New Zealand cultural insights
The following cultural insights are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. The content in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.
On this page
Local and Canadian perspectives for the following subjects:
- Communication styles
- Display of emotion
- Dress, punctuality & formality
- Preferred managerial qualities
- Hierarchy and decision-making
- Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
- Privileges and favouritism
- Conflicts in the workplace
- Motivating local colleagues
- Recommended books, films & foods
- In-country activities
- National heroes
- Shared historical events with Canada
- About the cultural interpreters
- Related information
New Zealanders (also known as Kiwis - which is not a derogatory term - named after the kiwi bird not the fruit) are very friendly and you will find, eager to learn about you and what bought you to this country. With New Zealand being an isolated island nation, travel is a very popular topic. Any conversations about your home country, the landscape, weather, animals etc will be well received.
New Zealanders are also very proud of their country and tourism. They will be happy to discuss popular, and not so popular, tourist spots and activities around the country. You can also never go wrong with a sports topic (as long as you support the right side). Rugby is New Zealand's national game (as hockey is to Canada) and you will find many passionate fans of rugby who support the local, provincial and national teams. Other popular sports in New Zealand are cricket, rugby league, netball and sailing.
It’s the ultimate small-talk cliché but talking about the weather is something that all New Zealanders (Kiwis) are fond of, and is a great fall-back if you’re having trouble starting the conversation. Commenting on how it’s too hot, too cold, too rainy or too windy (often all in the same day) is a typical icebreaker in the elevators/lifts or when meeting people for the first time. And as a Canadian, people will be very interested in what you, being from a cold country, have to say on the topic.
Kiwis are often well-traveled or have moved between a few places during the span of their career. They tend to feel under-recognised on a global scale so are more than happy to talk about their home country. If you are not sure where someone is from, a simple “have you always lived in this city?” will save you the embarrassment of confusing a Kiwi with an Australian, Briton or other. If asked if they are Australian, a Kiwi will have a similar reaction to a Canadian being asked if they are American, so avoid asking the question point blank. Instead, open the conversation to talk about travel within and outside the country, allowing you to share your own experiences as well.
Unless you know your Rugby League from your Rugby Union or the finer details of test cricket, sport is probably a topic best left alone. The only hockey they follow is played on the field. NBA basketball has recently gained attention due to Kiwi star, Steven Adams, but baseball is still fairly non-existent.
The country is not particularly religious or partisan in terms of political views (they will complain about all parties equally) so it would take extreme views or ignorance to cause offense. Nonetheless, keep the conversation light. Kiwis have a dry sense of humour and will happily joke about most things, including themselves.
New Zealanders do not appreciate having their personal space entered into. This is very similar to the Canadian culture of giving people space when speaking or standing next to. Shaking hands on meeting is considered polite. There is no need to kiss or hug someone you are just meeting or are not very good friends with; this will be thought of as inappropriate.
The Maori culture has a unique greeting called the hongi. It involves both people touching their noses together and holding hands for a few seconds. This form of greeting is usually only used at formal Maori events and not in everyday life. If you are to be offered a hongi at an event this is a very honorable/sacred experience that should be taken seriously.
Making eye contact is important when listening or speaking to others. It is considered rude to interrupt someone when they are speaking and or to not pay attention. Spitting on the ground is considered rude as is belching in public.
While greetings and communications with Pakeha New Zealanders (those with European ancestry) are no different to what you might expect between Canadians, there are many customs to be mindful of when meeting with Maori New Zealanders. The best approach is to observe and follow what others are doing. Greeting with a handshake and a kiss on one cheek is fairly common but in more formal situations, a greetings are performed by pressing together both foreheads and noses.
The Maori language, called Te Reo, is an official language in New Zealand and it is not surprising to hear Maori words sprinkled into everyday conversation, regardless of ancestry. Kia ora is a standard greeting – feel free to try it but don’t be embarrassed if someone corrects your pronunciation. Other commonly used words are Aotearoa (New Zealand), kai (food), hui (meeting) and whanau (family – pronounced FAH-now).
Kiwi slang can be confusing – a “dairy” is a corner store, to “shout” is to buy a round (of drinks or food) and “tea” can refer to either your drink or your food. “Yeah nah” can signify both agreement and disagreement, and “sweet as” is a compliment all in itself (like “awesome”), not a comparison to anything. You will likely have to ask for clarification on many occasions but find consolation in your eventual realisation that Kiwis say “eh” more often than most Canadians.
