15 December 2021

BEST OF 2021: Is Canberra too 'cliquey' for new residents?

| Zoya Patel
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Surely Canberra is a more welcoming environment and less cliquey than a big city like Melbourne. Photo: Weyne Yew.

Year in Review: Region Media is revisiting some of the best Opinion articles of 2021. Here’s what got you talking, got you angry and got you thinking in 2021. Today, Zoya Patel ponders Canberra’s cliquey reputation.

Recently, while speaking to a colleague who moved to Canberra a few years ago, I once again heard a phrase I’ve come across in relation to my hometown many times. When asked how she was finding living in the nation’s capital, my colleague shrugged and said, “Oh, you know, Canberra can be quite cliquey – it’s hard to meet people. It took me a long time.”

I nodded, but internally I was perplexed. I’ve heard this said of Canberra by newcomers to our city before, but I’m not sure I entirely believe that Canberra is any more or less cliquey than other cities.

I have had the privilege of growing up in Canberra, so I accept that my experiences are very different from people who move here as adults, without the comfort and familiarity of family nearby, and friends and connections that have been made over a lifetime.

But do other cities do a better job of laying out the welcome mat than we Canberrans do? Or is it more a case of a smaller city being seen to be less welcoming by virtue of the fact that there are just fewer people and activities in comparison to our bigger counterparts?

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I understand that people moving to Canberra in the last year would have had a real slog of it, thanks to COVID-19 and its impacts. But I’ve heard this accusation of cliquey-ness for many years, long before the pandemic, and I’ve always questioned its validity.

I’ve lived in two other cities as an adult – Melbourne and Edinburgh in Scotland. My year in Melbourne was decidedly lonely. I had friends who I had moved down with, but in terms of meeting new people or forging a community, it was hard going.

Just because there were more places to go and more community events spread out across the city didn’t mean it was easier to actually meet people. Finding a community still involved putting myself out there – seeking out local events, asking acquaintances if they’d like to catch up, volunteering for organisations I thought aligned with my interests.

Similarly, in Edinburgh, I had to throw myself into the business of finding friends to make any connections. Again, I volunteered, actively invited people I met to a coffee to see if we could be friends, etc. Over time, a community evolved in each city, but it required a lot of effort, and there were definitely periods of loneliness.

I can’t see how Canberra makes it any more difficult to do the same things described above than anywhere else. There are loads of local events being held in lovely venues across the city (granted, COVID-19 has made this harder, but it does still happen), and there are specialist groups for almost every hobby imaginable. With a small amount of investigation, people can easily find and reach out to groups that share their interests.

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Yes, there are plenty of established social circles and communities, but this is true of anywhere. The only thing I can think of that sets Canberra apart is the geographical spread of the city, which means that there isn’t one obvious hub of activity, but many different spots of vibrancy spread out across town centres.

It can be harder to access these without a car, but arguably being able to link to community sports, activities, and local town centres closer to where you live is better for finding friends than being shoehorned into one CBD?

Is Canberra cliquey, or does it suffer from the perceptions people have of smaller cities as being less active when it comes to social opportunities? Are we too insular to include new people in Canberra, or are we all responsible for our own social connections and how fruitful they are, regardless of the city we’re in?

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bev hutchinson12:31 pm 24 Mar 21

The artificial intelligence capital of the world, usually compared to Washington. Very “level” conscious and always striving to meet the “right” people. It’s all about promotion and self interest. You simply must own a car… just so you can get into NSW and meet some real people. Some great sites here, but the best is seeing Canberra in the rear view mirror as you leave. A. H.

Anyone who thinks that Canberra is cliquey has never lived (tried to live) in Adelaide (or, perhaps, is from Adelaide!), which is hands-down the least friendly (occasionally hostile), most cliquey place I’ve ever lived, either in Australia or overseas. Have made and kept lots of excellent friends everywhere else I’ve lived (including Canberra). I lived in Adelaide for four years. Came away with two (count them: 2) friends. Lived in two places in Adelaide and in neither place did the neighbours speak to us (we’re pretty personable, easy-going, good-neighbour types). Only one of my then work colleagues remains a friend; the others were unbelievably tribal, resentful of outsiders and sometimes downright unpleasant. I couldn’t wait to leave either that workplace or Adelaide. In fact, driving out of SA for the last time, I got out of my car just across the border into Vic and kissed the ground!

Both about the same to me.

I’ve been here since 1969, from working class Newcastle, NSW. To the ANU on a scholarship.
I believe that this ‘accusation’ has as much validity as a discussion about how you clean yourself after going to the loo.

Owning a car? How are you going to travel – OUT – of Canberra – without one.

I have never found Canberra a difficult place. No more difficult of performing better than private-school products.

whinge, whinge, whinge

ChrisinTurner5:20 pm 04 Feb 21

You have to own a car to live in Canberra. This is dictated by the government who only give serious priority to car owners. They even build new suburbs without supermarkets so you have to use your car regularly. Footpaths are often nonexistent and poorly maintained to remove walking as an option. Once you have a car remove the mufflers and roar around all the blocks of new apartments. This will attract the Summernats clique.

The most successful ‘new settlers’ seem to be those who join groups and or volunteer. That way you meet people with similar interests. We’ve joined choirs, walking groups, Canberra & District Historical society, National Trust, Jerrabomberra Wetlands, National Aroboretum, the main galleries and more! Perhaps its a matter of finding your own clique even if its other new arrivals.

Definitely cliquey…always has been. Usually okay if you have work friends or special interests but when they dry up, you’re on your own.
Having retired, my circle of friends disappeared (admittedly I did go travelling overseas) and there was zero chance of expanding my friendship circle.

