Customs & communication
Understanding local customs is one of the hardest parts of settling into any new country.
Sometimes the more similar your culture seems on the surface, the harder it can be to understand subtle social differences.
We describe ourselves as ‘friendly but reserved’ and ‘open but respectful’. Putting a finger on what exactly that means can be hard, so expect to feel a bit confused. Give it time and be patient, and eventually you will come to understand just how New Zealanders work.
To get a feel for who we are as a people check out the overview of life in New Zealand in Te Ara, the Encyclopedia of New Zealand.
NZ On Air, the government agency that funds our broadcasting services, has a collection of TV programmes, films and music videos produced in New Zealand. They come with introductory notes that will help you explore our culture.
Ask and watch
We New Zealanders are great travellers and we understand that adjusting to somewhere new can be different.
Keep an eye out and watch what people do here.
Don’t be afraid to ask someone to explain anything you find confusing. It’s the quickest way to learn and you’ll find we’re quite approachable and willing to help.
You can also ask Kiwis to tell you if you’re doing something that isn’t appropriate.
Sharing food is a traditional Kiwi way of bringing people together in a relaxing atmosphere.
Whether it's a picnic on the beach, a hāngi at your child's school or a barbeque with neighbours, you'll find that food and friendship go hand-in-hand in New Zealand.
It’s common to contribute to this hospitality, 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. Don’t take it personally.
Coffee and tea are an important part of Kiwi socialising. If you visit someone’s home you’ll usually be offered a coffee or tea, and “going out for coffee” (even if you drink tea) is a regular event.
We have a drinking culture, but it is fine to have a non alcoholic drink 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.
Smoking is increasingly rare in New Zealand and prohibited in public buildings, including bars and restaurants.
Generally people are expected to smoke outside. If you want to smoke, it’s 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.
Socialising at work
Shared morning or afternoon teas are very common at work.
Often they’re to celebrate someone’s birthday or other special events in the team. Generally everyone brings some food to share. This is called a ‘bring a plate’ occasion.
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, and other family members don’t normally come, although this depends on the workplace. If you’re not sure, ask.
At these events, it’s best to keep talk about work to a minimum.
We look at how Kiwi workplaces work in the ‘New Zealand way of working’ pages of this website’s Work section.
On the surface, Kiwis are friendly and outgoing, but we’re also quite private. So, although it’s easy to start a conversation with us, we don’t like sharing a lot of personal information. Topics to avoid include how much people earn, why they don’t have any children or aren’t married, their weight - anything personal.
It’s OK to ask people what they did on the weekend or how their children are. Sport and the weather are also safe topics.
We come from a land of wide open spaces so we don’t like having people stand too close. We walk on the left of the footpath and we smile at each other a lot.
Some of the ‘unwritten rules’ in New Zealand come from Māori culture.
For example, you’re often expected to take your shoes off indoors and it’s 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’s more information about manners in New Zealand, along with a ‘key tips’ guide, in Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand.
Communicating with Kiwis
Kiwis are generally kind hearted and want to help, so we don’t like saying “no”.
Sometimes we’ll say “no” in a round-about 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’s said in a sarcastic way, means “definitely not”!
There’s a great Immigration NZ tool called WorkTalk that demonstrates how we communicate in New Zealand workplaces.
Kiwis speak very quickly and use a lot of slang. Even if English is your native language, this can be confusing. Don’t be afraid to ask people to slow down or repeat 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.