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Tall Poppy Syndrome

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"All our best men are laughed at in this nightmare land."

"The tall poppy gets cut down" is an aphorism used in much of The Commonwealth of Nations to describe resentment of those whose accomplishments elevate them in prominence above their peers. Tall Poppy Syndrome is when a character or characters act to achieve parity with another character who is presented or perceived as "better" not by improving themselves but by bringing the other guy down to their level. This may be through insults, sabotage, or other means.

Common in social ghettos and other places where institutionalized categorism (e.g., racism) results in aggressive and internalized categorism, with people of a certain category (e.g., race, ethnicity, class, caste, gender, sexual orientation, species, mutant, etc.) believing—even on a subconscious level—that they are inferior and should act in a certain way, and hence pull down and demean anyone who manages to (or even aspires to) act differently, rise to greatness, or escape the social ghetto.

The term comes from a story about Tarquin, last king of ancient Rome. Tarquin's son Sextus had captured a city, and asked his father how he should rule the place. Rather than reply, Tarquin drew his sword and sliced the heads off the tallest poppies in his garden. Sextus took this to mean the most prominent men should be put to death, so he had the local leaders rounded up and executed. The idea, however, is even older: Herodotus describes Thrasybulus, the tyrant of Miletus, doing the same thing in a grain field as advice to Periander, who had just seized power in Corinth.

Though the wording remained the same, over time the expression gradually evolved to mean it was bad to stand out in general, and not just because some power-hungry dictator might kill you. The idea became that one shouldn't think they're better than their peers just because they've accomplished something. In practice, this can run the gamut from being a reasonable warning against arrogance to being toxic and tearing down others' accomplishments out of resentment.

This attitude is present to some degree in many of the world's cultures, to the extent it could be considered a generally human trait, and is particularly prevalent in collectivist and hierarchical societies. Specific cultural examples include the Japanese proverb Deru kugi wa utareru — "The nail that sticks out gets hammered down," which not only refers to success or ambition, but to anyone who fails to conform to uniform standards. This proverb was imported into English as a calque, sometimes with the additional adjective "the proud nail." There's the Scandinavian concept of Janteloven ("the Law of Jante"; see in Literature below) and the Dutch proverb boven het maaiveld uitsteken, "standing above the level at which the field is mowed." In Chinese, "The tall bird must be shot at." In Korean, "An angular stone is bound to be chiselled." A Russian proverb is, "Вот радость — у соседа корова сдохла" (Vot radost' — u soseda korova sdokhla "What joy — the neighbor's cow has died"), although that is more akin to the phrase, "Misery loves company" — collective misery being prized more than individual happiness.

Tall Poppy Syndrome is a major reason for someone to engage in Obfuscating Stupidity, Obfuscating Disability, or Deliberate Under-Performance.

Compare Do Well, But Not Perfect, The Complainer Is Always Wrong, and Too Qualified to Apply. A common Freudian Excuse for The Un-Favourite. Contrast The Social Darwinist ("because I'm tall, I can do whatever I want to the short poppies"), Bullying a Dragon (where trying to cut a tall poppy will have dire consequences), and Beware the Superman (where a poppy getting too tall really does endanger others). You're Just Jealous is when somebody thinks this trope is in play, but their critic actually has a valid point. The Paragon actively tries to avoid this trope by bringing others up to their level, rather than letting themself get pushed down. Contrast also the aphorism "the squeaky wheel gets the grease".

See also Ambition Is Evil; Enemy Mine; It's Popular, Now It Sucks!; Thriving Ex-Crush; and Enemies Equals Greatness (where having enemies is a status symbol of some kind). This is one of The Perils of Being the Best. Offended by an Inferior's Success is like this trope but with a character being resented by someone of higher rather than equal status.


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  • In one Cheerios commercial, a father with a pair of little twin girls is trying to read his newspaper when one of them complains that the other has more Cheerios in her bowl than she does. To even things up, he digs a spoonful out from the other twin's bowl and eats it... only to decide upon tasting it that he "needs" to take some more scoops from either bowl to make them equal. Numerous scoops later, he leaves exactly two Cheerios in each bowl. "There. Now they're equal." The twins stare at their bowls for a while, and then the other one says "She's got more milk."
  • Mocked in a commercial for Cadillac.
    Martin Henderson: You can practice risk avoidance. You can aspire to blend in quietly. You can live in, drive, wear social camouflage. And you can believe in the philosophy that the nail that sticks out gets hammered can be the hammer.

