The Thunberg Effect: Why Some Australians Overheat At The Mere Mention Of Swedish Climate Activist


If you’re going to campaign to save the world, then best do it with a strong command of the English language. Dean Frenkel weighs in on the fury that surrounds a young Swedish climate activist.

Why do Australian conservatives bristle at Greta Thunberg? It begins with who she is, not what she’s saying.

They are insulted by the audacity of her age – a protester who became a worldwide superstar at the age of 15; they’re disoriented by her lack of regard for social niceties and particularly dislike that she’s given airtime and taken seriously.

They don’t like her tone and intensity. “How dare you?” They are perturbed that heavy messages are being delivered by a diminutive 4’11” European female and if nasty medicine has to be delivered, they’d prefer it come from a middle-aged economist wearing a grey suit. They expect teenagers to be more obsessed with fingernails, fashion and Billie Eilish than climate politics.

In their minds Thunberg is hectoring them. It can be challenging being lectured to by someone of the stature of David Attenborough but when it is done by an adolescent, that really is too much. They think it’s ridiculous that an audacious teenager can know better than their years of experience.

And of course they are stung that she speaks so well, even though they consciously attribute other reasons for their feelings. Thunberg is a Swedish resident who speaks English as a second language. Her speech is far more skillful than most mono-lingual Australians and she’s not alone. Many 2nd generation immigrants speak better English than 6th generation Australians.

Yet these Australians are not jealous of Thunberg’s speech-competence nor do they necessarily want to speak better than her, instead they have a deep-seated bias against people who speak too well. With regards to rhetoric, they adopt a strange type of wabi sabi (Japanese appreciation of imperfection): if you speak too well, you fail the pub test and can’t be trusted. Conversely, if speech imperfections dominate your speech manner, you are more likely be celebrated, trusted and enjoy the empathy of others.

Only in Australia.

But don’t Australians like calling a spade-a-spade? Australian mythology has been built around the contrarianism of Ned Kelly but times have changed. Thunberg has too much chutzpah for them. In our strange new world of male cosmetics, swollen lips, bum fillers and virtual surreality, Greta Thunberg is authentic – which is attractive to some but terrifying to others.

Indeed, Greta’s accomplishment as an elite English speaker is amazing for someone born and raised speaking Swedish in a non-English-speaking country; even more-so that she probably hasn’t spent a lifetime nurturing her English.

Her outstanding communication skills contrast starkly with Australia’s nation-wide speech impediment. Just ask someone with hearing difficulties how challenged they are to understand Australian speakers with poor communication skills. In fact, lack of clarity is omnipresent. Most Australians don’t speak clearly and many don’t speak confidently or functionally and it’s not only tradespeople who are impeded but also politicians, judges, air traffic controllers and doctors – it’s across the board.

It’s alarming that poor speech can lead to misunderstandings in critical scenarios. How did this eventuate? It can be traced to the failure of the designers of our education system to equip students with adequate speech skills.

Thunberg is a top-level communicator who breaks social rules by dispensing with the niceties. Rather than taking the back-road or beating around the bush, she tells it how-it-is. Her style is passionate, direct and highlighted by crisp clarity, which makes her easy to listen to and understand. Her presentation is backed by laser-like intensity and confronting body language.

The key to her crystal clarity is precise articulation at a measured speech rate that is also fast enough to be fluid with just enough melodic colour to maintain attention. She achieves a balance of high skills that has the ring of theatrical training. She is a relaxed and efficient speaker.

Behind Thunberg’s clarion call to save the planet is the grand accusation that reckless human behaviour is responsible for making the Earth uninhabitable.

(IMAGE: Apaloosa, flickr)

But climate deniers are not convinced the Earth is in trouble. Instead they fear that Greta is triggering a whole new generation of ‘Thunbergs’ who are angry, articulate, loud, confrontational and better at expressing themselves than any previous generation – meaning they’ll also speak better than their forebears. They are petrified of the Thunberg army marching on the streets and changing civilisation. They don’t want to live with shame or be coerced to downsize their lives.

Yet much can be learned about climate stewardship and speech from Indigenous Australians and immigrants – if only we would listen.

First Australians have developed the art of great storytelling for tens of thousands of years and it is imperative that their custodianship be acknowledged as having done a great job of preserving our great land before colonization.

It is also poignant that many of our country’s best speakers come from immigrant families. There has never been a more important time for Australians to be trained to speak and communicate effectively.

The Australia-wide epidemic of poor communication skills has created a desperate need for a new generation of brilliant communicators to determine the future. Greta Thunberg and her new tribe of climate ambassadors have much to teach us. We must learn to listen to them.

Dean Frenkel is a Melbourne writer and communications expert.