Display of emotion
Public displays of affection are acceptable. Hugging or kissing a friend when meeting, holding hands, an arm around the shoulder are all tolerated and happen daily. Public displays of anger are not accepted, however you may come across fighting when there is a lot of alcohol involved usually at sporting events or parties. This is definitely not normal behavior, but can occur. In times when this does happen the police may be involved. Showing other emotions publicly (such as crying) does not occur frequently.
Like many Canadians, Kiwis tend to be fairly restrained when it comes to showing strong emotion in public, particularly in the workplace. Anger, frustration or sadness will be held back so as not to make a scene and it’s best to avoid arguing in public spaces.
Token displays of affection, such as hand-holding, hugging or a simple kiss, are acceptable in public, including between same-sex couples. Keep anything beyond that to a more private environment.
Dress, punctuality & formality
Out of the workplace New Zealanders are generally very laid back and a bit flexible with timeliness. However within the workplace you will be expected to arrive at work on time, take appropriate breaks, and keep to deadlines.
If you are working in an office environment your work attire will be business casual. Jeans are usually reserved for Fridays or special events, but you will not be expected to wear a suit every day.
Colleagues, regardless of hierarchy, are usually referred to on a first name basis. Nicknames are also quite common in New Zealand, but it pays to err on the side of formality at the beginning of meeting new colleagues.
Though suits and jackets are common in offices, particularly for those in managerial roles, many Canadians will find that the workplace dress has a much more casual feel in New Zealand. Kiwis have a rather laid back attitude when it comes to clothing, which may be due in part to the high cost. It’s not unusual to see sleeveless dresses and sandals in summer and men rarely wear ties. Tattoos are a large part of the culture and it is not taboo to have them visible in the office.
Punctuality is crucial for meetings and appointments but working hours can be flexible to accommodate personal needs. Although working overtime can be expected when deadlines are looming, a good work-life balance is valued highly by Kiwis so some flexibility is required to make that happen.
Be mindful when meeting with Maori officials or when the meeting is held on a marae (a Maori meeting/gathering place) as there may be more formal protocols to follow, such as removing your shoes before entering the meeting space. There may also be a formal welcome or song to open the meeting and a blessing for any food that may be provided. As a visitor you will usually be advised of the procedures or simply follow what others are doing.
Preferred managerial qualities
Being a manager or superior is considered a position that is earned and usually this position is held by someone who has worked their way to this level. You will be positively viewed if you show qualities such as listening, supporting and especially performing. You will be shown more respect if you show you are willing to get involved and “get your hands dirty” so to speak. Being available to your staff and ensuring everyone understands what you expect from them will also help.
When comfortable with staff, engaging in informal discussions (such as weekend activities, family, sports etc) are good ways to be seen as easy to approach and polite. Kiwis often like to take breaks or lunch together so this is also a good time to start informal conversation not revolving around work or the office.
New Zealanders value honesty and directness. A respected manager will avoid micromanaging and trust his or her team to perform the tasks at hand with little oversight. Although they appreciate leaders with a depth of knowledge and experience, there can be a culture of resentment towards “tall poppies” or those who appear to be better than everyone else. The best managers are those who are practical and approachable, treating all their employees fairly and respectfully. You will know your staff are engaged when they’re not afraid to come to you with questions or ideas.
One-on-one meetings are usually held over coffee and it is fairly common for teams to gather for a mid-morning or afternoon tea break.
Hierarchy and decision-making
You should receive some kind of orientation as to the protocols of decision making and feedback. Generally, it is acceptable to ask an immediate supervisor for feedback or answers. A performance review may be part of your position so this is a good time to bring up any questions or feedback. Undermining colleagues or going behind a supervisor’s back if you do not agree with their perspective will be considered arrogant.
Communication should feel open between employees and their immediate supervisors and regular feedback is encouraged. Important decisions will be made by the managers but there may be some consultation with their teams. If working in the public sector, there may be several levels of management to go through before decisions can be made and small projects can take long periods of time.
Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
New Zealanders are not overly religious. The role of the church does not have any affect in the workplace.
There is not a big class system in the country. However, Aucklanders are sometimes looked on as being in a different class by small town residents. There is sometimes a discrepancy between Pakeha (white) and Maori (native) incomes and ways of life. In the workplace this does not seem to have any affect.
New Zealanders are very proud of their country and on the whole very accepting of other ethnicities. You may hear (especially from the older generation) remarks that are not always positive when it comes to immigration. Concerns around immigration seem to revolve around land ownership and overseas investments. These concerns do not seem to transgress into the workplace.
New Zealand was the first country to grant women the right to vote, and it has also seen two woman Prime Ministers. There is still room for the country to improve its gender equity with a bias towards men in upper management. However, overall men and women are seen as equals in the workplace.
