Tall poppies, crabs and success

There for the lopping

There for the lopping

Since success and the ways of losing as well as gaining it are one half of the manuscript I’m currently re-writing, I found myself pondering the famous Tall Poppy Syndrome.

I always assumed that all English-speaking people used the term, which refers to the quasi-socialistic perversion–or egalitarian instinct, depending on how you look at it–of cutting down anybody who stands out for merit, success and achievement. But apparently it’s mainly a UK, Aussie and Kiwi thing. Nick Faldo, for instance, has been tall-poppied.

Americans instead have the crab mentality. I like that metaphor because it’s vivid: Crabs really do pull other crabs back down if one of them tries to claw himself out of a bucket.

Scandinavians apparently have the Jante Law, after a fictional town called Jante in which the rules were:

  1. Don’t think that you are special.
  2. Don’t think that you are of the same standing as us.
  3. Don’t think that you are smarter than us.
  4. Don’t fancy yourself as being better than us.
  5. Don’t think that you know more than us.
  6. Don’t think that you are more important than us.
  7. Don’t think that you are good at anything.
  8. Don’t laugh at us.
  9. Don’t think that anyone of us cares about you.
  10. Don’t think that you can teach us anything.

So why the metaphor tall poppy?

Surprisingly, it turns out that two of “my guys,” Aristotle and Livy, were involved.

Aristotle (Politics, V.10) has the following passage:

Periander [a tyrant of Corinth] advised Thrasybulus [a tyrant of Miletus and his friend] by cutting the tops of the tallest ears of corn, meaning that he must always put out of the way the citizens who overtop the rest.

This is probably where Livy got the idea for his passage in Book I, 54 about the Roman tyrant Tarquin, who was asked by his son for advice on how to rule:

The king [Tarquin senior] went into the palace-garden, deep in thought, his son’s messenger following him. As he walked along in silence it is said that he struck off the tallest poppy-heads with his stick. Tired of asking and waiting for an answer … the messenger returned to [the land the son was now ruling] and reported what he had said and seen, adding that the king, whether through temper or personal aversion or the arrogance which was natural to him, had not uttered a single word. When it had become clear to Sextus what his father meant him to understand by his mysterious silent action, he proceeded to get rid of the foremost men of the State by traducing some of them to the people, whilst others fell victims to their own unpopularity. Many were publicly executed, some against whom no plausible charges could be brought were secretly assassinated.

A purge, in other words.

So the meaning has evolved. Whereas it used to refer to the powerful cutting down potential rivals, it now refers to the envious cutting down those whom they consider uppity. Quite a big shift. Disgusting all the way through. Worth contemplating.

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15 thoughts on “Tall poppies, crabs and success

  1. Not heard that term before.

    Reminds me of a faculty meeting I attended years ago in which the principal suggested we have a Teacher of the Year award.

    (I thought is was a dandy idea because I hoped to win it…), but at least 50 of the 77 staff members trashed the idea, citing the demoralization of the losing 76 other teachers.

  2. Interesting – I’d never heard that term before, either. I think anyone who sets out to be successful has been the victim of the crab mentality at one point or another. It’s unfortunate how so many people mistake ambition for arrogance.

    • Andreas – great post on language and what good metaphors can reveal.

      The US has a revealing (And troubling) equivalent of your ‘socialistic perversion–or egalitarian instinct’. Its the Lake Wobegon Effect, from Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion – where “all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” There is a denial of reality at the core of the American Dream – far too many people believe they are (or will be) at least middle class, if not outright rich. And they vote accordingly – best current example is the health care debate.

      Note – I’m not against the American Dream – just pointing out a flaw…

      Re the expression, why not use it as your chapter title? Its memorable and you can help it spread in the US. As you know I’m all for cross-pollination of languages…

  3. Mr. C. here, bringing it down a notch as usual. The first thing I think of (rather than crabs) is the game “Whack-a-Mole.” This is an arcade game where a person with a hammer stands in front of several holes. A mole pops his head out, you whack it. I had to dig deep (Wikipedia, as usual) to learn to what extent the figurative phrase, Whack-a-Mole, is colloquial.

    From Wikipedia: “The connotation is that of a repetitious and futile task: each time the attacker is “whacked” or kicked off a service, he only pops up again from another direction. The term Whac-a-Mole, or Whack-a-mole, has been used in the computer and networking industry to describe the phenomenon of fending off recurring spammers, vandals or miscreants. Also used in the military to refer to opposing troops who keep re-appearing: Whack the mole here and it dies, but another pops up in a different spot. This use has been common in the Iraq War in reference to the difficulty of defeating the Iraqi insurgency.”
    By extension, hacking the tall poppies, whacking the moles, or pulling back the crabs is futile. The tall poppies (on average) will prevail.

    Maybe ‘whack a mole’ is pertinent to Hannibal after all.

  4. Btw, what will you call the reverse of “crab mentality”? a scenario where if one crab tries to escape out of the bucket, every crab helps it achieve the goal?

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