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I was once reminded by Robusto-san of a Japanese popular saying, ‘出る釘は打たれる - the nail that pops up is always hammered down,’ when I complained about sequential down-votes that I received.

I wondered at that time if this expression is unique to the Japanese collectivity-oriented patterns of thinking, which Shichihei Yamamoto defined as ‘rice-growers’ mindset’ to simply mimic what others do without having your own thought - when the neighboring farmer starts planting rice, you plant rice. When your neighbor crops rice, you crop yours. When the neighboring farmer starts to repair a thatched roof made of rice straw, you mend the thatch of your cottage.

In the famous book, “Japanes eand Jew ” written by the pseudonym of Isaiah Ben-Dasan, Yamamoto argues basic differences of the ways of thinking between the Japanese and the Jew - agricultural people vs pastoral people in his definition.

We have a lot of proverbs to teach us to be meek, or flexible at best, such as “泣く子と地頭には勝てぬ‐You cannot argue with a crying child and your magistrate,” “長いものには巻かれろ- It’s better to be obedient to those in power,” “喬木は風に弱し-A tall tree is weak to a gale,” “柳に風折れなし‐Willows don’t break in storms (because they have branches and leaves supple enough to fend off strong wind).”

“触らぬ神に祟りなし‐Don’t get involved (with the problem), and you won’t get a slap from God,” and “Silence is gold (I think this is a Japanese version of German proverb, 'Reden ist silvber, schweigen ist gold' transplanted in the Meiji era in late 19 century),” can be classified into the same “Don’t be conspicuous” lesson group.

I understand westerners value assertiveness based on individualism against oriental collectivism, and wonder if the concept like ’出る釘は打たれる- the nail that pops up is hammered down,’ is viable at all in the western societies as a matter of comperative culture.

Are there any proverbs or sayings that admonish values of being unnoticeable (not saying insignificant) or an advantage of staying just in average that can be compared to ‘the nail that pops up is hammered down’?

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I never heard it growing up in America. I first heard it -- phrased pretty much like that -- as an adult, as a Japanese proverb. I wouldn't say we Americans don't value conformity; I do think we realize that people come in different sizes, though, and there isn't much we can do about that. –  John Lawler Jul 18 '13 at 23:31
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This sounds related to "The squeaky wheel gets the grease", but the intent of that proverb is very different: it points out that you can't expect people to read your mind, so if you have a problem, you should speak up about it. The other saying that comes to mind is "The reward for a job well done is another job", but again, the intent is different: it's pointing out that you shouldn't expect praise for doing what you're supposed to do. –  Marthaª Jul 18 '13 at 23:42
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So the maples formed a union / And demanded equal rights. / "These oaks are just too greedy; / We will make them give us light." / Now there's no more oak oppression, / For they passed a noble law, / And the trees are all kept equal / By hatchet, axe, and saw. –  tchrist Jul 19 '13 at 0:06
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A related trope and metaphor in European culture is the cutting off of plants that grow too tall, because prominence is dangerous for a stable rule from above: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tall_poppy_syndrome –  Cerberus Jul 19 '13 at 2:10
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@PieterGeerkens I disagree, the meaning of "When in Rome, do as the Romans do" is to adapt, imitate and/or adhere to the mannerisms and customs of a particular group or society. It does not mean to be unobtrusive as "flying under the radar" suggests. –  Mari-Lou A Jul 19 '13 at 6:57

24 Answers 24

As Marc pointed out in his answer, there is an Australian version, although his wording is much more proper than I would expect from us Aussies. I have always heard it expressed as "Tall poppies get cut short".

Also, check out Tall Poppy Syndrome.

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I've mostly just heard "he's a tall poppy" with the consequences left unsaid (but implied to be bad indeed given the tone of voice). And it seems to be directed, in my experience, not entirely at non-conformity, but self-importance. (But usually it's non-conformity being interpreted as an expression of self-importance.) Anyway, +1--this seems to be the best fit to me even if it's not quite perfect. –  Rex Kerr Jul 19 '13 at 20:36

I heard this phrase used, I think by a Korean, in a documentary called BBoy Planet. There, it was translated as "The nail that sticks out gets hammered down", which seems to carry the meaning better into English.