Although senior leadership roles still tend to be dominated by men, there has been much more recognition of the importance of gender equality at all levels in the workplace, and this is now seeing some change. Still, men and women are treated reasonably equally in work environments and there is not much difference from what you would expect to find in Canada.
There will typically not be any issues of class in the workplace and the general attitude would be fairly similar to what you would expect in Canada. There are certainly differences between rural communities and city life, but a lot of work is currently being done to bring more jobs to the outlying regions and increase capability outside the main cities.
New Zealand is largely secular, particularly for those of European descent. Christmas and Easter are observed but primarily as reasons to enjoy a holiday at the beach. Increasing levels of migration to the country means growing populations of many different faiths, but the most common will be various forms of Christianity practised by those from nearby Pacific Island nations. Because much of the population is non-religious, issues of faith do not tend to come into the workplace at all.
The predominant ethnic groups in New Zealand are Maori (pronounced MOW-ree, not may-OR-ee) and Pakeha (PAH-ke-ha – those with European ancestry). Historically, there has been much conflict between the two as the Maori struggled to reclaim their land and heritage after having lost much when the British settlers took control. Today, though there is widespread acceptance and integration of Maori culture in everyday New Zealand lives, there continues to be some tension on both sides, especially around the day commemorating the historical treaty signing (Waitangi Day).
Recent migration has also led to rises in other ethnic groups, such as Pasifika (from Samoa, Cook Islands, Fiji and other Pacific nations), Chinese, Indians and those from other South Asian countries. Kiwis are fairly welcoming and open to other cultures but there are growing issues around infrastructure, housing and education that sometimes sparks xenophobic responses. Travellers from all countries are generally accepted, though, and will be made to feel welcome during their stay.
Personal relationships are important for business, with respect and reputation being very important qualities. New Zealanders value friendliness and will appreciate non-formal settings such as dinners or sporting events as places to incorporate business and leisure.
Similar to what you would expect in Canada, it is beneficial to develop a good rapport with colleagues or clients and gain mutual understanding before starting in on serious business. Forming a close friendship is not necessary and not expected. However, you may find yourself working together with someone with whom you already have a personal relationship and would be expected to maintain a level of professionalism and impartiality when in the office.
Privileges and favouritism
It is generally accepted in New Zealand that it is hard work and not favoritism that gets people ahead in business. You may be asked to provide references for colleagues or friends but generally special privileges are not requested.
Personal relationships or friendships would generally not come with expectations of special considerations in the workplace. However, outside of Auckland, New Zealand cities tend to feel more like small towns and it doesn’t take long to grow a network of contacts. Though special privileges or promotions are not common, it may be requested that friends help make connections or put in a good word to potential employers or clients.
Conflicts in the workplace
New Zealanders are largely private and prefer to deal with matters in this domain. It would be dependent on the severity of the work situation as to whether you confront them directly or not. If it is a small matter then it is fine to confront the person privately. If it is a larger concern, it is better to bring in management and deal with this privately. Confronting people publicly is seen as aggressive and embarrassing.
Any problems should be discussed with the colleague as soon as it arises and in a calm, private manner. If a resolution cannot be found, it may be worth taking it to your immediate manager. Again, because of the small-town feel of many New Zealand cities, avoid saying anything in public as you never know who might overhear.
Motivating local colleagues
The possibility of promotion is a big motivator for good performance. Positive feedback and financial recognition are also big motivators of performance. New Zealanders do have a very good work ethic which includes showing up on time and performing responsibilities to their best ability.
More than anything, your colleagues will be motivated by feeling as though they are appreciated and that their work matters. A good work-life balance is very important, so many New Zealanders work hard to be able to enjoy time with their family or take a holiday.
Recommended books, films & foods
There are also many celebrated NZ authors such as Witi Ihimaera, Janet Frame, Margaret Mahey and Alan Duff.
The most popular TV show is “Shortland Street”; a long running soap based in a fictional hospital. Many NZ actors have had their start on this show over the years.
The “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” films were filmed in New Zealand and are an insight into the landscape of the country. New Zealanders are very proud of these movies and the tourism industry has capitalized on their success. The TV show ‘Flight of the Conchord’ about two Kiwi musicians living in NYC is a humorous look into New Zealand culture. There is a thriving music scene in New Zealand and you will hear a lot of local talent played on the radio.
If you get the opportunity try to eat at a hangi. This is a traditional way to cook food (meat and vegetables), in the ground with hot stones. It is an all day process to cook a meal this way and is a great privilege to be invited to attend.
