Did you see those Aussies strip down to their essentials and drink from their shoes at the 2016 Malaysian Grand Prix? They offended a few sensibilities in Malaysia and found themselves staring down the barrel of a potential prison term, but despite some uncomfortable days in custody, they got off and were sent packing back to Australia with their tails between their legs.
Regardless of what you might think of any Malaysian reactions to the lads’ frivolities, it was a stupid thing for them to do. Now known as the “Budgie Nine”, a cross-reference to another group of Aussies who got themselves in a wee spot of bother abroad and a colloquial term for men’s swimwear, these Australians demonstrated zero cultural awareness of the country they were in – and it could’ve cost them a great deal more than it did.
Young Aussie men, and yes, it’s mostly the blokes, have a bit of a reputation for being idiots overseas. Have you ever come across a group of drunk Aussies in London or Bali? They’re the worst!
Because the perpetrators of the GP incident were constantly referred to as “boys” in Australian media reports, it got me wondering about at which age do we stop calling “men” “boys”? One of “the boys” was the son of a senior Australian diplomat and another, somewhat frighteningly, was a Policy Adviser for the Australian Defence Industry Minister Christoper Pyne, a job he lost over the incident. All in their late-twenties, most of them went to top private schools and at least some of them were well connected to the Australian political and business elite, all of which probably helped them to beat the criminal rap that was held against them.
Video of the Budgie Nine lecturing Australians to sensitive to other cultures and asking for some privacy.
But actually, being an idiot abroad isn’t only the purview of young boozed-up fellas from the land Down Under. Australia’s business and political leaders often act just as badly, and it’s costing the Aussie taxpayer much more!
They might not be getting drunk on the tube at 10am and singing bogan tunes at top volume or getting down to their budgie smugglers at a GP for kicks, but they have their own ways of being ‘Idiots Abroad’.
I attend many Australian networking and trade related events overseas and I often see Australian business and political leaders demonstrate the same zero-level of cultural intelligence that the budgie-smuggler lads displayed at the GP. At a recent Australian trade mission that I attended in Vietnam, many Australian delegates, including elected representatives, public servants and business people, handed out business cards to potential Vietnamese clients and partners that were wonderfully designed and written – in Mandarin!
What message does that send to the Vietnamese people that they are trying to do business with? That Aussies think all Asian people are the same? That Aussies don’t know the difference between China and Vietnam? That they think Vietnamese people speak Chinese? That they couldn’t even be bothered Googling it?
And, in an effort to impress the Vietnamese audience, the delegation’s wonderful video promotions and well-rehearsed speeches included many stories about how Chinese people have succeeded in Australia and how good Australia’s business relationships with China are.
Here’s a free tip for you – the Vietnamese, and people of most other Asian countries as well, generally dislike being compared in such a way to the Chinese and often take offense to such comparisons. Among other Asian nations, Vietnam is in a state of near conflict with China over territorial disputes. Can you imagine how your Mandarin language business card makes you look to the Vietnamese people you present them to?
It’s a big problem for me, as an Australian taxpayer who has forked out some dough so that business and political leaders can travel overseas to promote Australia as a good trade partner and investment destination, that our business leaders and elected representatives are blowing potentially lucrative deals and making us all look like idiots because they couldn’t be bothered getting even the most basic cultural competence training!
The worst thing is that these culturally unaware business and government folk wouldn’t even be aware that they’ve blown the deals the taxpayer has funded them to secure, such is their arrogance.
It was interesting to read about Australia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Julie Bishop condemning the budgie-smuggler culprits. I recently interviewed Patti McCarthy, a Melbourne based cultural intelligence expert who had this to say about the Minister:
“Every time I see Julie Bishop going into a business meeting with a Muslim business leader wearing a sleeveless dress I think, seriously, has she not got an adviser? it’s inexcusable!”
The Budgie Nine might get more press about their cultural stuff-ups abroad then our political leaders do, but cultural blunders by our pollies and bureaucrats can be just as embarrassing and more economically damaging.
Earlier this year in Vietnam, a little down the road from where I’m writing this, the Vietnamese Government shut down, with less than a day’s notice, Australian events commemorating the Battle of Long Tan. After some discussions with the Australian Government, the Vietnamese relented and allowed some of the events to go ahead. The reasons why the Vietnamese shut down the events in the first place were because many of the Australians involved, and I’m not talking about the returned Diggers here, were acting like idiots. In the lead up to the commemoration, and for the first time ever, it started to slightly resemble the circus that Gallipoli commemorations have become notorious for – something the Australian Government knew of in advance but failed to take adequate action to stem. Many of the Australians involved in the organisation of the events, including government ministers and officials, demonstrated zero cultural intelligence in regards to Vietnam, its government or its people.
In the days leading up to the commemorations, for example, several of Australia’s political leaders sent out nationalistic tweets in a triumphant tone about the battle that occurred fifty years ago. Former Australian Ambassador to Vietnam, Richard Broinowski, writing about the fracas for the Australian Institute of International Affairs, rightly described Austrralia’s “compulsive need to glorify the deeds of the Australian digger, sometimes beyond accuracy” as “unedifying”.
Did the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Senator Jaquie Lambie and others think that no one in Vietnam would read their tweets gloating about Australia’s “win” at Long Tan or that they might take offence? As a country that supposedly wants to be “friends” with Vietnam, do our representatives think that bragging about the outcomes of old battles is something that “friends do”? These unedifying tweets by Australian Ministers and other representatives surely added to the Vietnamese Government’s decision to pull the plug on the commemorative events.
Furthermore, whilst the aggressive tone taken against the Vietnamese Government by Prime Minister Turnbull and Veterans Affairs Minister Dan Tehan in media interviews, complete with phrases like “a kick in the guts”, might appeal to certain elements of Australian society, they won’t go down too well with the Government in Hanoi or the people of Vietnam. It’s a big problem that Australian politicians often subjugate our crucial international relations in order to score a few points at home.
The sad thing is that when governments botch something, it’s the regular people who have to wear it, and because of some good-old Aussie arrogance it was a bunch of aging Aussie diggers wanting to remember their fallen mates who most visibly copped the wrong end of the stick this time.
Here’s the thing – Australia’s general lack of cultural awareness is costing the nation a great deal and very few recognise it.
If you’re an Aussie and you’re doing business abroad or with people from abroad, for the sake of yourself and everyone else – go out and get yourself some cultural competence training.
- Simple Strategies for Bridging Cultural Gaps: Patti McCarthy on Australian engagement in Asia and her new book, Cultural Chemistry