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A pejorative term used in the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and New Zealand to describe a leveling social attitude seen as jealous and spiteful towards people of real accomplishments. Someone is said to be suffering from tall poppy syndrome when his or her academic, artistic, economic, scientific, social, or political prominence attracts resentment by those who lack such prominence, being perceived as presumptuous, attention seeking, or without merit. Alternately, it is seen as a societal trait in which people of genuine merit are criticized or resented because the attention given them elevates them above their peers. Tall poppies could once expect to be cut down.

In the United States of America, it is often considered a point of local pride when someone manages this kind of advancement, and often put forth as one of the worthiest goals a person can achieve. The trope is thus less likely to be used there (that doesn't mean it doesn't happen at all, of course). Your mileage may vary, mostly based on which state you are in.

This term is occasionally used as a synonym for "egalitarianism" (of any kind) but to do so is very misleading. Egalitarianism is concerned with improving the lot of the lowest levels, "raising the Lowest Common Denominator." For example, political philosopher John Rawls argued that inequality of income under an economic system is not bad as long as the minimal outcome saw improvement under the system (i.e. "maximize the minimum"). Tall Poppy Syndrome is the inverse; instead of attempting to raise the lowest level, it lowers the highest level. The aim is not to assist the less-good (by any standard) to become better, but to destroy the better (by any standard) in order to make the worse-off feel less bad.

In short, whereas egalitarianism (again, any kind of egalitarianism, not just income equality egalitarianism) is "the good is a good thing and therefore the more of it, the better," Tall Poppy Syndrome is "the good is bad because it makes me jealous and If I Can't Have It, No One Can!"

Needless to say, countries that have Tall Poppy Syndrome are very likely to have many citizens within them that do not approve of Tall Poppy Syndrome.

The term comes from a story about Tarquin the Proud, last king of ancient Rome. Tarquin was asked what to do with the leading men of an enemy city his soldiers had captured. He sliced the heads off the tallest poppies in his garden and so the enemy leaders were put to death by beheading.

Also related is the Japanese proverb Deru kugi utareru -- "The nail that sticks out gets hammered down" (although this is more about anyone not conforming, instead of "only" ambitious people) and the Norwegian "Jantelov" (see below), and the Philippine equivalent known as Crab Mentality or "Crab Bucket Syndrome" (based on the myth that if you have at least two crabs in a bucket, you don't need to have a lid, because the other(s) prevent any one member from trying to climb out of it). See also Ambition Is Evil and It's Popular, Now It Sucks. Compare The Complainer Is Always Wrong.

Contrast Social Darwinism and Moving the Goalposts, where it's about making it harder for those at the bottom to climb up.

Examples in Fiction:


Comedy

  • There's a joke where a dead Pole (as in, a dude from Poland) is escorted past the cauldrons that hold members of various nationalities, each one with a devil standing guard to push back in the ones trying to get out. At the cauldron for Poles, there are no devils, because of the given trope. Sometimes it's also about other people than the Poles, and sometimes it's set in a concentration camp, or a GULAG, instead of hell (with the prisoners having to work in clay pits or similar).
  • There are versions of this joke involving Ukrainians and/or Russians.
  • A more serious joke: A man from <insert country with TPS here> sits in his room and complains about his bad life. Then, an angel appears and tells him: "God cares about you, so He decided you get one wish - but whatever you wish for, your neighbor will get twice of it!" The man thinks about it: "So if I wish for a house, he'll get two? If I wish for a million dollars, he'll get two?" The angel affirmatives. Then the man states: "I want to be blind on one eye!" The angel leaves weeping. A more subtly spiteful joke has the protagonist use his only or third wish to donate a kidney.
    • A common variant has the man wishing to "be beaten half-dead."
    • Another version is "having a stroke" or a "mild heart attack".

Comic Books

  • In one story of The Smurfs, they found a magic egg which fulfills wishes. One smurf wishes for a big cake, but doesn't want to share it. (Not nice, but justified if anyone else can have as many wishes as he likes.) The next smurf then wishes for said cake disappearing.
  • Some comics in the Marvel Universe speculate this is why heroes there receive such poor responses from the general population. Super-heroes are extraordinary people with amazing abilities and dedicate their lives to improving the world around them, so normal humans feel weak and selfish by comparison. The Kingpin ties this into I Just Want to Be Normal and Muggle Power in a "The Reason You Suck" Speech in Ultimate Spider-Man #80.

 The Kingpin:They, "society," hate you because they don't want your help. You remind them of how weak-willed and sheep-like and unspecial they are. How gleeful they are, deep down, to be ordinary. They don't want heroes. They don't want special people around them. Because if there are special people and they aren't one of them-- well, who wants that? Who wants a constant reminder that they aren't even trying to be special? See, the difference between you and I is that you really are just a child. You benefit from the wide-eyed optimism of youth. I do envy that, somewhat. But... like many of your decisions in life... it's just naive. And I don't envy that harsh cold slap of reality that will come your way soon enough. But I guess it's inevitable. People don't want to be special. I do think that.It is my philosophy. They-- people want to be told what to do and how to live and they want men like me to tell them. They want to go to work and do as little as they can possibly get away with, and they want a big cookie at the end of the day for doing it. And they want men like me to give it to them."

Fan Works

  • Sadly, it's a very common attitude amongst both readers and creators within fandoms of nearly all types. Big Name Fans and Promoted Fans tend to become polarizing figures and people that go on to become published creators themselves are often looked upon with scorn beyond any perceived injustices they may have committed. This is also often the underlying impetus behind the endless flame wars over what constitutes "canon" and the extensive culture of Original Character shaming/bullying (which goes so far beyond what anyone might call "Mary Sue", it scares off quite a few would-be writers). A lot of this really does come down to "don't try and be anything more than the rest of us".
  • Story of the Blanks -This is the secret of Sunnytown. They murdered all ponies who received cutie marks, thus, anypony that excelled and stood out from the crowd

Film

Literature

  • Repeatedly touched on in Atlas Shrugged, and Objectivism as Obviously Evil.
  • In Unseen Academicals when Glenda is resistant to her friend Juliet taking an opportunity for a lucrative and glamorous life as a fashion model, she's told by Pepe that this is an example of "Crab Bucket", but doesn't understand, and Pepe doesn't elaborate. When a fishmonger later tells Glenda that you can keep crabs in a bucket with no lid, since any crab that tries to climb out is pulled down by the others, she realizes what the reference meant. The lower class in Ankh-Morpork suffer from such a case of Tall Poppy Syndrome that anyone trying to elevate themselves is seen to be "giving themselves airs" and "having ideas above their station" and dragged back down by their peers - or, just as often, by themselves, these habits having become ingrained. Overcoming the "crab bucket" mentality is a big part of Glenda's Character Development.
  • This is a major factor in most of the Sharpe stories -- the Establishment is deeply offended that a common soldier born to poverty could have become an officer. Then even more offended when he goes around being better at it than them. Similarly, a lot of the common soldiers resent being given orders by a "jumped-up Sergeant". To the point where they attempt to frag him at one two many lots of points.
  • Deconstructed in Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut, where everyone is literally handicapped to the lowest common denominator. Athletic people must wear heavy chains to make them slow and clumsy. Smart people wear earphones that randomly play loud noises to disrupt their thinking patterns. And beautiful people must wear masks.
  • Touched on in Lies My Teacher Told Me, I.E. any Native American who isn't living on the reservation/running a casino/wearing Braids, Beads, and Buckskins isn't a "real" Native American.
  • In Screwtape Proposes a Toast, Screwtape expounds upon this phenomenon in Britain, drawing attention to the fact that, in the original story that gave the phenomenon its name, it was a dictator cutting off heads to insure that his subjects were all equal. Of course, Screwtape being a demon, he thinks this tyranny of the masses is one of the best things to happen to Britain in decades.
  • The Scandinavian term Janteloven ("the Jante law" or "the law of Jante") comes from the 1933 novel A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks by Danish-Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose. In this book, the first-person narrator comes from a small town called Jante in Denmark, where the working-class inhabitants follow the unwritten Jante law, which consists of rules that basically boil down to "Don't think you're anything special":

 1: Don't think you're anything special.

2: Don't think you're as much as us.

3: Don't think you're wiser than us.

4: Don't convince yourself that you're better than us.

5: Don't think you know more than us.

6: Don't think you are more than us.

7: Don't think you are good at anything.

8: Don't laugh at us.

9: Don't think anyone cares about you.

10: Don't think you can teach us anything.

11: Don't think there's anything we don't know about you.