  • There's a joke where a dead guy of [insert acceptable target here] is in Hell and is escorted past the cauldrons that hold members of various nationalities, each one with a devil or multiple devils standing guard to push back in the ones trying to get out. At the cauldron for his people, there are no devils.Explanation A particularly common Russian one—possibly the original—has Jews in a cauldron with hundreds of devils furiously spearing them, Poles in another cauldron with only a few devils who are largely idle, and Russians in the last one with no devils.
  • Another joke: A man 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 nods. Then the man states: "I want to be blind in one eye!" The angel leaves weeping.
    • A more subtly spiteful joke has the protagonist use his only or third wish to donate a kidney. Other common variants include the man wishing to "be beaten half-dead", to have half his property be destroyed or to have a "mild heart attack".
    • Similarly, this one from the Soviet Union: 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.
  • One of Louis C.K.'s two daughters broke one of her toys, so she went to him and, rather than ask him to simply buy her a new toy to replace it, instead demanded that he break one of her sister's toys "to make it fair". What horrified him the most was that he actually did it, while she was watching with a Slasher Smile of sadistic glee on her face.

    Films — Animated 
  • One of the major themes of The Incredibles: This idea is discussed in regards to superheroes being forced to give up their crimefighting activities and live as normal people. Originally this was because of a series of lawsuits due to injuries and destruction the heroes caused and increasing public outrage and mistrust of supers in general; years later, this means Dash isn't allowed to participate in sports because he'd be too good with his Speedster powers (and too competitive to not use them), as well as potentially exposing him and his family as supers. The villain, Syndrome, wants to make all of his "superhero" inventions and weapons available to the public so that "when everyone's super, no one will be". Syndrome's philosophy is actually the antithesis of this trope — raising everyone else so the people who naturally excel are average. Not a bad idea in principle, but there are three major problems with his implementation:
    • Syndrome is motivated by megalomania and revenge, and his fondness for dangerous weapons means that "making everyone super" could result in catastrophic destruction.
    • He's murdered dozens of superheroes in the process of improving one of these weapons, the Omnidroid, so it will be powerful enough to kill Mr. Incredible; the focus of his revenge and - from what we're shown - one of the best superheroes in the world.
    • He explicitly states that he's only going to hand out all of his advanced technology after he's "grown old and had [his] fun", meaning that he's going to be more special than everyone else until he decides to retire.
    • Dash meanwhile is ultimately allowed to join the Track team, but is forced to limit himself to a "close second". The chance to do something and get a little glory without exposing his powers is more than enough for him, and he seems happy. If anything he finds it more challenging (and thus, interesting and fun).
    • An additional layer of nuance is in how the people most advocating for their disdain of this is Mr. Incredible and Syndrome, both of whom are shown to be in the middle of their own respective crises. The former desperately wishes to be valued and allowed to help people. The key is that their advocacy of Tall Poppy Syndrome has an undertone of rationalizing their selfishness, with the former's desires resulting in him putting his own family in grave danger with his antics, while the latter is lashing out in his own horrific way as a Superhero Serial Killer. It's only when the former realizes the error of his behavior that he finds a better balance between his desire to be exceptional without causing more harm as a result, while the latter ends up taking his cruelty to its logical conclusion and eventually pays the price for it.

    Game Shows 
  • On Taskmaster series 13, Ardal O'Hanlon will become overly and pedantically critical of the other contestants attempts at a task whenever he knows that he did poorly on it by comparison. He does it often enough that Alex actually calls him out on it on Episode 4, after he heavily criticizes Chris Ramsey and Sophie Duker's "stirring speeches for the Taskmaster".
    Alex: I would say also, this has happened on shows before this series, where Ardal has criticized a lot of people's attempts, partly building up to what I know he's done. You just bear this in mind.


