So there I was trying to relax as my physio pounded away on various muscles that I didn’t even know hurt until he touched them. He was quite the chatty type, this physio, and I had soon mentioned that we had just moved from Tasmania to Sydney. “I’ve never been to Tasmania,” he commented, pressing hard into my calf muscle. “What’s it like? Is it nice? How is it different from Sydney?”
What’s the difference between Sydney and Hobart?
My thoughts quickly drifted to beautiful Tasmania. Yes, it is nice. I highly recommend visiting to anyone, especially those who love the great outdoors. We have ancient rainforest, a vibrant art scene, and long stretches of empty beaches, stunning in beauty but a bit chilly if you want to go swimming.
All those things are physical, observable traits of Tasmania which make the island state, in my opinion, “nice”. However, there is more to it than that. There is something about Hobart that results in adjectives like “friendly”, or “down-to-earth”. But what is this “something”? The exact difference between the feel of the city of Hobart and that of an enormous place like Sydney is hard to define.
The building blocks of culture
There are many subtle nuances to culture that result in a characteristic being given to that group. Individually, these small gestures or habits do not make a group of people “open” or “aloof” or any other label, yet taken together they create a certain “feel” that results in a particular label.
When you are immersed in a group it is very difficult to pinpoint what it is that determines how the feeling is created. It is only with the lack of these things that it becomes clearer. Let’s use Hobart as a case study and the idea that it is “friendly” as the main example.
It’s a classic small town trope that you know everyone and everyone knows you. While that’s obviously not true in a city of 220,000 people, the reality is not far off. If you are chatting to someone you have just been introduced to, as you acquaint yourself with their work, hobbies, and other interests, you are very likely to find a mutual friend. Such discovery fosters a feeling of interconnectedness.
Another aspect to this is the people you see on repeat but don’t necessarily know. There was a man in my council area that everyone knew, not by name but simply because he was always out walking. And I don’t just mean in my street, I mean in the whole of my local council. We called him “the walking man”. That everyone shared the knowledge of this man’s existence allowed for some kind of social bond, despite the fact that I’ve never met anyone who has actually talked to him.
In the sub-culture of Hobart there are a myriad of little things that you grow to expect without even realising it: all the bus drivers wave to each other as they pass on the road; you see your State politicians in the supermarket; and despite having three bridges across the Derwent River, everyone knows what you mean when you say “the Bridge”. That’s just a sampling of what makes Hobart “friendly”.
Analysis of this kind is helpful in understanding how complex the concept of culture is. There is far more to understanding a group of people and feeling comfortable amongst them (and they with you!) than simply knowing the same language.
Understanding culture helps us blend in but more importantly avoid causing unintended offence. Every Tasmanian will get offended if you don’t put your hand up and wave when they let you merge while driving or wait for you to back out of a car space. It’s an unspoken expectation.
That’s what makes culture so tricky to learn: 95% of it is unspoken. Being transplanted to Sydney has given me the opportunity to see my own sub-culture more clearly. It has also made me aware how important observation is.
If you are trying to learn a new culture, the best thing you can do is observe: watch people doing all sorts of things: driving, talking to strangers, interacting with their spouse in public, or waiting in a queue. From that observational standpoint we can begin to unravel the mysteries of a culture different to ours. Perhaps we might even begin to understand the Tasmanian as he differs from the Sydney-sider!
Lucinda is a housewife who is studying language and culture acquisition with her husband. She grew up in Hobart.