This past week NPR interviewed a Kiwi comedian/pop star, Jemaine Clement. (Apparently this genleman and his group are about to burst upon the US cultural scene under the auspices of HBO.) The interviewer ask Mr. Clement to describe what he saw as the main difference between the culture in New Zealand and that in the US.
He said, "Tall poppies get cut", which puzzled the interviewer. Clement explained that "tall poppies get cut" is a saying in New Zealand that refers to the strong cultural value there of keeping one's affairs below the radar. He said that in the US, on the other hand, people seemed to value standing out from the crowd. People down under find that risky.
I think that was once the value in the US as well, and still is in many parts of the country.
I remember when I was a young partner at Smathers & Thompson attending a partners meeting when this value was discussed. During this period of time the legal practice generally was in transition. The practice, the experts insisted, had to move from being a profession to a business, and our firm was struggling with that change. Part of being a business was marketing, apparently, and so we discussed retaining a marketing firm to get our name in the paper and so forth.
Hervey Yancey, an elder statesman in the firm and a fine trial lawyer, blasted this idea. We did not want to get our names in the paper. "Fools names and fools faces", he recited, "oft appear in public places," a saying that mother was fond of using until I got my picture in the paper once. (The saying remained true. In fact it was then and there for my mother demonstrated. But my mother quit using the saying.)
I think flying below the radar is a good thing. When I was litigating full time, I had a number of cases and in each case there was another lawyer, of course, the opposing counsel, most likely smarter and more experienced than I. The lawyers with whom I contended also juggled a great number of cases. I wanted to remain a very short poppy as the lawyer on the other side surveyed the field in which he worked. I did that by always being courteous and not being contentious on issues that really didn't make any difference. When that lawyer came into the office on Saturday, in the peace and quiet of the morning, to think about the week just past and to plan the week to come, to plan the next steps of his various battles, I really didn't want him to think about me and my case. I was hoping that some other adversary of his had made himself quite prominent during the week before and that I would be unthought of, unseen, and safe.
I remember when I was in college and once visited my aunt and uncle in Spartanburg, SC, home of Deering Milliken, a large and well-known multinational textile firm. My uncle was on the faculty at Wofford College, and one day we drove together from the college back to his house through a well kept residential neighborhood with nice houses. It was not a neighborhood that would strike you as being particularly a wealthy one, but the houses were of a generous size and well kept. As we drove by a particular house on a corner lot, my uncle said, "That's where Roger Milliken lives", the president and chairman of Deering Milliken. I was suprised at how modest it seemed, next to the image I had of this great businessman from this great business family. He did not live as such a tall poppy, and my respect for him increased greatly.
But some people in the US make a living off of being tall poppies, often wittingly but sometimes unwittingly. Not just movie stars, but businessmen, clergy, lawyers, politicians. Wittingly, Paris Hilton was a tall poppy. Perhaps unwittingly, Skooter Libby was a tall poppy.