    Professional Wrestling 
  • Carly Colon, who was nearly an overnight success in WWC, was hit by a case of this notable enough to get a newspaper article on the subject when he got a WWE developmental deal. Granted, that paper was The Sun and he's long since become popular again.
  • In response to hearing the RoHbots thank Eddie Edwards during their departure, Jimmy Jacobs and Roderick Strong attacked, later joining with BJ Whitmer: three wrestlers who had been "loyal" to Ring of Honor for a decade who were tired of seeing celebrations for those going to larger companies. This degenerated into Decade attacking people returning from larger companies (The Addiction from TNA, commuting between larger companies (AJ Styles bringing in the IWGP heavyweight title and Bullet Club from New Japan) and then attacking "rookies" who they suspected of using ROH to get to larger companies (Adam Page, TaDarius Thomas, Andrew Everett, Cedric Alexander, ACH)
  • Much of the mid-card in WWE involves what's referred to 50-50 booking where wrestlers in a feud would exchange wins and losses with no clear winner so that no one looks weak. However, no one ever looks strong, either and don't really develop a strong following amongst casual fans. Only the few wrestlers at the very top don't suffer from this. This leads to situations where a champion will often lose non-title matches, but win when the belt is on the line.
  • It's also common in WWE for a wrestler who manages to get popular with the crowd when Vince McMahon doesn't want this to happen (either because he wants them to be a Heel or because he doesn't see them as main event material even though the audience clearly does) to get punished with humiliating angles and/or gimmick changes, or just forced to lose a lot in hopes that fans will stop cheering them. In rare instances a wrestler is just so popular that Vince has no choice but to give them the push that fans are demanding. But most of the time...just look what was done to Rusev and Lana.

    Religion and Mythology 
  • Straight from the Gospels, and thus Older Than Feudalism: No man is a 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.

    Tabletop Games 
  • In any game with three or more players and mechanics that allow them to attack each other or otherwise impede each other's progress, anyone who pulls ahead of the pack is likely to be targeted by the others.
  • Ars Magica: House Mercere is unique in Magical Society that most of its members aren't magi, but Muggles or people with lesser supernatural talents. Mercere magi are expected to put their House before themselves and are shamed if they seem to be flaunting their gifts — in some cases, even by casting a vote at Tribunal (as un-Gifted Mercere act as Team Switzerland) or by using too much magic in public.
  • Atmosfear: In certain scenarios the player who is winning can end up banished, with the comment "Nobody likes a showoff!"
  • As the Draconis Combine is Space Imperial Japan in BattleTech, they openly bide by conformist "Deru kugi wa utareru" proverb (mentioned in the BattleTech Expanded Universe novel Close Quarters). There is also the popular yakuza and military corollary: "Better to be the hammer than the nail." While the Combine values martial prowess, it is not so big on individuality.
  • This is one of the dangers in Diplomacy. Anyone who seems to be in a position of power has just painted a target on their back - and, paradoxically, reduced their own chance of winning; since an attack must be supported by another player to succeed, the person in the lead may find it hard to convince others to assist them, since that would just extend their lead.
  • If you're one of the "lesser" evils (i.e., fiends), so to speak, in Dungeons & 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 archdevils 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 Starscreams...

    Visual Novels 
  • Dennis from Double Homework tries to beat the protagonist at the dating game not by improving his own sex appeal, but by undercutting the protagonist’s.
  • The protagonist of Season of the Sakura was hit hard with this in middle school. His natural talent in sports caused so much resentment that all his friends abandoned him and he became so depressed he considered running away. This caused him to not want to stand out in high school, as he feared the same thing would happen. Luckily, his friends in high school are kinder people, who actually encourage him to embrace his talents, rather than hide them.

    Web Animation 
  • The Box is full of miserable creatures, but one of them doesn't belong there. It makes itself stand out and when it's subsequently literally hammered back to its place the rest of its kin can't help but collectively laugh. Played with, in that it's implied the different creature isn't inherently different, it just hasn't been hammered down yet. Also defied at the end, when it gets so angry, its glowing eyes flicker back on, promptly rips its way out of the roots binding it, and climbs out of the box using the hole made by the hammer, leaving the other creatures staring stupidly at the spot in the ceiling where the hole appears.
  • Homestar Runner: Marzipan's 'pre-school' in a Strong Bad Email about coloring that 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".
  • In RWBY, Ruby got chosen as the leader of Team RWBY. This greatly upsets Weiss, who in class next day tries to talk one of the teachers into making her the leader and demoting Ruby. Said teacher called out on her spoiled brat attitude and told her to be the best member a leader could ever have instead. She takes this lecture to heart and apologizes to Ruby later that night.

  • One of the reasons the Gunnerkrigg Court hates magic so much is because of petty jealousy. A few beings are gifted with supernatural talents others do not have, which most of the Court feels is unfair. One of the conditions to make it into the Court's inner ranks is to give up or stop using any etheric talents one may possess so as to avoid hurting the feelings of their other members. Their ultimate goal is to "free" humanity from the "tyranny of the ether".
  • Quentyn Quinn, Space Ranger: The Empire of the Seven Stars can give near-eternal life, a near-endless supply of energy and resources, and a general end to poverty. But even if you give everyone "a magic box that provides anything you can think of", there will always be those who embrace dystopia with them at the top and the poppies at the bottom frequently snipped, or those who envy the relatively-prosperous past of their neighbors and would foolishly ruin themselves just to destroy their neighbors' boxes, homes, and lives. After the protagonist gave replication technology to a planet on the brink of the apocalypse, the Oligarchy 'freaked' and tried to regulate replicator technology with military force to prevent them from losing control of their hierarchy to the most artistic of peasants, despite the obvious utopian profits for everyone involved. Naturally, they got usurped by the resistance and their mass-produced replicator weapons. And unfortunately for everyone, the Sho'faxti, a religious terrorist nation plagued with famine and civil unrest, refused to use a single replicator to feed their starving nation in favor of churning out weapons and hacking devices to achieve the revenge on the rest of the 'prosperous' world, performing a Colony Drop which killed billions and caused the rest of the world to respond in kind before they could go even further. The lesson here is that an egalitarian utopia is impossible because the past is a record of how tall you grew before everyone could became equal, and thus constantly used as an excuse for everyone to get snipped (oligarchs getting less snipped than others, but still stupidly snipping themselves), but that also means you should try to let the past go and live better than you did before.
  • Weak Hero:
    • Stephen is relentlessly excellent at anything that he puts his mind to. This causes a sense of resentment not only in his homeroom teacher- who doesn't like the busywork his pro-activism causes- but in his fellow students who mock him for acting like a saint. This leads to Stephen being bullied by his peers, which then culminates in him being thrown off the school roof and put in a coma indefinitely, which is the incident that broke the protagonist.
    • Jeongmu's own lack of talent leads him to seek those who do have it just to destroy all of their hard work. If he can't climb to where others are, then he'll just drag them back down to his level. Gerard proving himself to be a superior fighter causes Jeongmu to become obsessed with ruining his life.

    Web Original 
  • Cracked's article "The Crazy Sociology Experiment Buried in a Russian Game Show" notes that, in the Russian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, contestants "quickly became wary of asking the audience anything, because they'd almost always give the wrong answer." The theory is that the Russian audiences were deliberately sabotaging the contestants, to prevent them from rising above their peers.
    In Russia, the audience viewed the million-ruple prize as a reason to mourn the fact that there's one less person to share the rampant poverty and despair with. That's harsh, Russia.
  • Common in the Furry Fandom with the demonisation of 'Popufurs', which are furries who have a relatively large following in the fandom (and maybe even outside of it). There are some people who will look for anything they can use to ruin said people in an attempt to make themselves more popular, even making things up out of whole cloth. However, this rarely works; most of the time, people see right through the attempt. And even if it results in the "popufur" being taken down, the one who took them out rarely sees any recognition or a boost in popularity for it.
  • On an early episode of Game Grumps, Arin complained of Jon's ability to figure out how to play Nickelodeon's Guts videogame. Arin got legitimately mad at Jon for knowing how to play the gamenote  while he himself couldn't get the timing down and demanded he be told how to play better so as for it to be fair, despite the fact they both went into the game with the same level of knowledge of how to play (i.e., none).
  • The "milkshake duck" phenomenon on social media is a manifestation of this. The term, which describes the almost-inevitable exposure of the dark background of viral social media users, comes from a 2016 tweet by "pixelatedboat", who summarized it thus:
    The whole internet loves Milkshake Duck, a duck that drinks milkshakes! *5 seconds later* We regret to inform you the duck is racist.
  • Similarly, "maplecocaine" on Twitter wrote:
    Each day on twitter there is one main character. The goal is to never be it
  • The Onion: "Friends Don't Understand How Man Not Depressed".
  • On websites that show a user's karma score, such as Reddit, users with high karma often attract hatedoms just for having high karma.

