What is Australia's working culture like?

6 April 2016
Are Australians hard to understand? Maybe, but we can help you enjoy your time here by explaining some of Australian working culture. Here’s what to do and what not to do while working in Australia.

What is Australian culture like? What will you need to know to do or not do while you’re here? We can tell you the basics.

What is Australian culture like?

Australian culture is fairly laid-back but we speak our mind openly and directly. You might think Aussies all live in the outback riding kangaroos to school, but actually more than 3 in 4 of us live in a big city along the coast.

The Department of Immigration has listed the main values of Australia that international students should know in their free e-book, Life In Australia:

  • Freedom of speech, freedom to say what you feel like saying
  • Freedom to choose your religion
  • Democratic government, and the right for every person to vote to choose their political leaders
  • Freedom to choose who you associate with (spend time with)
  • Respect for the equal worth, dignity and freedom of the individual
  • Equality of opportunity no matter what gender, marital status, religion, nationality, disability, or sexual preference you have
  • Peacefulness, not starting fights
  • Tolerance, mutual respect and compassion for those in need

Generally, Australians like people who are willing to laugh at their own mistakes and have a sense of humour. Most Aussies try to be humble and don’t like to draw attention to their academic or work achievements, so they don’t trust people who do talk a lot about their own achievements.

What cultural things are good to do when working in Australia

There are some things that you will usually be expected to do while you are in Australia:

  • Try to give people “personal space” when talking with them. Shake hands when you meet someone, but otherwise you should not touch your co-workers. Do not stand very close to people when you are speaking with them. Many Australians, especially older Australians, usually do not touch people unless they are very close friends.
  • Be on time for meetings and appointments, and even social occasions. Australians do not always arrive on time for a party, but they do try to arrive on time for other appointments and social times with friends.
  • Ask questions if you don’t understand something. This is different to other cultures, where the boss or employer is viewed as a person of authority who has more wisdom than their employees, and employees must show respect by not bothering the boss. Australian employers want to help you learn and understand so that you can do a good job.
  • Try to do the work you are given. When someone asks an Australian to do an extra task at work, they will usually take on the extra work and not say they are too busy to do it. If you say that you are too busy, your co-workers or boss will assume that you cannot handle the workload.
  • Keep meetings short whenever you can. Some surveys say workplaces do not want their meetings to be longer than 1 hour. But this varies for different companies, so ask your boss what is normal for their company.
  • Feel free to disagree with someone or to “rock the boat”. Australians like people to have their own opinions and not be afraid to talk about them. Many other cultures prefer that only senior managers and the boss speak in meetings, and workers do not speak very much in meetings, but Australia is not like this.
  • Get good value when you choose your working visa health insurance, and go to the doctor if you get sick, so that you can get well soon and not make your co-workers sick as well.

Then there are things that you can do that will help you to succeed in your work and making friends:

  • Say “please” and “thank you” as often as you can. You will see that in Australia we say please and thank you very often, even when someone is just doing their job, like a waiter or a shop assistant. This is because in Australian culture, it is very important to show your respect to every person and treat every person the same.
  • Try to say exactly what you mean. Many cultures use the word “No” to give an answer when they are being polite, but this is not how we use the word “No” in Australia. If you want something to drink during a meeting and someone offers you some water or other drink, you should say, “Yes, please.” If you say “No”, they will think you do not want any drinks and they will not offer again.
  • Feel free to talk about how your home country is different to Australia. Australians love to travel, and they love to learn about other countries and what they could see and do there.
  • On someone’s birthday, it is Australian custom that their co-workers who are friends with them would get them a small food item such as sweets or chocolates as a gift. In other cultures, it is often the other way around – on someone’s birthday, they bring sweets to the office to share with their co-workers.

What not to do in Australia

Some things are illegal (not allowed by law) in Australia. Do not do these illegal things:

  • NO spitting on the street. If you need to clear your throat or nose, use a tissue.
  • NO smoking inside any building, or near the doors or entrances to any building. NO smoking on public transport such as trains, buses, and taxis.
  • NO making noise such as playing music in your room, before 7am in the morning and after 10pm at night. These noise curfews apply in most areas of Australia and can be either state laws or local council laws.