English phrases with similar connotations might include...

  • Keep your head down.
  • Don't stick your neck out.

It's difficult because, as you pointed out, Western culture has a different view of individuality, so similar phrases will generally emphasise shyness or cowardice, rather than conformity.

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I have heard this from both Japanese and Korean as well. It is very much an Asian ideal I think. –  AthomSfere Jul 19 '13 at 3:09
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A variant to those above is "don't stick your head above the parapet" –  tinyd Jul 19 '13 at 11:21
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Similarly, "keep your nose clean." –  John McCollum Jul 19 '13 at 11:32
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I don't think this one is very common, but I've heard a version along the lines of "Sticking your head out exposes your neck" –  David Kaczynski Jul 20 '13 at 2:19
    
I have often heard "The chicken who sticks his neck out gets his head chopped off". I grew up in Kentucky around the 1980s if that makes a difference. –  Sean Duggan Apr 1 at 14:29

I know the questioner wanted proverbs that value conformity, but this proverb comes to mind immediately:

The squeaky wheel gets the grease

It has the exact opposite meaning to the proverb in the question, but the sentiment is similar: it describes what happens to something (or someone) that draws attention to itself (himself). If the questioner is interested in the differences between Western and Japanese culture, and how these manifest through language, they might find this interesting.

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i like how you posed the Contrast between the two societies here. this points out the complete opposite. I think that a lot of people say these things with out really thinking about what they mean and this is a good example. i really think that this proverb is missing the second half though, "the loud, obnoxious wheel get's replaced" meaning that too much is too much. –  Malachi Jul 19 '13 at 22:14
    
Well, grease isn't a bad thing but getting hammered down is unpleasant. –  aditya menon Jul 20 '13 at 7:00
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There's also "shy kids don't get sweets", which pretty much means the same thing. –  Carl Smith Jul 20 '13 at 16:25

An Australian friend used to say "When a blade of grass is taller than the rest, we cut it down to size."

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I've heard this in the US as "The tallest blade of grass is the first to be cut by the lawnmower." See also: despair.com/underachievement.html –  Carolyn Jul 19 '13 at 19:05

Denis Thatcher, husband of the late Margaret Thatcher, kept a notably low profile. When asked about it, he would sometimes say:

It's the whale that spouts that gets harpooned.

When people are, for example, starting a new job, they are often advised to:

Keep your head down and your mouth shut.

If somebody in an institution intends to oppress you, they say:

I will come down on you like a ton of bricks.

But, in general, English-speaking culture does not have that kind of unavoidable, oppressive conformity ... except in the military. Can anybody with military experience think of an equivalent expression?

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How about: "Never volunteer." –  Pieter Geerkens Jul 19 '13 at 5:32
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+1 for the invaluable advice that bears repeating at every opportunity –  Pitarou Jul 19 '13 at 5:44
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+1 for the whaley-harpooney quote. –  mskfisher Jul 19 '13 at 14:17

I think this most closely matches the saying

"The tallest poppy gets cut down"

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Where does that come from? –  Sir Jul 19 '13 at 10:41

This proverb immediatly makes me think of the English phrase:

When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

This conveys a sense of conformism, though primarily aimed at foreigners in an alien culture.
It may exist in other European languages too, I wouldn't know.

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There may be no exact equivalent, but one proverb which is not too distant from yours is

The bigger they are, the harder they fall.

which means that exceptional people suffer exceptionally when they fail.1

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Funny. It's exactly opposite to our “喬木は風に弱し-A tall tree is weak to a gale” (because it gets stronger wind pressure than shrubs). –  Yoichi Oishi Jul 19 '13 at 4:14
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@YoichiOishi: We have that concept in English, too: see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Oak_and_the_Reed. –  ruakh Jul 19 '13 at 5:16
    
I always thought of "The bigger they come, the harder they fall" as referring to physically large people, who seemed intimidating in a fight. This saying was used to encourage the little guy not to be afraid of them. –  LarsH Jul 19 '13 at 20:15
    
@LarsH Yes, it can refer literally to physically big people, and it is also used metaphorically to mean powerful or otherwise exceptional people. In that case the fall is metaphorical: it can mean a fall from grace or a fall from a position of power. –  MετάEd Jul 19 '13 at 22:39
    
It strange our parents teach us that the bigger you are, the harder you fall, while our governments teach us that some banks are too big to fail. - J Celente –  Carl Smith Oct 9 '13 at 19:15

Most English proverbs that advocate conformity don't dwell on the negative effects of nonconformity. Instead they run along the lines of

Go along to get along.

and

One must howl with the wolves.

and

Don't make waves.

But the benefits of conformity are perhaps of best expressed in this one (from the Facts on File Dictionary of Proverbs):

Do as most men do, then most men will speak well of you.

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I haven't heard any of those except "Don't make waves" (also "Don't rock the boat"), but they remind me of "When in Rome, do as the Romans do". –  ruakh Jul 19 '13 at 5:17
    
that last one sounds like a saying out of the bible, though I can't think of where it is in there at the moment –  Malachi Jul 19 '13 at 22:17
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+1 for "Go along to get along". –  Robusto Jul 20 '13 at 9:52

I think this would be semantically similar:

The mighty will fall.

How about this, simple and semantically very close; but certainly does not admonish "average-ness":

What goes up must come down.

There is also a Sanskrit proverb which goes like this:

A clever crow dips its beak in shit.

The implication being an average crow would then learn from the clever crow that the thing on the ground is indeed shit.

How about this? This, I think is very close to what you want.

The second rat gets the cheese.

The implication being that the first rat to the cheese is killed by the rat-trap. It admonishes being average; kinda.

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+1 for second rat get's the cheese –  user42440 Jul 19 '13 at 6:47
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"The second rat" is part of a longer saying: The early bird gets the worm, but the second rat gets the cheese. I've also heard it with "mouse" instead of "rat". –  Roddy of the Frozen Peas Jul 19 '13 at 17:35
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I'm pretty sure that the alleged Sanskrit proverb is just made up; it does not actually occur in Sanskrit. :-) –  ShreevatsaR Jul 20 '13 at 18:24

There is one phrase that I've heard as a counterpart to toryan's suggestion:

The squeaky wheel gets replaced.

It's usually used to as a direct opposition to the more common phrase as a cautionary reminder that while complaining about a problem can solve the problem, there are risks involved raising that complaint as well. I believe it has essentially the same meaning as your original phrase.

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Not quite the same. "... gets hammered down." implies that conformity is the only option. "... gets replaced." implies that there is an alternative: you can leave. –  Pitarou Jul 19 '13 at 3:42

My favourite answer to that particular proverb:

The nail that sticks up gets hammered. It is better to be a hammer than a nail.

Japanese society is about being humble and bowing lower than those "above" you. Most Americanized countries have no concept of this. Even in England it is polite to call someone by their last name (e.g. "Mr. Smith"), however in America you just say "Hey Tom". Do that in Japan and they will think that you are married to Tom, because the only ones who call you by your first name is your spouse or your parent.

This is why there aren't any real parallels in the English literature; the value system is different.

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American shop assistants or waiters will often address a male customer as "Sir" and a female one "Ma'am" or "Miss". And I believe that form of address is very common in a few of the southern states as a sign of respect. –  Mari-Lou A Jul 19 '13 at 6:45
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@Mari-Lou A, true but that's more because they don't know the person's name. –  user42440 Jul 19 '13 at 6:46
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It's still a form of courtesy and respect which your "Hey Tom" does not imply. And, (but I'm not 100% sure) it is the accepted way of addressing teachers, professors and the elderly especially among American school children and teenagers. –  Mari-Lou A Jul 19 '13 at 7:05
    
@Mari-LouA, true. –  user42440 Jul 19 '13 at 8:29
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The reponse to "It is better to be a hammer than a nail" is "if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail" –  Henry Jul 19 '13 at 10:55

From sanskrit...

Trees that don't bend with the wind, won't last the storm

Or...

