Customs & communication

Understanding local customs is one of the hardest parts of settling into any new country.

Sometimes the more similar your culture seems to the 'Kiwi' culture, the harder it can be to understand subtle social differences.

We describe ourselves as ‘friendly but reserved’ and ‘open but respectful’. It can be hard to know what exactly that means, so expect to feel a bit confused. Give it time and be patient. Eventually you will come to understand just how New Zealanders ("Kiwis") work.

To get a feel for who we are as a people, visit 'New Zealand in Brief' - an overview of life in New Zealand in the Encyclopedia of New Zealand' (Te Ara').

NZ On Air, the government agency that funds our broadcasting services, has a collection of TV programmes, films, music videos and web series produced in New Zealand. They come with introductory notes that will help you explore our culture.

New Zealand in Brief | Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand

NZ On Screen

Ask and watch

Kiwis are great travellers and we understand that adjusting to somewhere new can be different.

Watch what people do here and do not be afraid to ask someone to explain anything you find confusing. It is the quickest way to learn. You will find that we are quite approachable and willing to help.

You can also ask Kiwis to let you know if you are doing something that is not appropriate.

Food and social occasions

Sharing food is a common Kiwi way of bringing people together in a relaxing atmosphere.

Whether it is  a picnic on the beach, a hāngi (traditional Māori method of cooking food in an earth oven) at your child's school, or a barbeque with neighbours, you will find that food and friendship go together in New Zealand.

New Zealand socialising and communication

It is common to contribute to this hospitality by bringing food or wine to share. If the host says “don’t bring anything”, you can still bring a small gift.

New Zealanders have a relaxed attitude to invitations. Sometimes people will say they are coming to a party and not turn up. Do not take it personally.

Coffee and tea are an important part of Kiwi socialising. If you visit someone’s home you will usually be offered a coffee or tea. "Going out for coffee” (even if you drink tea) is a regular event.

Alcohol

We have a drinking culture in New Zealand, but it is fine to have non-alcoholic drinks when you are socialising.

The legal age for buying alcohol in New Zealand is 18. There are strict rules against providing alcohol for people under that age.

Supply of alcohol to under-18s | Health Promotion Agency

Smoking

Smoking is increasingly rare in New Zealand and is prohibited in public buildings, including bars and restaurants.  

Generally, people are expected to smoke outside. If you want to smoke, it is polite to ask the people around you if they mind, even if you are outside. 

There is a programme called Quitline to help people who want to give up smoking. Call 0800 778 778 for details.

Quitline

Socialising at work

Shared morning or afternoon teas are very common at work. Often they are to celebrate someone’s birthday or other special events in the team.

Generally, everyone brings some food to share. When we say ‘bring a plate’, it means please bring some food.

If someone is ‘shouting’, it means they are providing the food or drink at their cost - no one will raise their voice!

Drinks after work on Friday are quite common in New Zealand too. This is mainly for work colleagues. Other family members do not normally come, although this depends on the workplace. If you are not sure, ask.

At these events, we try to keep talk about work to a minimum.

The ‘New Zealand way of working’ pages on this site have more information about how Kiwi workplaces work.

NZ way of working

Social customs and manners

On the surface, Kiwis are friendly and outgoing. But we are also quite private. Although it is easy to start a conversation with us, we do not like sharing a lot of personal information. Topics to avoid include how much people earn, why they do not have any children or are not married, their weight - anything personal.

It is OK to ask people what they did on the weekend or how their children are. Sport and weather are also safe topics.

We come from a land of wide open spaces so we do not like having people stand too close to us. We walk on the left side of the footpath and we smile at each other a lot.

Some of the customs in New Zealand come from Māori culture. For example, you are often expected to take your shoes off indoors and it is important not to sit on tables or pillows. Māori people will often say a prayer (karakia) to bless food before eating it, and they may greet you with a kiss on the cheek.

There is more information about manners in New Zealand, along with a ‘key tips’ guide in Te Ara, the Encyclopedia of New Zealand.

Social behaviour | Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand

Maori Culture in New Zealand

Some of the 'unwritten rules' in New Zealand come from Māori culture.

Communicating with Kiwis

Kiwis are generally kind hearted and want to help, so we do not like saying “no”.

Sometimes we will say “no” in an unclear way, which can be confusing to newcomers.

We may say “not sure” or “not really”. We may even say “yeah nah”, which means “probably not”. “Yeah right”, especially when it is said in a sarcastic way, means “definitely not”!

There is a great Immigration NZ tool called WorkTalk that demonstrates how we communicate in New Zealand workplaces.

WorkTalk | Immigration New Zealand

Kiwi slang and accent

Kiwis speak very quickly and use a lot of slang. Even if English is your native language, this can be confusing. Do not be afraid to ask people to slow down, or to repeat or explain what they said.

To get used to the Kiwi accent, we suggest that you listen to some radio broadcasts. You could also watch some New Zealand films and television programmes online.

RNZ stations  | Radio New Zealand

NZ On Screen

How to understand a New Zealander | Lonely Planet

Kia Ora, how’s it going mate? | New Zealand Slang

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Page last updated: 10/10/2018

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