Ever wondered what is and isn’t good etiquette in Australia? Well, for one, Australia is generally pretty relaxed when it comes to customs and formalities. But, there are certain behaviours that may give off the wrong impression. To help you navigate the Australian rules of etiquette, here’s what you need to know.
To the left, to the left…
Australians drive on the left-hand side of the road, and this convention carries over to other parts of Australian 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. Here, it’s not just a matter of politeness but also one of safety to stick to the left side.
Australia is one of the least densely populated countries in the world. This could be why, even in 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 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.
While tipping wait staff, hotel staff and cab drivers is necessary in the US and some other places, it’s not required in Australia. 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 are going to if you are standing closest to the buttons – especially if it’s crowded and they are finding 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 patronising 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) ‘Mister’ 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 9am to 5pm 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. Instead, hold it open for them. Of course, this will vary a little depending on the situation but use your best judgment. There are no special rules for males or females; simply hold doors for anyone who is near and maybe make an extra allowance for someone who is carrying something.
In some cultures, queuing is optional or not that common. 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
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 public urination is considered an offence 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. While the streets aren’t as clean as in Singapore, littering is not just an affront, but is illegal. A concerted ‘anti-litter’ movement began in the late 1960s 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 CIGARETTE 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
Australia has a strong culture of egalitarianism that it doesn’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 subjects in Australia, although if you’ve just met someone, you might want to avoid topics like 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).
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