Australian society: Its customs and behaviours

One of the world’s oldest land masses, Australia is the earth’s biggest island and its sixth largest country. It is also the second-driest (pipped by Antarctica), with just 6% of its land suitable for agriculture.

The country’s size can make distances between cities seem huge – east to west it stretches about 4,000 kilometres (it takes around five hours to fly from Sydney to Perth), and 3,700kms north to south. Australia is about the same size as the US (minus Alaska), more than twice the size of India, and 32 times bigger than Britain. But enough about geography.

Australia has a very diverse society, populated by people from many different cultures and ethnic backgrounds. In fact, the Department of Immigration says that about 45% of Australians were either born overseas or have a parent that was. Although English is the national language, there are around 300 languages spoken throughout the country, including indigenous languages.

The cultural and religious diversity that results is a relatively modern characteristic of Australia, and theoretically conducive to tolerance across society – although as in any community there are varying levels of egalitarian acceptance.

Still, the government is keen to promote the country’s freedom and equality credentials, and provides a book called ‘Life in Australia’ to people applying for a visa to live in Australia (go here to download a free copy if you like) which spells out certain ‘Australian values’ such as:

  • respect for the equal worth, dignity and freedom of the individual
  • freedom of speech
  • freedom of religion and secular government
  • freedom of association
  • support for parliamentary democracy and the rule of law
  • equality under the law
  • equality of men and women
  • equality of opportunity
  • peacefulness
  • a spirit of egalitarianism that embraces tolerance, mutual respect and compassion for those in need.

Of course Australia has no monopoly on such values, but the difference is that visa applicants are expected to sign an ‘Australian values statement’ as part of the process.


Under the law, no person should be treated any differently from another based purely on race or age, political or religious views, marital status or pregnancy, disability or sexual preference. This applies to employment, accommodation, education, buying goods and services and many other situations. Men and women are also equal under the law for all purposes.

It is also unlawful to insult or intimidate any person based on any of the above.


The historically traditional family may be the most common – father, mother and children – but there are many other families of many different forms and sizes, and they are eligible to receive any family-based government benefits. There can be single parents, step parents and children, de-facto (not formally married) and same-sex couples. De-facto and same-sex relationships are legally recognised in Australia.

Roles within families can vary as well, with some having both parents working, or having just the mother or the father as the income earner. Marriage is not generally allowed by law until age 18 (a court order is required for younger ages), and both parties to a marriage must agree to the union. Having more than one husband or wife is illegal.

Clothing and dress sense

The options for clothing choice in Australia varies as much as its climate and cultural diversity. How people dress is very much left to the individual, and of course comfort, fashion sense or lack of it, and of course pure personal choice will come into play.

There are few laws regarding clothing, however there may be some rules stipulated depending on locality and the situation at hand. Some workplaces for example will require strong boots or hard hats, and others will expect neat and clean clothing choices. Some workplaces even have uniforms. Clubs and restaurants may also have their own dress codes, such as making footwear compulsory or banning singlets or thongs (known as flip-flops to many, or jangles in New Zealand).

People from other countries may feel more comfortable in clothing they have grown up with, and there is no formal restriction on wearing national dress or customary items such as a burqa or turban. Comfort (based on either climate or personal sensibilities) factor into most decisions.

Much of Australia’s population lives along the coastline, and on hot days many people can be found at the beach or nearby wearing little clothing. Government advice, as contained in the above-mentioned book, shows that it is aware that some people from other countries may misinterpret a lack of clothing to also show a lack of morals. The base-level factor regarding clothing choice is again ‘comfort’ (and whatever that means to the individual), so as long as a person isn’t breaking the law – which is basically to keep the rude bits covered – almost anything goes.

Acceptable behaviour

Greeting: Meeting others for the first time may illicit a handshake (your right hand to their right hand), but people who don’t know each other do not generally hug or kiss. Australians will generally look each other in the eye when talking, to show they are paying attention.

Although it is perfectly acceptable to refer to another by their title and last name (such as Mr Smith or Miss Lau) you may find that the more generally acceptable way for Australians to address each other is to use first names, offered either with surname or by itself. It is not generally impolite or disrespectful to just use the person’s first name thereafter, but also it can’t hurt to ask (‘Can I call you John?’).

Politeness: Words that are helpful in many situations are ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. If asked if you would like a cup of coffee or tea, a polite way to accept is to say ‘yes please’ or simply ‘please’, or if not, ‘no thank you’ or ‘no thanks’. It’s polite to say thank you whenever receiving something, even if you have just paid money for it at a shop.