You go to a pub or coffee shop and everyone is in little groups with no interest in talking with anyone else. No so overseas or even interstate.

I have found, paradoxically, that both things are true. I have made some great friends here, but it’s mostly through work and/or people who moved from my home city.
On the other hand, I have been out to both organised events and social get-togethers and have been completely frozen out. And this despite there being 35 people there!

I agree with the people who say that individual behaviour makes a difference in a city’s culture. If I catch the tram or bus, most people are glued to their phones….I suspect out of fear of not knowing what to say, as few of us actually proactively learn to make good conversation. It’s a shame, though, as some of my best friendships, and conversations, have come from random conversations with previously complete strangers. And the serendipity of talking to strangers can be amazing….

One thing could be that long-term Canberrans (or anyone high up in the social scale) are far too comfortable. They may travel overseas, but if it’s a posting or work-related, they do so in relative ease and basically don’t have to move out of their comfort zones. So they have their social circles when they return, or they have never left Canberra in the first place, and they’re fine. I don’t think it’s so much that they are nasty or selfish as oblivious and thoughtless.

They may be lovely people if you ask them for directions, or meet them in other settings, but it just doesn’t occur to them to extend that initial politeness to newcomers into anything further.

Laments on the imagined unfriendliness of fellow Canberrans are doubtless an artifice to awaken compassion for an author whose views on others are rarely favourable.

Canberra can be cliquey, and a lot of people are social climbers. There is the keeping up with the Joneses thing too, especially amongst APS workers. I find dating one of the worst, if her friends don’t like you, you are cast aside.

Marina de Andrade10:09 pm 29 Jan 21

Unfortunately, it’s true. I’ve been living in Canberra for three years and I don’t have any Australian friends. I’ve tried so hard, but it’s pointless. Even my partner, who is Australian and was born in Canberra, can make new friends. Canberrans can be really friendly, but not friends.

duncan yourmate9:34 pm 29 Jan 21

Canberra has always been so since 1950 ,it is a big parliamentary triangle, just got bigger and bigger, it is a great place to grow up circa 64,it has pleasantly developed to a city, fwd thinking,better than the choices offered , very snobby you know your place in Canberra what school etc, parental jobs, how many letters after name, tis govt town , forward thinking; education based, and judgemental , of border breachers unless international, then more letters after name please, Cold,Cold, Cold

HiddenDragon7:45 pm 29 Jan 21

The final sentence of Jess Lucia’s comment from earlier today nails it.

I sometimes wonder whether the attitude came with all those 60s. 70s, 80s transfers of departments from Melbourne and got into the water supply –


Join some interest groups- running, walking etc. easy to make friends

Yes. If you’re not a public servant or a tradie, it’s hard to meet people. However, it’s not impossible. From my brief experience, the RFS and SES are pretty good at making volunteers feel welcome, though I’m not sure how well they can accommodate people with physical disabilities and chronic illnesses.

shandymandypoos8:31 pm 28 Jan 21

Yes it absolutely is! I met a local guy and was getting to know the area to get a feel on whether I could live there. I used to take my dog to a number of different dog parks and basically got snubbed. The only conversations I managed to strike up were from people who had moved there lol… one time I left a park and felt so isolated I actually sat in my car and cried ;( I never want to go back there…

Quite possibly some of the rudest, most self-serving, aloof people I’ve ever met – Canberra is cesspool of social climbers within a bubble. Having lived in country Victoria, NSW, Melbourne, Hobart and in Tasmania, country Victoria and NSW, Canberrans are an absurdly proud bunch of muppets who can’t drive, think their city should rank up there with the likes of Paris and London, and is full of terribly ugly, third world public architecture, food options and rents you have to sell a kidney to afford. Terrible place to live, work and play.

russianafroman3:19 pm 28 Jan 21

If you want to talk about the north/south divide just study basic human behavior, we love to divide ourselves into meaningless differences we’ve done it forever and will continue doing so.

russianafroman3:16 pm 28 Jan 21

Zoya Patel is a great writer and journalist she always gets people mad and fills the comment section

Laura Gilbert1:56 pm 28 Jan 21

I moved here 13 years ago. A lot of people mentioned this to me but I made new friends over time and those friends have evolved with meeting new friends as my life has changed.

Having a baby opens up the friendship circles with lots of new mums seeking out other mum friends etc I think Facebook has done a lot for meeting new people. Groups where you can post your likes and interests to see if anyone else is interested in meeting up over a coffee

I’ve heard this many times before and for many years, as mentioned in this article. I don’t think Canberra is cliquey and it’s possible to make friends especially in church, sports and community group meetings, such as those run by the libraries. It would just be more difficult at this time because of the virus. There are some meeting apps for groups that congregate with the same or similar interests, though I’m not sure if it’s entirely reliable and it’s not a mainstream way of meeting friends.

Canberrans who work in sensitive areas are required to be very careful who they choose as friends and what they can reveal about themselves. Reticence is a necessity and becomes a habit. Even if you don’t work in a sensitive area, you learn not to ask too many questions of a new acquaintance.

Capital Retro10:32 am 28 Jan 21

Having done a lot of contract work for several government agencies I know exactly what you mean.

It’s like have the “cone of silence” within “the bubble”.

I also grew up in Canberra and a few years ago moved the family to a country town for a tree change. Took time to make friends and no matter how hard we tried, it was hard to break into established social circles developed during school years. I have also lived in Brisbane and worked in Sydney. Canberra I think is less cliquey helped by the transient nature of a large part of the workforce here related to public service and defence forces. Many of these people are only on temporary postings in Canberra and have limited time to waste in waiting for friends to come along. They actively search for friends through methods as written above.

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