New Zealand’s Culture

The modern culture of New Zealand is mostly inherited from the British and interwoven with aspects of Maori and Polynesian tradition. Since the days of Empire the country has developed a culture of its own and is establishing its own unique brand of culture in the world. Immigration from all corners of the world has seen New Zealand evolve into a multicultural society with Western values mixed with Asian.


There are three official languages recognised in New Zealand. These are English, Maori and New Zealand sign language. English is the language used in day-to-day business dealings whilst Maori is spoken by over 157,000 people in the country. The Maori language has been a part of New Zealand’s culture ever since the first Maori settlers arrived in the 1300’s. Maori and English are used throughout the country in various television and radio programs. As with other regions in the world where two cultures have been mixed, English has influenced Maori and Maori has influenced English. A number of words in each language have crossed in to the vocabulary of the other.


The Maori are the indigenous people of New Zealand and the first human settlers of the islands. Traditional Maori stories of how they came to be in the land that would become New Zealand say that the ancient Maori traversed the oceans in large canoes from the mythical homeland of Hawaiki. Since their arrival they have created their own unique culture and worship their own pantheon of gods. The most famous aspect of Maori culture is the Haka often seen performed by the New Zealand All Blacks Rugby team. The traditional ancestral war cry of the Maori is supposed to terrify and intimidate their opposition.

Kiwi Demeanour

New Zealanders are friendly, outgoing, somewhat reserved initially yet polite, and enjoy extending hospitality.

They are quite easy to get to know as they say hello to strangers and will offer assistance without being asked.

Because they do not stand on ceremony and are egalitarian, they move to a first name basis quickly and shun the use of titles.

Kiwis dress casually, but neatly.

Most restaurants do not have dress codes and except in business, dress is decidedly casual.

Business dress is conservative, although jackets may be removed and shirtsleeves rolled up when working.

Maori demeanour

Maori are generally friendly and reserved and place great value on hospitality.

They will generally offer (often to the point of going without) assistance to their guests and will attempt to hide the inconvenience as much as possible.

Maori will spontaneously launch into speech and song. Even though they may not have met each other, they will know many songs they can sing together and often use these to close or enhance speeches.

They will often call for visitors to do the same and it would be wise to have 2-3 practised songs from your own country to reply with.

Etiquette and customs

Despite New Zealand being a multicultural society the Maori maintain a degree of separation from the other peoples in terms of rituals and protocols. Meeting and greeting are just one of the areas of social decorum that varies.

Kiwi Greetings

Greetings are casual, often consisting simply of a handshake and a smile.

Never underestimate the value of the smile as it indicates pleasure at meeting the other person.

Although New Zealanders move to first names quickly, it is best to address them by their honorific title and surname until they suggest moving to a more familiar level or they call you by your first name.

Maori greetings

Maori stand on ceremony and have distinct protocols regarding how visitors should be welcomed and seen off.

If the business dealings are with a tribal group the welcoming protocols may be practiced through the process of Powhiri – a formal welcome that takes place on a Marae. ( the Marae is a place where the culture can be celebrated, where the Maori language can be spoken, where intertribal obligations can be met, where customs can be explored and debated, where family occasions such as birthdays can be held, and where important ceremonies, such as welcoming visitors or fare welling the dead, can be performed.)

A Powhiri can take between 30 minutes to 2-3 hours depending on the importance of the event.

It begins by calling the visitors onto the area in front of the traditional meeting house. Visitors should walk as a group and in silence expect if they have a responding caller to reply to the home peoples’ caller (usually an older woman).

A Powhiri dictates where people sit, in what position in their group, and who speaks.

In most cases, but not all, you will notice the men are seated forward and only males speak. There is a tension between the men and women on this matter and in a few places this has been resolved and you will see both genders stand to speak. In the interests of not causing friction in your business dealings, always follow the lead of the home people.

The welcoming speeches are given by the agreed speakers of the home people and always end with the most revered speaker or elder.

Speeches are given in the Maori language and each one accompanied by traditional song. You may not understand what is being said but you can rest assured it is likely to be from the best orators in the group and often very complimentary.

The visitors are expected to have at least one speaker reply on their behalf.

If possible, the speaker should prepare a learned opening in Maori – it is critical that he/she focus on the pronunciation. Mispronounced words often result in whispers and sniggers and are considered disrespectful. It is better to have a very short opening said well, than a long one said badly.

The speaker’s reply should never be about the detailed purpose of the visit nor should it be to self-promote as this would be considered arrogant.

The speaker should use the opportunity to briefly show respect to the place that they stand (ie. the location), to the houses (the traditional carved meeting house and dining room are named after ancestors and so are greeted accordingly), to greet the home people, and to explain where his/her group have come from (place is important to Maori). This should be followed by a song from the visitors’ country that the visitors’ group should sing together.

The Powhiri can be daunting to visitors and can be fraught with traps that may offend. This is why most visitors seek the assistance of a Maori person to ‘guide’ them.

Once the last elder of the home people has spoken, they will gesture the visitors to come forward in a line to shake hands, kiss (once) on the cheek or hongi (touch noses) with the home people.

Following this the kitchen is ready to call people in to eat.

Following the food, the meeting proper can begin.