Some things are not polite and you should try not to do these things in Australia:

  • It is not polite to bargain or haggle with shop assistants. In shops, grocery stores/supermarkets, and markets in Australia, you have to pay the price that is listed. The only shops that might let you change the price are shops for household appliances (whitegoods), furniture, or vehicles.
  • It is not polite to stare if you see someone wearing very little clothing. In Australia, many people do not wear much clothing, because the climate is so hot and the culture is very relaxed. It does not mean that Australian people do not have moral standards.
  • It is not polite to ask people about their age (how old they are) or about money (how much they paid for something or how much they get paid for their work). Australian people often become embarrassed when someone asks them these things, as they can be related to status.

What to expect from your employer or co-workers in Australia

There are some things about Australian working culture and business culture that international workers say surprises them. Many of these surprises are about the Aussie sense of humour or our use of language:

  • Australian workers and employers may use swearing in the workplace. You don’t need to swear as well. You just need to not be offended if somebody around you uses a swearword. If you’re not sure about someone’s language, you can ask your supervisor, your boss, or the HR (Human Resources) Manager.
  • Australians often use derogatory language to talk about their own race or ethnic background, such as “wog”. You should not use this language about their race, though. Australians only use derogatory language about their own people or race, not about other people or races.
  • When there is an awkward situation, Australians will usually acknowledge this out loud and make a joke about it. This sense of humour can seem rude to international workers at first, but it is the Australian way to end an awkward situation more quickly and move on.
  • Aussies start almost every conversation with “Hi, how’s it going?” but this is not really a question. It is a set phrase to which the answer is “Good thanks, how about you?” Most people don’t actually expect you to give a long answer about your new pet or your dirty housemates. But you can if you want! It’s a good way to make friends, by sharing about your life with others.
  • We use sporting analogies to talk about almost everything, like “we dropped the ball” if your team misses is late for a deadline. Talking about sport in general is important in Australia. You don’t have to like sport or watch it very much, but it helps if you know the names of the local sport teams.

There are also some surprises about how work or business happens in Australia:

  • Office wear is different from company to company, but you don’t usually have to wear a tie or suit jacket to work. Almost nobody wears shorts to work – but Aussies will still look at you funny if you show up wearing too many layers for a hot day.
  • If you need to leave partway through a meeting to take a phone call or to go to the toilet, you can excuse yourself and it’s not considered rude.
  • Lunch meetings often involve some small talk, but other meetings usually get straight to the point. Australians are usually direct in their conversation at work, but conversations outside of the office can be more relaxed.
  • Socialising after work is not just for Friday night drinks, and you may be invited to join your co-workers for a meal after work on other days of the week. You do not have to accept, but it is a good way to make friends quickly with your co-workers.
  • Office romances are not seen as a bad thing. Many international workers are surprised to find that their co-worker may be in a relationship with another co-worker. But as long as people do their work and don’t display their relationship too publicly, no one will mind.
  • People like talking about their family. If someone has photos on their office wall, feel free to ask about the people in the photos.
  • People would rather start work early in the morning than leave work late at night. It’s best to do what everyone else does in this regard, not what you’re used to back home.
  • Clients and other business people will be annoyed if you don’t call or text to let them know you’re running late.
  • We don’t hold meetings on Friday afternoon. Except for Friday night drinks.
  • Holidays: Australia falls in the middle when it comes to holidays – we get 4 weeks of annual leave every year. This is compared to:
    • UK: 6 weeks
    • New Zealand, Russia: 4 weeks
    • Germany: 3.5 weeks
    • Netherlands, Poland: 3 weeks
    • Turkey: 2 weeks
    • Japan: 10-20 days
    • Malaysia: 8-16 days
    • Bangladesh: 11 days
    • Canada: 9 days
    • China: 5 days
    • USA: 0 days (no annual leave required by legislation, but 75% of employers give 6-10 days of annual leave (US Bureau of Labor Statistics))

Apart from that, there is a bunch of slang we could teach you so that you understand what we’re all saying in the “Strayan” language. Some common ones that trip people up and cause hilarious situations are the words “pants” (meaning jeans and slacks, not underwear) and “thongs” (meaning flip-flops or jandals, not G-strings).

Good luck in Australia, everyone! Enjoy meeting our friendly people and exploring this amazing country of ours.

You can read more about the Australian culture in the Life In Australia e-book available for free from the Department of Immigration.

Are you currently looking for Overseas Student Health cover? You can do that using the Canstar comparison website. See below for a comparison of OSHC products providing cover for an overseas student with a 3-year study visa. Results are sorted by Star Rating (highest to lowest).

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