The Culture of New Zealand: What to Know Before Traveling

February 28

Isolate a bunch of people on a handful of islands at the bottom of the world, and some weird but wonderful things start happening. New Zealand is a unique, endearingly strange wee country, known best these days for Auntie Cindy, ultra-fast flattening of the curve and televised dildo-throwing. And glorious landscapes, a small population and millions of sheep, of course. New Zealand culture is fascinating, despite being a relatively new country, and sheep are just the beginning.

For a start, the cultural history of Aotearoa is rather different to most other colonized countries. Before European arrival, New Zealand was inhabited solely by solely Māori people, who themselves arrived from their original Pacific birthplace, Hawaiki. When the British (or Pākeha) did arrive in the 19th century, the two groups fought, but eventually signed a treaty that became the founding document for the country. Huge inequities remain for New Zealand Māori to this day, but step by step reparations are being made, and much of the indigenous Māori culture has been conserved throughout European colonization, if not celebrated.

These days, aside from the haka and Lord of the Rings, New Zealand is known for being a fairly egalitarian country – at least, compared to most of the rest of the world. It’s full of New Zealanders (or Kiwis – population 5 million, to be exact), who tend to have cracked both the hardworking and relaxing side of life. They’re known for being friendly, but stay a while and find that Kiwis can be quite reserved and hard to get to know – something of a British hangover.

These days, New Zealand has also become home to a big ole’ melting pot of cultures and ethnic groups, as well as Māori and European. The main cities have vibrant culture and arts scenes and scores of language alongside English can be heard on the streets.

What do I need to know about New Zealand?

Firstly, chill – there’s not a whole lot to worry about if you’re coming to New Zealand on holiday. There are no dangerous predators, and the national crime rate is low . The most danger you’ll get yourself in is getting lost on a hike (which can and does happen, actually).

The general Kiwi pace of life is laid back. Work-life balance is an important part of the national culture, and you won’t find many New Zealanders staying at work late when they could be hanging out with the family. Come summer, many Kiwis take a few weeks off work and head for the beach.

‘1964 mountain culture / aoteara’ magazine- A good place to get a better understanding of kiwi culture.

Māori culture and customs are a very important part of living in and visiting New Zealand. If you’re lucky, you might get to visit a Marae, the traditional meeting grounds for Māori and still a central place which Māori communities use to gather. There are many social customs when being greeted onto the land at a Marae, so it’d be worth your while to do a bit of research so you know what to expect, and how to act. A Marae is usually made up of a carved meeting house (wharenui), open space out the front (marae ātea), dining hall and cooking area, toilets and showers – all with their own customs to be aware of.

What are the official languages of New Zealand?

There are three official languages in New Zealand: Te Reo Māori, English and sign language. Until the 19th century, Te Reo Māori was the only language in New Zealand, but unlike English, there was no written word. They used symbolism to communicate, with stories recorded in the details of carvings, knots and weavings. The myths of ancestors were shared by the use of song and dance.

Unfortunately, Te Reo Māori language use declined after Pakeha arrived, as they didn’t respect its sacredness and even banned it in schools for a time. In the 70’s, there was a massive push to bring it back, with it being made an official language in 1987. These days, it’s growing every day.

There is, of course, a fourth unofficial language in use everyday: Kiwi slang. Best to get schooled on this before you come, so you don’t get left standing confused as to what the hell togs, jandals or a ‘you ‘beat new ute’ are. Quick lesson: togs are bathing suits, jandals are flip-flops and a beaut ute is a bloody great pick up truck. Oh, and the bach is a beach house, and the dairy is the corner store. There you go, you’re sorted – for a Kiwi summer, at least.

How safe is it in New Zealand?

New Zealand is one of the safest countries in the world, but the quieter dangers are the ones that will get you. Make sure you use plenty of sunblock and reapply often (the big old hole in the ozone layer makes for nasty sunburn and high rates of skin cancer), have read the road rules, and have an international drivers license if you drive on the other side of the road at home.

What is the most dangerous place in New Zealand?

With a pretty low national crime rate, the most dangerous place in New Zealand may have to be the roads. Winding and narrow in places, and popular with international visitors, New Zealand roads deserve respect and a cautious approach, especially in bad conditions.

What is the deadliest animal in New Zealand?

To humans? The whitetail spider, but generally, it won’t do worse than a nip and some swelling. This little guy is native to Australia, but was introduced to New Zealand and managed to sneak through customs.

While New Zealand may be empty of any big scary predators, it’s full (thanks to a big whoopsie by the Europeans) of pests that eat and endanger the native bird populations. Before the arrival of Pākeha to this place, the birdlife in New Zealand was left to evolve and boom – and did it ever. The birdsong was often said to be absolutely deafening.

The native birds still left today give a taste as to what it must have been like in pre-pest history, from the long-legged bright blue Pukeko and the flightless Kiwi to the cheeky colorful Kea, the world’s only alpine parrot. Unfortunately, history brought along the rats, stoats and possums, and wiped out a whole lot of the spectacular birds native to the land. The fight against these pests is actually a big part of New Zealand culture.