  • In Pinocchio (only the book), the blue fairy promised him he'd become a real boy if he's always well-behaved and gets good grades in school. Then one day, the other boys tell him that the monster whale was seen near their place, and that they should skip school to look for it. Pinocchio hesitates, but then decides to join them because he cares about Geppetto. When they go to the sea, no whale. Pinocchio gets suspicious, and wants to know what's going on. Then, the other boys tell him, that they'll look bad if he's an A-student, but if everyone in class was as lazy as they are, they'd be just average.
  • In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus complains that "All men are equal" has led to schoolteachers who promote all students instead of holding back underachievers.
  • "Heart is a lonely hunter", of Carson McCullers fame (a tall poppy herself) is the best example that comes to mind, or just ANYTHING by William Faulkner. It appears also in the works of John Fante, Charles Bukowski, Arthur Miller and pretty much any other American who tried to make a true portrait of the typical American small town: it's a sad human reality.
  • Straight from the Gospels, and thus Older Than Feudalism: No man is prophet in his own land (on how Jesus Himself is panned in his own home village, Nazareth, when he tries to deliver His message). This trope is pretty much Word of God, for some.
  • In Matched, Ky does this on purpose so, as an Aberration, he won't be selected to fight in the war.
  • This is the entire point of the book Among Friends by Caroline B. Cooney. Jennie Quint is regarded as pretty much perfect (except for math) at her school and she's a super-overachiever. Jennie herself isn't an egotist or a snob, but even her very best friends are getting really fed up with constantly being overshadowed by Jennie's perfection.
  • In Huckleberry Finn, Huck's father (a slovenly, abusive, and neglectful drunkard) is absolutely enraged by the fact that Huck is getting an education and a chance at a decent shot in life, because he thinks that now Huck is going to think he's above his dad.
  • This is a major theme in Girl in Translation. The main character, Kimberly Chang, is repeatedly shown to be jealous of her much wealthier classmates. On a more serious note, Kimberly's aunt forces her and her mother to live in a dangerous, roach-infested apartment and work long hours of hard labor in a Chinatown sweatshop from fear that Kimberly will be more succesful than her son.

Live-Action TV

Music

 People too, me and you

Can also be like lobsters in buckets

It's all just one big mess

Please don't be a lobster, friends are best

  • Delta Goodrem got this after the success of her first album.
  • Britney Spears has been dealing with this since the start of her 14 year career.

Newspaper Comics

  • Calvin lampshades this in Calvin and Hobbes when he's proud of getting a "C". He finds life easier the lower he keeps below peoples' expectations.
  • In Zits, Jeremy is initially excited to get an "A" on a test...then suddenly has a vision of his parents saying they're proud of him and from now on, will expect him to bring home As on every test. Cut to the next panel where he says he thinks he blew it.

Tabletop Games

  • If you're one of the "lesser" evils (i.e., fiends), so to speak, in Dungeons and Dragons, everybody above you keeps bullying you just for kicks (and everyone below you keeps trying to take your job). The top-level guys have no one looking down on them, at least not honestly (as archevils and demon lords often don't think much of each other, but they're on more or less equal footing) but on the other hand, they're surrounded by legions of The Starscream...

Video Games

  • In "Jak 3", after Jak beats Kleiver's high score at the Gun Turret challenge, Kleiver, ever the good sport, remarks, "The tall poppy has to be snipped sometime." Incidentally, Kleiver is depicted as having an Australian accent.
  • The most believed and plausible reason why in Harvest Moon everyone will berate and snide you for using Golden Lumber for a fence because of how ridiculously expensive it is. They're envious of your success.
  • A combination of this, genuine bitterness, and her own position probably being worse in its own way is why Goldanna, Alistair's half-sister, is so disdainful of him in Dragon Age. (Of course, if you were just trying to scrape by as a washerwoman and your half-brother walked in wearing elaborate armor and accompanied by three other people all dressed up equally fine...)
  • In the Deus Ex Human Revolution tie-in novel Icarus Effect, the title effect is described as a social phenomenon where, to maintain "stability", society cuts down individuals who excel too far before the public is ready to accept radical advancement.
  • In the Dead Money DLC of Fallout: New Vegas, the reason Dean Domino tried to ruin Frederick Sinclair is because he was happier and more successful than him. It's also possible for him to develop this towards The Courier

Web Original

  • Homestar Runner: Marzipan's 'pre-school' in a Strong Bad Email about coloring. makes fun of this trope. Marzipan gives Homestar, Strong Mad, and Homsar crayons that don't actually color, "so that no one Life Blossom shines brighter than any other".

Western Animation

  • One of the major themes of The Incredibles revolves around this idea, where the superheroes are forced to give up "hero work". Originally this was because of a series of lawsuits and increasing public outrage and mistrust of supers in general; years later, this means Dash isn't allowed to go out in sports because he'd be too good, and Syndrome wants to give the world super-powers so that "when everyone is special, no one will be". On the surface, and at its core, with a thick layer of aspiring despot in between, Syndrome's philosophy is actually the antithesis of (but potentially as harmful[1] counterpart to) this trope - Raising everyone else so the people who naturally excel are average. Of course, Syndrome doesn't wish to artificially raise anyone, and if he wasn't doing it for megalomania and revenge, giving out jetpacks to people would be awesome.
  • In "Simpsons Bible Stories", after the family realize that they had just Slept Through the Apocalypse, they see the Flanders ascend to heaven. Lisa then begins to ascend to heaven, but Homer pulls her back down and says "Where do you think you're going, missy?" The family then descends into hell together.
  • The Legend of Korra uses this as a theme. Amon, leader of the Equalists, is convinced that benders are terrible and there's no use for them in the world. So he uses a power he has to take bending power away permanently, and thus make them "equal" to everyone else.

