Human beings have many great contradictions. One of them is their difficulty to honestly appreciate the virtues of others, without feeling threatened or bothered by them. It is not exactly envy. It is what is called tall poppy syndrome.
Tall poppy syndrome shows us that when people stand out too much in any given area then they can generate hatred in others. That hatred cannot be called envy as such. Rather, it has to do with the fact that the success of others makes a person’s own limitations become more visible and prominent.
In other languages they have named this “high exposure syndrome”. In English, however, we know it as “tall poppy syndrome”. The logic behind this name is that of cutting the flowers that grow more than others. This is so that people don’t lose out when making comparisons.
Where the syndrome comes from
According to Herodotus, the emperor sent a messenger to ask Thrasybulus for advice on the best way to keep control over the empire. The messenger asked him, but Thrasybulus only began walking among the wheat fields. Whenever he found an ear of wheat that was higher than the others, he would cut it and throw it to the ground. And yet he didn’t say a word.
When the messenger returned to the emperor, he told him about the strange behavior of the counselor. The emperor understood. The meaning of the message was that he should eliminate anyone who rose above the others. Put an end to the best and most promising people. In that way, his power and supremacy would never be questioned.
Tall poppy syndrome in today’s world
It is clear that tyrannies don’t permit the emergence of prominent figures. Their superiority may threaten those who hold the power. In the field of politics, it is very frequent to seek to discredit those who challenge the status quo or the establishment. However, tall poppy syndrome is not only to do with political matters.
In our day-to-day lives we can see how we are invited to stand out from others. However, at the same time we have to conform to some very precise limits. They tell us that we must adhere to only certain parameters of what it means to be successful. For example, the “employee of the month” is not necessarily the one who grew the most or contributed the most relevant input. It is usually simply the one who fulfilled all the correct goals.
If this happens, there’s no problem. The plant that has grown more than the others won’t be cut at the root. It has adhered to what the gardener wanted! On the other hand, if someone becomes very prominent for reasons other than those considered valid, he is likely to trigger suspicions and eventually be excluded.
The syndrome operates in two ways
Tall poppy syndrome creates consequences in two distinct dimensions. The first is what we have already mentioned. There is an almost natural tendency to not allow someone to stand out too much, because it creates insecurities or the feeling of threat in others. Therefore, those who stand out are very often criticized with excessive severity. Either that, or too much is expected of them. One other option is to downplay their talent or achievements.
The second consequence of tall poppy syndrome is that it teaches people to be afraid to stand out. Precisely because of everything we have mentioned, people learn, more implicitly than explicitly, that standing out from others can put them at risk. At risk of what? Rejection, questioning, criticism and even ostracism.
Therefore, many assume that the correct thing is not to stand out under any circumstances. They keep a “low profile”, and hate the idea of being noticed by others. In one way or another, they end up being trained not to challenge the norms. This, of course, is a real shame, because, by doing this, real skills are being lost, genuine talents are left aside and success is being renounced.