What is a mate to you? A good friend? A brother? Someone you can rely on? Someone you call to go for a beer with? Or is the guy who works in the corner shop, or drives your bus, or who walks his dog in the same park as you?
“G’day mate” is probably the most quintessential Aussie catch phrase there is and that’s because over here everyone is a “mate”. But I find it hard to bandy about a term that I think should be used for mates. Yes, I can refer to my mates back home, or talk about someone I am mates with, or maybe even after the word Cheers, it seems to roll off the tongue. And sometimes it does feel nice to have a stranger call you mate when they thank you or tell you something, but that’s a far as I go.
Over here, as I said everyone is a mate, and it’s something us foreigners laugh about. When do you not say mate? When the police have pulled you over for speeding, do you say, or do they say g’day mate before they slap you with a fine? When you call the tax office to ask a question, should you thank them and say Cheers mate? What about passing your boss in the corridor on your way to make a cuppa, do you say alright mate then? These seem like silly things to contemplate, but when you are in the bush there is a lot of time for pondering, and it just so happens I am near my laptop.
It came to mind because I realised that over here parents call their children mate, which I found bizarre when hearing it on a number of occasions recently. Like when a sick child is taking medicine and a mother says “well done mate”, or when a mum is explaining something to her son she says “no mate, do it like this” or when she asks her daughter what is wrong she says “what’s up mate?” I find it a bit weird. I don’t think your children warrant the word mate, at least not until they are adults and they choose to be your mate: My mum is one of my best mates, and I use that term regularly to describe her because I really mean it.
Because of this mate obsession and perhaps its uniqueness that other cultures or languages often don’t have – the foreign students I taught in Melbourne found it entertaining to use it in class. It became an in-class joke to see how many times you could get the word mate into one conversation, which made us laugh even more about the ridiculousness of overusing a word so much that it no longer has the meaning it’s intended to have.