    Real Life 
  • This kind of thinking is very prevalent in societies around the world, and it happens in many different forms and ways.
    • East Asian cultures especially stress the ideas of social harmony, which has been historically documented to be potentially abused to a fault at its worst. They do celebrate exceptional individuals.... if it fits what society needs, such as ranking number one on test scores. On the other hand, Western cultures, and especially America, can also be known for being fundamentally racially and cultural imposing, contrary to the long touted ideas of freedom, equality, and liberty, claiming anything that doesn't fit the social and cultural quilt as "not western/white/American enough" until it's shaped or rid of "undesirable qualities" for their liking. In general, this can all be viewed as "tyranny of the majority" on a cultural and social scale.
    • Even then, standing out individually regardless of any culture, scene, subculture, or race is probably enough to earn you resentment and bullying. Talk to people long enough, and chances are, you'll come across someone with stories about how they were the target of bullying or discrimination for their talents or personality or something that made them stand out even just a bit in their social environment and make ripples to draw in ostracizers and conformists of all kinds. If being yourself would have an arch-nemesis, Tall Poppy Syndrome would be it.
  • The Kung people in southern Africa have a practice called "insulting the meat." If a hunter were to get a sizable kill, and bring it back to camp boasting about it, other people would insult it, claiming it was worthless. When an anthropologist found this out the hard way, an elder explained to him that it was done in order to prevent a skilled tribe member from walking around like he owned the place, which would lead to trouble.
  • The origin of this trope may be that humans have a great sense for when outcomes are unequal, which doesn't mean the outcome is unfair. This is coupled with a sense of indignation when we're on the short end of the stick.
    • In one of the early experiments on game theory at RAND, two scientists were asked to play a prisoner's dilemma scenario against a "bank" (ie: they could simply win money from a third party). However, the prize money was purposefully imbalanced so that in order for Player A to maximize the amount of money they would get, Player B would have to get twice as much. Rather than maximize his own profit by cooperating, he kept tanking them both because he felt the game was unfair, defecting about 30% of the time. Player A really has no reason to screw Player B. Neither of them are losing anything; they're both just getting free money. However, because Player A felt the division of money was unfair, he preferred that both of them get nothing rather than both get something but it be inequitable.
    • This is the criticism politicians like Margaret Thatcher had regarding Socialism. Thatchet argued that, if given the choice, socialists would rather everyone was equally poor rather than unequally rich.
    • In another experiment, two participants play a game called Ultimatum. They flip a coin, and both are offered a sum of money by a third party. The winner of the coin flip can offer any amount to the loser, but the loser of the flip must approve the deal or neither gets any money. It's rational for the loser to accept any deal that gives them something, but a deal usually can't get much worse than 60-40 before most participants wind up rejecting it. Most players who win the coin toss also intuit this, and while they take a majority of the money, they give a substantial portion to the loser. Contrast this with Dictator, where the winner simply divides the money and keeps as much as they want, while the loser has no choice in the matter. The Dictator rarely gives away much of their windfall.
  • The Trope Namer is a plant, but actual plants like poppies and trees have evolved the way they did because of an aversion. When there's a tall tree, it casts a shadow over the shorter plants near it, so that they don't get as much sunlight. A short tree would be best off if it didn't have to build a longer stem (so long and thick that it's worthy of the name "trunk") to catch up, so it would benefit if it could either cut off the tall tree or talk to it and convince it, saying "Hey, let's all take it easy and be short." Then no tree would have to put all its resources into a giant trunk. But those things can't happen, so the only outcome is that these plants can't survive if they are too much shorter than the average height for their neighbors.
  • Many of the basic rules of basketball — the shot clock, goaltending, three-point shots, and the width of the lane — were introduced to minimize the advantage that some players have by just being really tall. Quite a literal trope example.
  • Another name for this phenomenon is "crab-in-a-bucket mentality" or just "crab mentality", referencing the way crabs act when thrown in a bucket after being caught. They'll try to climb out of the bucket, but if there's more than one crab, none of them will be able to get out. The crab that tries to break free will be pulled back down by the others in the bucket, ensuring that they'll all stay trapped. The expression is used when someone is acting on a mentality of "if I can't have it, nobody can". note 


Video Example(s):


Tall Poppy Syndrome in Dapto

Kevin thinks the media is against him because of tall poppy syndrome and he explains it to Liam. Later when Koala Man tries to convince the townspeople to spare the Tall Poppy, they get mad at him because they accuse him of trying to be better than them.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (5 votes)

Example of:

Main / TallPoppySyndrome

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