What Does Mateship Mean to You?

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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:

Australia and New Zealand

The author Wilbur Smith in 2011. His historical thrillers and adventure novels were said to have sold 140 million copies worldwide.Credit…Cosima Scavolini/LaPresse, via Associated Press
  • Wilbur Smith, Best-Selling Author of Swashbuckling Novels, Dies at 88. His books were full of lovers, dysfunctional families, pirates and hunters, and set in locations from ancient Egypt to colonial Africa. They sold in the millions.

  • With restrictions easing, the Australian Open can play before a full house.The annual Boxing Day cricket test match in Melbourne will also be allowed to take place before a full-capacity crowd.

  • Must This Swab Go That Far Up Your Nose to Test for Covid?Some testers gently swab the front of your nostril and send you on your way. Others dig deep, bringing the pain. What’s the gold standard?

  • Google will invest $740 million in Australia, including a research hub.After regulatory fights, the search giant pledged to expand its hiring in the country.

  • Inside Jane Campion’s Cinema of Tenderness and Brutality. In “The Power of the Dog,” her first movie in 12 years, the filmmaker ventures into the American West — and the inner worlds of cruel, complicated men.

  • A Maori tribe tells anti-vaccine protesters to stop performing their haka.Ngati Toa, which owns the legal rights to the dance, said it supports Covid vaccinations as the best chance to protect a group that has suffered disproportionally from pandemics.

Around the Times

Peng Shuai at the Australian Open in Melbourne in January 2020.Credit…Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters
  • Chinese Tennis Star’s Disappearance After #MeToo Accusation Fuels Outrage. The Women’s Tennis Association cast doubt over an email that Chinese media claimed had been sent by Peng Shuai, who had accused a top official of sexual assault.

  • Exoneration Is ‘Bittersweet’ for Men Cleared in Malcolm X’s Murder.An emotional crowd burst into applause in a packed Manhattan courtroom Thursday after the judge threw out the convictions of Muhammad Aziz and Khalil Islam.

  • Modi Relents to Protests as India Moves to Repeal Farm Laws. Prime Minister Narendra Modi said his government would repeal the contentious laws that were meant to overhaul the country’s troubled agricultural sector.

  • Taylor Swift’s ‘All Too Well’ and the Weaponization of Memory. The new 10-minute version of a bitter breakup song from 2012 luxuriates in its details and its supersize length, correcting a power imbalance in the relationship it describes.

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