Real Life

  • The Chinese style of parenting, works on a principle which approaches this trope in its zeal to avoid it. It basically works like this: the entire strategy is founded on the notion that if you acknowledge your child's merits in any way at all, they'll magically assume they're the greatest thing since sliced bread and never do anything ever again, because shit, Mom just said "I love you and am very proud of you," what could I possibly do that could top what I've already done? The general idea is to keep the kid from getting a big head, but over the centuries it's mutated from "have a realistic knowledge of your abilities and limitations" to "if I find out you think you're even half as good as you really are, I'll disown you for shaming the family." This Cracked article goes more in depth on the matter, and all the reasons why it's a really bad idea.
    • Despite referring to it as the "Chinese" style of parenting, it is hardly ubiquitous in China, nor unique to that country.
    • The Japanese variation is that every child should be a Tall Poppy, with the implied paradox that if everyone is a TP, then no one is, ie, no one person stands out.
  • Spain is a country that runs on TPS. This trope perfectly describes the average Spaniard's reaction to anyone who excels or succeeds at anything (except for sports). Possible exception would be in the region of Catalunya, where the inhabitants are considered overachievers by all other Spanish regions.
    • Sadly, it is even worse in Latin America, where they do.not.like the Yankee way of standing out.
    • Small town Scandinavia, too (except for sports). Let's just say that Sandemose didn't make the Jante Law out of whole cloth.
  • This attitude is prevalent in the African-American community, particularly the lower class. Get straight A's in school and do extra-curriculars that aren't sports? You're a nerd! Speak proper English, wear non-ghetto clothing, and listen to a variety of music? You're acting white! Finish college and work a respectable job? You think you're better than everybody![2] "Oreo" (black on the outside, white on the inside) was a popular slur in decades past, and is still used sometimes. Rapper 50 Cent, who has made his living off of his tough-guy, from-the-streets, shot-nine-times image, infamously called Oprah Winfrey an "Oreo". One could argue that the attitude was instilled by centuries of racial oppression, but American race politics are a heated debate by themselves.
  • Australia, Australia, Australia, uses this to virtually at any a list-super successful super-celebrity and legendary star from Australia and certain visitors who go to Australia. Britney Spears gets alot of crap from the media in Australia at least partially due to this (Both times). Delta Goodrem as listed above got Hype Backlash'ed into moving countries twice, Kylie Minogue gets it alot (Hence her also moving countries) on the other hand lesser known stars (Christina Aguilera) and b-listers don't get as much slack and drag down though, but if they ever move up the list of celebrity they will get knocked by the media. It's almost a science in Australian media to cut down tall poppies. It's quiet pathetic to watch.
  • Very common in office workplaces. Working harder than your coworkers will inevitably earn you their scorn because employers are then more likely to raise quality or quantity standards. As a result, over-achieving compared to your colleagues is deemed anti-social behaviour due to a mixture of Ambition Is Evil, There Are No Good Executives and this trope. The only honest way of working is apparently to try and do as little work over as long a period as possible, without going so far overboard that your employers feel comfortable firing you.
  • A well-known Soviet Union-era joke. A man is visited by a genie, who offers to grant him a wish. The man responds that his neighbor has a cow, but he himself has no cow. The genie asks if the man wants a cow of his own too. The man says no, that he wants his neighbor's cow to die.
  • Many high schoolers can attest to being witness to this mentality. Kids who study, read, and make good grades are "nerds" and get picked on.
  • Crabs in a pot will do this; they could all escape easily, but instead they're forever pulling each other down so that none of them escapes. Similar behavior in humans is called "crab mentality," which could be seen as a variation of this trope. In fact, The Other Wiki's "Crab Mentality" page links to their "Tall Poppy Syndrome" page.
  • Mensa gets this sort of judgement from folks at times. Because intelligence is considered to be synonymous with "better" people often think of it as an assembly of intellectuals and know-it-alls rather than the social group it actually is.
  • "It's not enough that I should succeed - others should fail."
  • Oh heck, it's safe to say that this trope is just very Truth in Television here.

Notes

  1. artificially raising people over the lower bar, like the teachers who refuse to give Fs to failing students
  2. Regardless of racial identity, this claim is most commonly used by people who are worried one actually is better.
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