The delicate art of the Aussie insult

Australians…we have a way with words:

behaving like a complete … sl*t or a sanctimonious …nerd”

” like a bunch of (metaphorical) girls – refuses to hold it’s ground”

“…they…do not give a rats”

But where you ask would you find such language?

Why, in an op-ed article in yesterday’s Australian Financial Review, written by Laura Tingle, the AFR Political Editor.  When describing the behaviour of the Rudd Government and their backflip on the Emissions Trading Scheme, Tingle says:

The current government…swings violently between behaving like a complete political sl*t or a sanctimonious policy nerd”

”Labor still panics  like an opposition and like a bunch of (metaphorical) girls – refuses to hold it’s ground”

“the voters, they say, do not give a rats”

As the granddaughter of a publican from Birchip in the Western District of Victoria, I have fond memories of the way Grandpa had a unique way with language.

Favourites of mine were:

Useless as a hat full of a**holes”

with apologies to Esendon supporters, the Bombers were also always known as

“Sheedy’s mongrels”

Insults, creative insults, and the ability to both give and receive them graciously and with humour are an important element of Australian business and political culture. They are also deeply confusing, somewhat shocking to newcomers, and not an art in which one can dabble or be supported in developing skills through trial and error.  It is a delicate and complex process, the appropriate usage of insult, and the nuancing of sarcasm.

I’ll never forget providing cross-cultural coaching for a CEO from the States who had recently relocated to Sydney.  His culture shock was significant, and his responses to this shock, from an Australian perspective equally shocking.  When describing to me his first impressions of the rather large company of which he was to lead, he looked around, closed the door and with a conspiratorial lowering of the voice shared with me that “the women…they even cuss in the office. They even use…(with a pause for impact)…the ‘f’ word”.  He was, admittedly, from the deep South and a committed Christian so the shock was rather more extreme.  The interesting thing was what he did with this information.  His interpretation of the informality and language used in the office was as follows: 1. There was a distinct lack of respect and discipline in the office, 2. This explained some recent poor performance in profitability, and 3. He needed to take responsibility for getting things back on track fast and this would positively impact on business performance. This was not, I suggested, an ideal response to these observations of language usage.  Another client from the UK I was working with this week told me it had taken him more than a year to work out what “Good on ya” meant.   The key challenge being to differentiate between “Good on ya” when delivered with a flat tone, meaning ‘you loser’, from “Good on ya” delivered with a rising inflection, meaning ‘good on you’ or ‘well done’.

So…anyway…’better go now.  ‘Av a good one. Cheers.

About Tamerlaine Beasley
Beasley Intercultural is a consulting and training company focused on enabling success in globally connected and culturally diverse workplaces.

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