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

Zoya Patel 15 December 2021 102

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?

READ ALSO: Is there a distinct cultural difference between Canberra’s north and south?

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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102 Responses to BEST OF 2021: Is Canberra too ‘cliquey’ for new residents?
bev hutchinson bev hutchinson 12:31 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.

Jordania Jordania 7:39 pm 04 Feb 21

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!

TimboinOz TimboinOz 7:35 pm 04 Feb 21

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

ChrisinTurner ChrisinTurner 5:20 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.

Nick Swain Nick Swain 4:45 pm 04 Feb 21

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.

MarkN MarkN 3:54 pm 02 Feb 21

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.

David Sloan David Sloan 8:56 pm 31 Jan 21

it's pretty sad. we pretend to care about, are you ok day.

but ignore a good morning. I get a warm heart when saying Good Morning. Maybe more people should try it.

Ryoma Ryoma 6:33 pm 31 Jan 21

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.

Acton Acton 4:38 pm 31 Jan 21

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.

Tina Ellis Tina Ellis 3:53 pm 31 Jan 21

Yes it is

Julie Macklin Julie Macklin 3:25 pm 31 Jan 21

I made lots of friends when I moved to Canberra in the 1970s and into one of the hostels that existed then. Then when I bought and moved into my first house people in the street often stopped in passing to chat. They were mostly 'working' class and some had lived in their homes for many years; possible since they were built in the 1950s. My area had a mixture of long term older residents and younger residents. Didn't matter; even the drug dealers might say at least hello in passing. It was a chatty place. As the years went by new residents moved in and the place changed. The area became more respectable, but along with this the new people kept to themselves and appeared to do their best not to acknowledge other residents.

I have now moved to a ‘better’ area, and most people here keep to themselves. Sad that. Although I had little in common with many of my neighbours in the 1970s, I did like the friendliness and the chatty gossip, which made you feel you belonged and you got to know your neighbourhood. Now people keep to themselves, come home, go to work, come home. They could be living anywhere and it would make little difference to them. They don’t know the neighbourhood, the history, etc. It appears most people like to be like this.

Fortunately a friendly, young, new neighbour has moved in beside me, who is bucking the keep-your-head down and ignore the others about you. However, her family has lived in this neighbourhood for many years. That's likely the difference.

Adrian Sandrey Adrian Sandrey 12:16 pm 31 Jan 21

You are what you sow!! Stop blaming everything else and get on with !!

Angharad Lodwick Angharad Lodwick 10:18 am 31 Jan 21

When I first moved to Canberra, I noticed that people here are not very friendly to strangers out in passing, like being ignored by someone walking past you when you say good morning etc. I remember once a man in a supermarket had made a joke to a stranger nearby who ignored him and, exasperated, he asked aloud what it was with this place. I told him it wasn't just him, it was just the local culture, and he told me he had been finding it really hard. By contrast, when I go back to Melbourne, strangers will happily say hi as they pass or compliment you on your outfit while you wait at traffic lights. I haven't found it hard to make friends, but I think that Canberrans are a bit less friendly out and about. There's a strong sense of "mind your own business" and I wonder if that is tied to how easy it is to run into someone you already know, or because of the number of people working in places dealing with confidential material who would prefer to remain anonymous

Frustrated Frustrated 9:37 am 31 Jan 21

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.

Cary Elliot Johnson Cary Elliot Johnson 9:18 am 30 Jan 21

Canberra and Perth.

Marina de Andrade Marina de Andrade 10:09 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 yourmate duncan yourmate 9:34 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

HiddenDragon HiddenDragon 7:45 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 –

Ol L Ol L 12:34 pm 29 Jan 21

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

Linda Young Linda Young 12:22 pm 29 Jan 21

i think it is super friendly - lived three times for five year stints

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