The Australia Letter is a weekly newsletter from our Australia bureau. Sign up to get it by email.
Writing an article a while back, I needed to find a synonym for “mateship.” It feels like the type of word every Australian understands instinctively. And I thought I did too. But when I had to actually explain it, I drew a blank.
After wracking my brain for a while, I settled on “camaraderie,” which felt close, but still a bit too genteel. To me, mateship conjures up gritty images of soldiers hunkered down in the muddy trenches of Gallipoli, or vaguely cartoonish notions of blokes crowded around some beers at the pub and slapping each other on the back slightly too enthusiastically. Was any of that right? I couldn’t tell.
It turns out I’m not the only one who was difficulty defining mateship. A group of researchers who recently conducted a study on how Australians feel about the term found that people had difficulty agreeing on a definition.
Surveying nearly 600 Australians, they found that while some people believed that mateship was basically the same as friendship, others thought it was a deeper bond, something closer to a “sworn friend.” Others yet said it was less about individual connection and reflected more of a community spirit, helping each other or even just being friendly and respectful to everyone.
A slim majority (52 percent) thought it was more important in Australia than in other countries, believing it was a “uniquely Australian way of rendering social inclusion” or “the unique underlying bond between people of shared values.” But others saw it as “just being a good human and treating people with respect. It’s not unique” or “a nebulous social myth.”
The concept is popular in part because it’s hard to define, according to Benjamin Jones, a historian at Central Queensland University and one of the study’s authors, and “it can mean whatever the individual person wants it to mean.”
It’s a complicated, often-contested word that has evolved along with Australia’s values, he said. During World Wars I and II, it flourished as a way to describe ideas of “white male solidarity.”
But then the second half of the 20th century brought second-wave feminism and the replacement of the White Australia policy with multiculturalism. “You’d think that was the death knell for mateship. But it has quite remarkably been able to reinvent itself as an inclusive ideal that includes people of color and includes women,” he said.
Now, it seems more Australians identify with the concept.
The survey, Dr. Jones said, showed that men who migrated to Australia or had parents who did related to the concept of mateship as strongly as, or even more strongly than, other Australians — “and possibly that’s part of their almost self-initiation ritual, where they think mateship is this really prevalent thing in Australia and they go ‘I want in on that.’”
And more women than men think mateship is a key feature of Australian national identity — 70 percent compared to 60 percent. A different study showed that younger women tend to embrace the word “mate” to refer to friends of any gender, while older women are more likely to see the word as sexist.
But, in part because of the word’s history, Australians are distrustful when politicians try to harness it. Just 39 percent of the study’s respondents said they would support mateship being immortalized in the Constitution. And only 45 percent agreed that politicians should invoke it in speeches on Australia Day and ANZAC Day.
People generally see mateship as something above politics, Dr. Jones said, but “when it becomes politicized, it stops being this above-politics thing and it becomes stamped with the user’s political baggage.”
“Even though Australians may generally have a positive view of mateship,” he said, “it’s still not something politicians will ever start to harness, it’s not something that will be printed on our coins or bills or in our Constitution, because the ghosts of the past still haunt it.”
What are your thoughts on mateship? Write to us at [email protected]
Now for this week’s stories: