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Kate Peebles / © Culture Trip
Kate Peebles / © Culture Trip
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11 Things You Should Know About New Zealand's Culture

Picture of Joe Coates
Updated: 20 February 2018
For such a little country, New Zealand sure has a big personality. This is because there’s a lot that goes into the make-up of the unique and much-celebrated Kiwi culture. The European culture has influenced that of the Maori and vice-versa. Here is our heads-up guide to navigating 11 aspects of being Kiwi.

The Hāngi

The Hāngi is perhaps New Zealand’s most recognised form of cooking, and something that visitors should definitely try when they head over to NZ’s shores for the first time. Basically, it’s a big pit that is filled with stones, which are then heated up by large fire. Once the fire has died down and the stones are at scorching temperature, the food – traditionally meat or fish and root vegetables (like kumera) – is placed into the earth oven, wrapped in punga leaves, hessian sacks or flax mats. The earth is then piled back over to retain the heat and cook the food. The food can take anywhere from three to seven hours to cook, but this is all part of the ceremony of the day. Everyone pitches in digging the hole in the morning, preparing the food and building the fire. Then, whilst the “kai” is cooking everyone gathers around for a drink and a chat – and maybe a little backyard cricket. It’s a fantastic way to spend a day and a genuine Kiwi experience.

Heating the Stones
Heating the Stones | © Sarah Stewart / Flickr

Yeah, nah, mate

New Zealanders – generally – are a positive lot, and they are loathe to turn down someone’s request for anything if it can be helped. Of course, this isn’t always the case, and you’ll have to keep your ears cocked for the truly classic, and quite befuddling, “Yeah, nah, mate.” For example, you might offer someone a beer and have them reply with a vague, “Yeah, nah, thanks.” This means that they appreciate the offer but are fine. Another way that it might be used is if someone is sceptical about what you’re saying, but doesn’t want to offend you by pointing out that you’ve just tried to pull a fast one on them. It can also mean “kind of” as in replying to, “Is it raining out?”

Alcohol

New Zealand is very much a drinking culture. There’s is a lot attached to the simple act of having a beer with a friend or workmate. Saying that, no judgement is passed on anyone who doesn’t drink, but the teetotaller traveller should understand that booze and Kiwis go together like fish ‘n’ chips. Even if you don’t drink, if you’re invited to a dinner party or barbecue, it’s good form to bring a bottle of wine or some beers to share. If someone “shouts” you a drink at a bar, then custom dictates that you get the next round in.

Blues, Brews & BBQs
Blues, Brews & BBQs | © epicbeer / Flickr

Sport

Little needs to be said here. When your little country is home to the most successful sports franchise – when it comes to victories over the past 100+ years – in the All Blacks, you cultivate, a certain religious-like zeal for sports. Let’s just say that sport in general – and rugby in particular – is a keystone to many New Zealanders’ national identity. As football is to many European countries, so rugby produces the same sort of fervour in Aotearoa. It pays to brush up on a bit of sports trivia before setting foot in a Kiwi sports bar for the first time.

Girls College Rugby
Girls College Rugby | © vjpaul / Flickr

The art of communication

New Zealanders are well-known for their affable natures, and acceptance of outsiders. Keeping this in mind though, you have to realise that Kiwis are also quite a private bunch. They’re the kings and queens of passing the time of day with strangers, and travellers are delighted at how you can get chatting about the weather, good places to watch the game or the history of an area, with a total unknown for ages. However, asking personal questions like how much someone paid for their house or car, or whether they’re married or not, or have kids, is a bit of a social faux-pas.

The Bakery

Bakeries have supported many a hungry working Kiwi through the week, and you’ll see that no town worth its salt doesn’t have at least one. Pies, pastries and sandwiches are a staple of New Zealand lunchtimes, so if you’re passing one make sure that you give a home-made pie a crack. The reason why and how they’ve become so important is vague, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that they’re essential components to this island culture.

Kiwi slang

New Zealanders are sometimes described as having quite lazy enunciation. The accent isn’t as nasally as the Australian one, but it can be quite difficult for even English-speaking foreigners to decipher what’s being said when two or more Kiwis are having a good old chin-wag. For instance, someone from Spain who is proficient in school-learned English might still not have the foggiest idea when two New Zealanders say to each other:

“Kia ora, cuz, I was in the dairy the other day and saw a mean as packet of hokey-pokey lollies that I thought you’d like.”

“Choice! They sound sweet as. Where are they?”

“I ate them in the ute on the way home. You don’t mind do you?”

“Yeah, nah, mate. Thanks heaps, oi.”

No shoes

This is a very endearing feature of New Zealand, and one that many people find a little bit odd the first time they see it. It also cements New Zealanders’ reputation as a country full of hobbits. It’s simply that Kiwis don’t much like footwear, and in the summer months you’ll see heaps of people wandering about barefoot, even through cities like Wellington.

Kiwi Hobbit Feet
Kiwi Hobbit Feet | © Philby / Flickr

The Hongi

This is the traditional Maori greeting, and could most easily be compared to a handshake… with your face. When meeting certain Maori, you press your noses and foreheads together and share in “the breath of life.” It’s a simple – albeit unusual at first – greeting that signifies the blending of two souls.

Tom Cruise Hongi
Tom Cruise Hongi | © Kiri Dell / Flickr

Sharing food

Whether it’s at a barbecue or a hāngi, or maybe just down the beach with a packet of hot-chips and a freshly caught crayfish, sharing food is something that brings all New Zealanders together. It is common courtesy here that when you’re invited to dinner you always bring a little something – a dessert perhaps. If you are asked specifically to “bring a plate” this usually means that everyone invited to the lunch or gathering is going to bring some food to share, whether that’s a potato salad, some fresh fish or whatever else you fancy whipping up. Whatever you do, don’t be that person who rocks up with just a plate!

Fully Loaded BBQ
Fully Loaded BBQ | © Henry Burrows / Flickr

The can-do attitude

Perhaps the most famous Kiwi trait of all is their predominantly optimistic nature in the face of adversity. It’d be like the two blokes who tried to ford a river in their ute after some heavy rain. They were halfway across when the wheels left the bottom and they were carried slowly down the river.

“She’ll be alright,” one assured the other.

They sat and went through a few plans on how to get out of the predicament, each scheme as unlikely as the last. Suddenly, with a grate the wheels touched gravel in a slightly shallower ford, and off they went.

“No worries,” the driver said, as if he planned it all along.