Ever wondered what is and isn’t good etiquette in Australia? Well, fear not, you have a little leeway here in the land of Oz. At least, we don’t have many rigid and unbreakable rules of etiquette.
…there are certain behaviours that may give off the wrong impression. Some may seem obvious, some may surprise, it really depends on where you’re from! Rudeness is after all, relative.
Here’s what you need to know:
To the left, to the left…
Australians drive on the left-hand side on the road, and this convention carries over to other parts of our streets as well.
When stopping on an escalator, or walking up stairs, always stick to the left and don’t block other people from passing you by resting your hand on the right-side railing.
Equally, when walking on the sidewalk, try to stick to the left where possible.
Pay special attention when walking on bike-paths where it’s not just a matter of politeness but also a matter of safety to stick to the left side.
Australia is the 9th least densely populated country in the world. Perhaps this is why, even in our busy cities, people like to have a fairly large circle of personal space.
It’s considered rude to brush up against someone unless it’s absolutely necessary (like on crowded public transport). When there is space available, try to stay at an arm’s length away from people. If you have to invade that space for some reason, an ‘excuse me’ or ‘sorry’ is appropriate.
Unless there’s assigned seating, or a theatre is completely full, give strangers a couple of chair spaces between you and them.
Tipping wait staff, hotel staff, and cab drivers is not necessary in Australia as it is in the USA and some other places. It is slightly more common to tip in upscale restaurants, but you always have the option of tipping and won’t be frowned upon if you don’t.
Australians call them both elevators and lifts (just to mix it up) but the rules are simple.
It’s polite to hold elevator doors for people who are approaching the elevator. It’s also polite to ask them which floor they would like if you are standing closest to the buttons, especially if it’s crowded and they may find it hard to reach over.
Don’t feel as though you should say ‘G’day’ or use the word ‘mate’ a lot. Australians are aware of this stereotype and it can feel a little patronizing coming from a visitor. Just saying hello and making good eye contact is fine. A handshake may be appropriate if you’re meeting someone with whom you expect to have an ongoing relationship, like a new work colleague.
Even in formal situations, Australians tend to prefer first names. Calling someone (even your boss) Mr or Miss, Sir or Ma’am can sound a bit stiff.
If you’re waiting to board public transport, be sure to wait for everyone exiting to get out before you try to get on. Not waiting for people to exit first is something that will definitely irritate other travellers…especially early on a Monday morning.
In Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne and a few other capital cities, peak hour traffic on public transport is under strain, and it’s not exactly difficult to get on other people’s nerves. Check out our Guide to Public Transport Etiquette to find out more.
In Australian business settings, punctuality, friendliness and straightforwardness are valued. Handshakes are an appropriate way of greeting males and females, and clothes are conservative (with colours tending to be darker).
Be sure to respect Australia’s 9 am to 5 pm business hours (this includes emails and messages, unless it’s a matter of urgency).
Business cards are becoming less common so if someone doesn’t offer you a business card, don’t worry, it’s not an insult, they probably just don’t use them.
If someone is within five steps of a door when you’re walking through it, don’t let it slam in their faces, hold it open for them. Of course, this will vary a little depending on the situation – use your best judgment. There are no special rules for males or females, simply hold doors for people who are near and maybe make an extra allowance for someone carrying something.
In some cultures, queuing is optional or just not-a-thing. In Australia the queue is sacred. ‘Pushing-in’ in any situation – at a bar, a service desk or a cashier is considered the height of rudeness. Most of the time, it’s pretty obvious where a queue begins and ends, but if you’re in doubt, simply ask ‘excuse me, is this the end of the line?’
If you’re in a crowded place, like a nightclub, pay special attention to who was waiting at the bar to be served before you. If a bar attendant approaches you instead of someone who was there before you, it’s polite to signal that the other person was there first.
Coughing, sneezing and all the rest
After the Swine flu panic, like many places in the world, Aussies have become more conscious of proper respiratory hygiene. The Australian National Health and Medical Research Council spells out the rules nicely; if you’re coughing or sneezing, use a disposable tissue and if there’s none available, ‘cough or sneeze into the inner elbow rather than the hand’. Why the inner elbow? It’s all science based – check out Mythbusters The Safe Sneeze test to find out.
Spitting in public places is a big no-no and (perhaps we need to tell you this, perhaps we don’t) public urination is considered an offense everywhere in Australia. Best not to do it.
In 1979 when NASA’s Skylab space station came crashing down in Western Australia, the sleepy town of Esperance issued NASA a $400 fine for littering.
Australians take a lot of pride in the state of their environment and while we’re not as clean as Singapore, littering is not just an affront but is illegal. A concerted ‘anti-litter’ movement began in the late 1960’s and most Australians have grown up with the slogan, ‘Do the right thing – put it in the bin.’
The taboo extends to indoors as well as outdoors. When eating in a food hall, or anywhere where tables and chairs are shared, take rubbish to the bin when you’re finished. In fact, if you can see bins, it’s a sign that you’re expected to use them.
Even in places like cinemas, where people are paid to clean up after you, it’s polite to drop your empty popcorn boxes in the bin on the way out.
NEVER EVER DROP LITTER OR CIGGERETTE BUTTS OUTSIDE!!!
– rubbish dropped on the street eventually ends up in Australia’s waterways causing pollution and poisoning fish, birds and animals.
Interacting with service staff
Australians have a strong culture of egalitarianism that they don’t like to see violated. No matter their job, treat people with equal respect and use ‘please’, ‘thank you’ and ‘excuse me’ with everyone. Never snap your fingers, whistle or yell at service staff to get their attention. As well as being considered rude, the standard of service you receive may drop a little…
At the table
Table manners in Australia are Continental, meaning that the fork goes in the left hand and the knife goes in the right
In some cultures, it is considered polite to leave a little food on your plate, but Australia is not one of those cultures. Feel free to finish your meal.
Different cultures have different relationships with time.
Common concepts of time include; linear, multi-active or cyclical. Like many Anglo-Saxon cultures, Australians have a linear relationship with time.
That simply means that time is measured by the clock, (not by what someone achieves within a certain amount of time). It is important to arrive at appointments at the actual time specified (and even be a few minutes early) especially in business situations.
However, when invited to someone’s home for a social event, it’s best not to arrive exactly on time, but a little later.
There aren’t many taboo topics in Australia, although if you’ve just met someone, you might want to avoid topics of race, religion, politics and sex until you know them better.
If you’re looking for sure and safe conversation starters, try the weather or sports (especially football).