If someone says ‘excuse me’ to you, they may be just trying to get your attention or to get around you in a crowded bus or train. You may hear ‘sorry’ if bumped into in such a situation, and it is polite to also say sorry if you are doing the bumping. ‘Excuse me’ or ‘pardon me’ are also used when a belch slips out in public or a person’s home – burping, although a natural bodily function, is not encouraged.

Most people will blow their noses into a tissue or a cloth handkerchief, and not onto the ground or footpath. The same goes for spitting. Dislodging nasal or throat phlegm is also better done discreetly. People may say ‘bless you’ after you sneeze, which is generally just a polite phrase with no religious intention.

Meeting, shopping: Being on time for meetings or visiting someone is important. If you are going to be unavoidably late for any reason, you should try to contact the person to let them know. This can be especially important with professional appointments, as delays or missing an appointment altogether could cost you money.

In Australian shops, banks, government departments, cinemas and many other places where a number of people are seeking service at the same time, having to stand in a queue or being expected to hang back while the next person is served is not an unusual situation.

You will more generally observe Australians waiting until it is their turn to be served or attended to, rather than pushing to the front or being more demanding than others, which can be viewed as uncivilised or showing lack of respect for others. Some places, such as Medicare but also some shops, have a ticketing system installed to help ease the confusion over who is next in line, where you take a ticket with a number on it and wait for that number to be called.

Invitations: If you are invited to a meal, you can respond by phone call or email or even in person to advise if you can attend or not (thank you). While the midday meal is called lunch, the evening meal can be referred to as dinner or tea. The word tea can of course also mean a warm drink only, but the time mentioned can indicate which is intended (mid-afternoon is more likely a cup of tea).

If you’re not sure you can make it due to other events you may be committed to, it is fine to not accept right away but to ask the host if you can reply to them later when you have checked your plans. Also, if you accept an invitation to a meal, it is perfectly acceptable to advice your host if there is anything you can’t eat – if say you are Jewish or Muslim and can’t eat pork, or if vegetarian.

Invitations to more formal events such as a wedding may be made in writing, and these may also ask for ‘RSVP’, which stands for the French phrase ‘répondez s’il vous plaît’. This means that the host would like to know for sure if you are coming or not, probably for catering purposes, so you will need to reply even if you can’t attend. If the invitation is to you ‘and family’, this will generally mean immediate family only (parents and children), but you can indicate how many people this means in your reply.

Weapons: Carrying weapons such as knives and guns is illegal, and in some areas even pocket knives can be confiscated by police. Anyone wanting to own a firearm for hunting or sport shooting and for use on farms will need to get a licence, and the firearm will have to be registered. Being unlicensed or having an unregistered gun is against the law.

Alcohol and tobacco: Drinking alcohol is legal in Australia, but generally in designated outlets such as hotels, bars and restaurants as well as in private homes. It is illegal for anyone to sell or supply alcohol to a person younger than 18 (a minor), and it is also illegal for a minor to drink alcohol, except in the home.

Retailers supplying tobacco to a minor is an offence, and smoking in restaurants and shops is prohibited in most states and territories (including government offices and many workplaces – in fact smoking is banned in a growing number of places all over Australia). Smoking is generally tolerated in outside spaces, however venues may have designated areas set aside.

Children and minors: Specific practices related to the treatment of children are illegal under Australian law. This includes forced early marriage and female genital mutilation, as well as taking or sending a child to another country for the purposes of the above, or having someone else arrange these.

Children are protected by law from physical, emotional or sexual abuse, neglect or violence, both in the home or at schools. Reasonable provision must also be made for care and supervision of minors. Physically disciplining a child, or corporal punishment, is generally discouraged, but if causing actual physical harm is illegal. It is not allowed at government schools.


There are certain special days that are celebrated in Australia. Some public holidays will be taken nationally, but the states may nominate separate dates for the same holiday. The Queen’s Birthday is an example of this, where states may indicate a different date to celebrate this day.

Other days, for example Melbourne Cup Day, are granted a holiday in the host state of Victoria but not in other states. The Northern Territory has a Picnic Day, and Tasmania has Eight Hour Day, which the other states do not observe.

Apart from the generally celebrated Christmas Day, Good Friday, New Year’s Day and so on, there are uniquely Australian holidays as well. Anzac Day, April 25, is a good example, and marks the defeat in 1915 of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) by the Turkish army. And Australia Day (January 26) marks the day that the ‘First Fleet’ landed, bringing the first European settlers to live permanently in the country.


Although the national language is English, there are certain forms of English and particular words that are unique to Australia, and will most likely not have been taught in English language classes in other countries.

These colloquial or slang words have many different origins, and the list is growing as more and more people, from many different backgrounds, establish themselves.

Australians often shorten words, so that for example football becomes ‘footy’, television becomes ‘telly’, and barbecue becomes ‘barbie’. You could even hear children being told at Christmas: ‘Put on your jarmies and we’ll open your Chrissie pressies’, for example.