The wind does not break a tree that can bend

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It resembles our 'Willows don’t break with storm (or strong wind).' –  Yoichi Oishi Jul 19 '13 at 11:42
    
There are similar statements in English. I don't know whether there's a single established phrasing, but there is certainly an Aesop's fable which is quite commonly referenced. –  Peter Shor Jul 19 '13 at 12:07
    
@PeterShor yup I think I have read that one before. Thanks for mentioning it. –  Sandeep Datta Jul 20 '13 at 13:13

One more piece of Western culture to compare would be the tale of Daedalus and Icarus, with the (not particularly well known or often repeated - though the story itself is somewhat popular) cautionary description of "wings cast toward the sun".

The chief difference in the advice is the focus on pride and the punishment it is said to naturally bring, and the danger of "flying too close to the sun" (risking too much and shooting for too great a goal, and thus losing everything).

The advice in the Icarus tale is different in degree, in that its ok to go against authority and do something you aren't naturally even equipped to do (like a man flying with bird wings), but if you get carried away or too prideful or careless the penalty will be extreme - if you stand out too much, you might get hammered down.

Now bare in mind that this tale is from ancient Greek mythology, and these sorts things are almost always cautionary tales which are the exception rather than the general popular cultural attitude.

As a counter-point, the more modern Oscar Wilde is said to have written:

Never regret thy fall, / O Icarus of the fearless flight / For the greatest tragedy of them all / Is never to feel the burning light.

This is far more typical of modern European and American cultural advice, where risk taking and "exceptionalism" are actively encouraged.

To illustrate this one need only look at the many comments that offer the opposite advice, to which I point out popular attitudes like:

"sheeple" (people who act like sheep - thought to gather together and follow each other mindlessly, though this is an almost entirely factually inaccurate description of sheep in natural settings), "like lambs to the slaughter", "don't be just another face in the crowd","stand and be counted"

And literally dozens of other pieces of common (even cliche) advice all tend to point in this direction. The funny thing is that the societies often behave in the same general way, where "sticking your neck out" is just as liable to get you in trouble - especially in the corporate world and in the "public sector" (government jobs). Americans particularly are often just as quick to ostracize and oppress people who don't "fit the mold" and cling to desires for normalcy and often fear atypical behavior, cultural attitudes that encourage being different not withstanding.

So this is one example of how popular written and verbal culture can give you a misleading impression of human nature and societal functioning; the stated goals might differ, but the underlying behavior can be all too familiar. Suggest doing something different can make people uncomfortable and it can result in getting everything you suggest getting "nay-sayed" into oblivion.

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Phrases to come to my mind are:

Eagles may soar, but Weasels don't get sucked into jet engines.

Best source I could find pegs this as anonymous from the early 1990's, so not exactly a proverb. It's more of a humorous counterpoint to ambition. Also, from the eagle and weasel's point of view, the jet engine is more of a Deus Ex Machina or an uncontrollable fate, whereas a hammer is a purpose built device for hammering down nails.

It's already been mentioned, but this quote is more proverbial:

The early bird may get the worm, but the second mouse get's the cheese.

The first half is quite old, apparently first published in a 1670 collection of proverbs. The second bit sounds more modern, but mouse traps have been around for at least as long as the early bird proverb. One site only traces the modified proverb back to 1994.

But I don't bring it up for the cheese commentary. I bring it up because there's a different counterpoint I encountered recently that goes like this:

The early bird may get the worm, but most of us can only aspire to be early worms.

I can't find anything definitive on this; most references site the more common praise of procrastination: "The worm who sleeps in doesn't get eaten." In fact, any comprehensive review of English proverbs and quotations will find that conformity is almost always mentioned in a negative light.

So to answer your question directly, no there really aren't any sayings or proverbs in English that match "the nail which sticks up is hammered down". Anything that does fit is a more modern expression which better fits the definition of an anti-proverb, or an internet meme.

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A variant of the "worm who sleeps in" proverb is "the early worm deserves the bird" - this was included in Robert Heinlein's 1973 novel, "Time Enough for Love". –  Mark Bannister Jul 19 '13 at 18:45

There is a similar proverb in China which is " 枪打出头鸟“ means " the bird that flys up fist from a group of birds gets shot easier than the other ones." however, according to the western cultures, they do not treasure conformity as much as the Asians. There is a very small chance that they will have a similar proverb.

