‘Can’t complain, listen to us, we’re the lucky country, you’ve got to laugh’. One of my favourite Aussie expressions is ‘suck it up princess’. It’s used largely with kids and what it really means is ‘don’t bother whingeing because no-one’s going to listen to you, and even if they do, they’ll call you girly and spoilt.’ It’s fantastically effective, but don’t try it at home. I said it to the senior partner a while ago and I’m still making amends.
The sunny-side attitude which results from all this not-complaining is one of my favourite things about living in Australia. There’s a widespread ‘can-do’ approach which really does make this a land of opportunity. I would rather be surrounded by Aussies in a disaster than any other nationality. I imagine them enjoying it, seeing who could prove themselves to be the most upbeat, solution-focused, team-playing, disaster-overcoming hero. A friend of mine was once part of a tour-group which got lost in the Indonesian jungle and, before she could stop herself, she shouted out ‘Don’t worry, I’m Australian!’ She laughed about it later, but also pointed out that she was the one who worked out how to use the river and a paperclip to navigate them back to civilisation.
But, like all things in life, there is a flipside. In a culture which doesn’t complain you get a very different type of service than, for example, in the UK. In England, if you need to call a call-centre or a plumber or the tax-office, you’re almost guaranteed to speak to someone utterly miserable. They’ll tut and sigh and imply you’re to blame, but once that’s out of the way they’ll probably do what they’ve said they’ll do. In Australia, it’s the opposite. Your assistant will be cheery, charming, upbeat and completely unreliable. ‘You’ll get it in four working days!’ No I won’t. I never expect anyone to turn up when they say they will unless I ring them a week, then two days before, then that morning to remind them. ‘Oh, today was it? Yeah, yeah, should be fine. I hope.’ At work I’ve got a reputation for being that weird guy who expects people to stick to deadlines. And anytime I engage a builder or a contractor or an estate agent, I get asked if I’m a lawyer, wanting everything agreed to in writing. It’s not that I’m (that) anal, it’s just that, out here, things won’t happen otherwise. And, let’s face it, if things go wrong, I can’t complain.
No-one here ever really complains about anything (except the weather). ‘She’ll be right, mate’ they say. Which doesn’t mean she will. It means ‘hey, the sun’s shining and surf’s up and life is good and it’s beautiful here, so maybe you should just chill out and enjoy yourself.’ You have to admit, they’ve got a point.
I’ll confess, I’m nervous writing this post and in two minds as to whether to publish it or not. It’s so negative you see, it feels like I’m whingeing about people not whingeing enough. Worse than that, it implies a criticism of my beloved adopted country. Friends over here will read it and tell me that if I don’t like it, I should go back to where I came from. (I challenge any Aussie reading this not to react with that phrase, you so know you want to).
So let me finish on a positive note. I am, after all, an almost-Aussie myself. And the anti-complaining culture does provide me with a wonderful opportunity: whenever an Australian friend / colleague / complete stranger says anything less than positive, I can put on my best and loudest English accent and call out ‘Oh do stop whingeing!’
And stand well back.