If you don’t understand an expression or a particular word, it is perfectly acceptable to ask the person saying it to explain. But here are some random words and expressions you may hear, and what they mean.

Arvo: One of those shortened words, this one meaning ‘afternoon’. ‘Drop by this arvo’ means to come and visit in the afternoon.

Barbie (barbecue, BBQ): Outdoor cooking of meat on a hotplate or grill, usually served with salads and bread, but not necessarily. You may be offered a ‘snag’ at the barbecue, which means sausage.

Barrack: To support or cheer for, usually for a particular sporting team but can also be for an individual sportsperson.

Bloke: A man. Also chap (old fashioned) and guy.

Bring a plate: If you are invited to a party or other event and are told to ‘bring a plate’, this means to bring some food to share with everyone. It does not necessarily have to be on a plate, but should be ready to serve. This is a common form of catering for communal gatherings such as at schools or sporting clubs. If you are unsure what to bring, ask the organiser for examples.

BYO: Means ‘bring-your-own’, and refers to ‘your own’ drinks. These may or may not be alcoholic. Some restaurants are ‘BYO’, and you are free to bring along your own wine, for example, but may be charged ‘corkage’, which is a small fee to cover the provision of glasses and cleaning them.

Chook: A chicken, usually a hen. Can also refer to chicken meat.

Crook: To be sick or ill. Has even been used to refer to the non-functioning of machinery.

Cuppa: A cup of tea or coffee, but also the brief rest during which the ‘cuppa’ is consumed.

Digger: A soldier.

Fair dinkum: True, honest. A term losing some currency, but still legitimate. As a question, ‘fair dinkum?’ means ‘Is it really true?’

Fair go: Equitable treatment. Also to be given a ‘fair go’ means to get the same chance as everyone else at a particular task or opportunity. Harks back to the value of personal effort in making achievements, not the chance of birth, favouritism or other advantage.

Flat out: Very busy. An expression sometimes used is ‘Flat out like a lizard drinking’.

G’day: Well, this one may have been taught in the language school, and has become widely recognised as an Australian term. Simply a shortened form of ‘good day’, and is a greeting used extensively.

Give us a go: ‘Let me have a turn’, or ‘let me try’. The ‘us’ not taken to be plural.

How ya goin?: How are you going? Simply means ‘how are you?’, not which form of transport are you taking?

Loo (dunny): The toilet. If visiting someone’s house for the first time you can ask where the toilet is if you need to, but some people may say something like ‘Where’s the loo?’ It is unusual to use the more obscure term ‘bathroom’ when your true inquiry is about the toilet facilities.

No worries: No fuss or bother. If a task set for someone is greeted with ‘no worries’, that task is seen as effortlessly achievable. Also ‘No wukkas’, which is a shortening of ‘no f—ing worries’ with last two words mixed up a little for affect.

Ocker: Uncouth or loutish, or uncivilised Australian. Can also mean a person who displays characteristics considered to be typically Australian however, so does not always carry negative sentiment.

Shout: To buy something for someone. Originally used as a term for a round of drinks in a pub, where each person in a group would buy drinks for everyone in the group, and then the next person would buy the next round (which is called a ‘shout’, so you could say of the next in line ‘it’s your shout’). The word has been adopted to be used whenever something is bought for someone else. My shout’ means ‘I’ll buy that for you’.

Skite: To show-off, brag.

The flag and the national anthem

The Australian flag was raised for the first time in 1901. The British flag in the top corner is a relic of Australia’s colonial past. The five stars of the Southern Cross constellation represent Australia’s geographic position in the southern hemisphere. In 1908, the six-pointed star representing the six states was replaced by a seven-pointed star (the seventh point to represent the two territories).

The national anthem Advance Australia Fair was composed in 1878 by Peter Dodds McCormick, but the country was singing another relic (the British anthem) until Advance Australia Fair was proclaimed the national anthem in 1984. The lyrics, just in case you want to ‘skite’ and sing along, are:

australia-01-juneAustralians all let us rejoice,
For we are young and free;
We’ve golden soil and wealth for toil;
Our home is girt by sea;
Our land abounds in nature’s gifts
Of beauty rich and rare;
In history’s page, let every stage
Advance Australia Fair.
In joyful strains then let us sing,
Advance Australia Fair.
Beneath our radiant Southern Cross
We’ll toil with hearts and hands;
To make this Commonwealth of ours
Renowned of all the lands;
For those who’ve come across the seas
We’ve boundless plains to share;
With courage let us all combine
To Advance Australia Fair.
In joyful strains then let us sing,
Advance Australia Fair.


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