What is unique about New Zealand culture?

As a nation with its own characteristic blend of Western and Pacific Island culture, New Zealand culture has its own unique story, and one that keeps on evolving. As far as Māori culture goes, there’s plenty of opportunity in the North Island to experience it in its most authentic form, particularly in places like Northland, the East Cape and Rotorua. One of the best would have to be Rotorua, where there’s a living Māori Village, that offers visitors the chance to experience daily life for Māori people living in this way, as well as traditional Māori performances, art and meeting places. The South Island has less traditional Māori culture compared with the north, with Ngāi Tahu being the only tribe.

Having been somewhat removed by the big blue sea from the rest of the world, Kiwis have developed a distinctly resourceful attitude, known as the Number 8 Wire mentality. This describes the Kiwi ability to adapt and invent to solve problems with the materials that they have (like the ever-present Number 8 fencing wire).

Compared to other western countries, New Zealand culture is pretty social and laid back. New Zealanders work hard, but prioritize family life and time to relax. Come summer weekdays, you’ll find many a New Zealander parked up by the beach after work with family, friends, some cold ones and the ever popular barbie (barbecue).

What are New Zealand’s main events?

Probably the most important national cultural event for any New Zealander would be Waitangi day, which commemorates the Treaty of Waitangi being signed. It takes place where the national treaty was signed by both Māori and European people, at Waitangi in the far north of the North Island. Waitangi day is on the 6th February.

Another important event in the Māori cultural calendar is Matariki, or Māori new year, which is celebrated in June or July. Christmas and New Years are both popular holidays, as well, used often as an excuse to spend some time at home or the beach with the fam.

What kind of culture does New Zealand have?

Once just the home of the Māori (and billions of birds), followed by the Europeans, New Zealand culture has evolved to become quite the melting pot. People from all over the world are immigrating to the gorgeous shores of this Pacific island, and there’s no mystery as to why. The people are friendly and relaxed and prioritize family life, the scenery is ridiculously beautiful and there’s more coastline than you could wave a kayak paddle at.

As far as food culture goes, there’s a whole range – a smorgasbord, if you will. In Māori culture, food is a huge part of gathering people together, and this is often done around a hāngi, or fire pit. A classic Kiwi favorite is fish and chips, which was probably inherited from the British or cousins in Australia, but made extra fresh and delicious by New Zealand’s abundant coastlines. Whilst it won’t make it onto any ads, the classic meat pie is a cheap, cheerful (and somewhat nasty) favorite for people across the country.

While some smaller towns are more conservative, particularly in the South Island, attitudes in bigger cities like Auckland and Wellington are generally pretty open and celebratory of all kinds of culture, making this an awesome place to live for people from all over the globe.

What are some traditions in New Zealand?

New Zealand as a whole celebrates a lot of the gifts of the Māori people, including their arts, traditions and cultural practices. The most well-known on the international stage may well be the haka, the fearsome war dance done by the All Blacks before every test match.

Another tradition is the hāngi, a popular Māori method for cooking food, especially for big gatherings. The food, usually sweet potatoes, meat and other veggies, are cooked in a huge underground pit with hot stones.

New Zealand’s summer could almost be called a tradition in itself. Come summer, New Zealanders slow right down, with time spent enjoying good food, bare feet and family becoming a priority. It’s a social time when many people ditch work for a few weeks, and if it’s chilled out sexy party vibes you’re after for your holiday, this is the time to visit.

What are New Zealand’s values?

Aside from the Number 8 Wire, equality, fairness and honesty are all part of New Zealand’s collective psyche. New Zealand was the first country in the world to grant women the vote in 1893, which seems to have set the tone in a lot of ways. When it comes to the gender pay gap and women’s rights, New Zealand is doing better than many in the western world.

Kiwis also love the outdoors, for the most part anyway. Sir Edmund Hillary was the first person to climb Mt Everest, after all, and everyone else is now scrambling to live up to the legacy. Ok, not really, but New Zealanders do love the outdoors, and with such a small population, it’s not hard to find a corner to yourself.

The arts are an important part of the New Zealand national identity, too. Wellington in particular is a hub for the arts, and it’s where you’ll find the juiciest concentration of cultural diversity and artistic expression in the country. Welly’s the best spot for great coffee, too, and is rumored to have more bars and cafes per capita than New York.

What is considered rude in New Zealand?

Generally, New Zealanders are pretty relaxed and don’t sweat the small stuff, but there are definitely some cultural no-nos. It’s frowned upon to ask people direct questions about their weight, their salary or age, and spitting isn’t really a done thing, either.

Do you tip in NZ?

The minimum wage in New Zealand is considered enough to live off, so it’s not common practice to tip people, but if you feel like it, no one will complain.

So there you have it: New Zealand culture in a nutshell. If you think it looks good on paper, wait until you experience it in real life.


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