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We have the similar version to 枪打出头鸟, that is “桂馬の高飛び、歩の餌食,” which means 桂馬 -keima, a knight can be easily beaten by 歩 – fu, a soldier in Japanese chess game. Although 桂馬 has higher mobility (It can advance two boxes toward right hand at a time) than 歩 (it can advance only one box forward at a time), reckless advance of 桂馬 result in the prey of 歩. It is referred to as the admonition of the risk of showy performance in Japan. –  Yoichi Oishi Jul 19 '13 at 9:19
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I was under the impression that 枪打出头鸟 was more of a negative phrase, that it basically refers to some kind of oppressive power squashing an insurgence by reacting swiftly and efficiently to the very first signs of it. A kind of ‘nip it in the bud’ phrase, but used specifically about scaring someone else off from further pursuing whatever they were about to do by ‘shooting the first bird to stick its head out’. Is this not so? –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 19 '13 at 10:11
    
Correction: 桂馬 can advance two boxes both right and left-handed direction at a time. –  Yoichi Oishi Jul 19 '13 at 11:38

One of the Chanakya Quotes says: "Straight trees are cut first."

Quote -

A person should not be too honest. Straight trees are cut first and honest people are screwed first.

Read more

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A term that I've heard used is crab mentality: crabs cannot escape from a bucket because they are dragged down by the other crabs.

In Scandinavian culture the tendency of a community to punish successful members is known as the law of Jante. There is also a related concept in social psychology called groupthink.

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We usually say "don't stick your neck out" which is a reference to butchering Turkeys (a loud bird with a long neck). But it's always a saying among working-class folk, and rarely said among upper class people.

It's use is universally recognized as a strong indicator of either oppression, ignorance or bad management.

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The glass ceiling metaphor is sort of complimentary to this phrase... it essentially means that you can see how to get to the top but someone doesn't want you to get there, thus the glass ceiling put in place to stop you.

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There is a phrase in English that expresses the same thought.

If you stick your head above the parapet, you'll get it shot off

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Another saying: "You can tell the pioneers by the arrows in their backs".

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Someone here posted "It's the squeaky wheel that gets the grease." Years ago I added the personal addendum: "But sometimes it's the squeaky wheel that gets replaced."

All societies have their rabblerousers and all societies value conformity to help society run more smoothly (and discourage anti-government/anti-church rhetoric). Although it's often the message that's controversial, its acceptance is more often dependent on who's standing on the soap box.

If a child says, "I don't like broccoli." his parents say, "Shut up and eat your vegetables." If the president of the United States says, "I don't like broccoli." as George Bush Sr. did 20+ years ago, broccoli growers across America shout, "What the hell are you trying to do?! Put us out of business!?" In both cases the nail's getting hammered back down, but the latter required a much larger hammer, though I'm sure Bush's toadies stopped eating broccoli immediately in order to flatter their leader.

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There are already better answers but I still wanted to add Matthew 19:30 to the collection: "But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first."

It means that it doesn't necessarily pay to stand out by all means, even though the reason given is metaphysical in nature.

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That's an interesting perspective you have on the Gospel, there. –  Pitarou Jul 22 '13 at 23:16
    
@Pitarou Did you actually downvote me because your interpretation of some Bible verse is different from mine? Or was that someone else who also has different view on how to treat thy neighbour? In any case, I'm pretty certain that this passage means exactly that: someone might be rich and successful in this life but if he got there by screwing people over then he'd better enjoy it while he can. Whereas an honourable beggar might be scorned now but he can hope to life a fabulous afterlife. –  Christian Jul 22 '13 at 23:31
    
I didn't downvote you. After reading your extra comments, I think it's actually your interpretation of "the nail that stands out gets hammered down" that I disagree with. –  Pitarou Jul 23 '13 at 23:24
    
@Pitarou Well, at least that's not the Scripture then but just some proverb ;) I admit that Matthew 19:30 is much narrower in meaning than the Japanese proverb. But depending on the context it might fit so that's why I contributed it. –  Christian Jul 24 '13 at 1:54

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