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, The Bone People by Keri Hulme
Boy, The Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Whale Rider, Once Were Warriors, The Dark Horse
Shortland Street, Outrageous Fortune, Flight of the Conchords, Top of the Lake
Lorde, Broods, Six60, Fat Freddy’s Drop, Shihad, Crowded House
An afghan is a type of cookie, hokey pokey is a flavour of ice cream and pies are typically savoury but all are Kiwi treats worth trying. Kiwis also claim to have created the pavlova (a meringue-based dessert) but this is fiercely contested by Australians. New Zealand is home to several successful wine growing regions and are receiving growing recognition for their quality production of Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. The craft beer industry is currently experiencing a surge in interest and local brews are well worth trying.
There is a strong coffee culture here, with cafés serving up lattes and “flat whites” in any possible space, sometimes separated by only a few metres. Do not expect to find anything close to a Tim Horton’s; even Starbucks has not gained much hold. Kiwis can be snobbish when it comes to their coffee but the quality is vastly superior to what would be typically found in Canada.
As mentioned, New Zealanders are very big sports fans, so watching rugby (either live games or at a local bar) will give you an idea of kiwi's passion for the game. There is definitely a friendly rivalry between New Zealand and Australia when it comes to any sporting event.
Visiting a Maori cultural centre and learning about Maori history will not only be very interesting for you but give you an insight into Maori as it is a very big part of the New Zealand culture. There is also a lot of very good New Zealand music (which New Zealanders are also very proud of) so try and go to an outdoor festival or concert in the summer.
Be sure to visit the Auckland Museum or Te Papa in Wellington to learn about the history and people of New Zealand. Although Auckland is the largest city, there are cultural activities to experience in almost every part of the country. There are historic Maori villages in Rotorua and gold mining villages in Otago.
Just spending time outdoors can be the most important and awe-inspiring way to learn about the country and its way of life. Visit the beaches, hike the trails, soak in the thermal pools and marvel at the glaciers. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice from your workmates or locals, who may be able to point you to locations off the beaten path.
Sporting heroes play a big part in the history of New Zealand. Mention New Zealand's national and very famous team, All Black, and people will know who you are referring to.
Other New Zealand heroes include:
- Sir Edmund Hillary - first man to climb Mt Everest
- Sir Peter Jackson - Director of Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies
- Dame Kiri Te Kanawa - opera singer who sang at Charles and Diana's wedding
- Neil and Tim Finn - Kiwi musicians and brothers from the band Crowded House and Split Enz
- Helen Clark – NZ Prime Minister for 9 years, she now heads the UNDP program
New Zealand’s National Heroes can typically be found on the rugby pitch but the All Blacks are not the only well-regarded Kiwis. Sir Edmund Hillary is known for scaling Mount Everest and was the first person to reach both the North and South poles.
Shared historical events with Canada
There are no historical events between the two countries that would affect work or social relations. Kiwis view Canadians as similar to themselves, with Americans and Australians being closer to each other. New Zealand and Canada are both members of the Commonwealth and have fought in wars together.
Canada and New Zealand are both relatively young countries with similar histories of belonging to the British Empire. Though Canada has a much more fraught relationship with its First Nations people, there is a lot that can be learned from the adaptation of Maori culture and so it should not be assumed that the countries are alike in that regard.
The biggest stereotype that maybe held about New Zealand is the relationship between Pakeha (European descent) and Maori (native). It is a very different relationship to that of Native people and European descendents in Canada. Maori is a very accepted and integrated way of life in New Zealand, and it will be beneficial to have some understanding of the culture as you will be working and living amongst people from Maori descent. There are definitely challenges and problems with both cultures acceptance of each other which goes back to the Treaty of Waitangi – the singing of the treaty in 1840 by British representatives and Maori Chiefs. It will serve you well to have an understanding of these issues.
If you ask Canadians what they know about New Zealand, they will typically name the All Blacks and their traditional haka used to open the rugby games. Though this performance is something that Canadians tend to find impressive, it should never be imitated or mocked, as it is a sacred ritual and a protected part of New Zealand culture.
About the cultural interpreters
This cultural interpreter grew up in Otorohanga, a small New Zealand farming town. She graduated from Waikato University before emigrating to Australia then England and finally settled in Ottawa, Canada. Although she loves living in Ottawa with her Canadian husband and two children, she takes frequent trips to visit family in New Zealand and falls back in love with the landscape, people and way of life every time.
I grew up in the suburbs outside of Toronto, the oldest of three children. My background is English and Canadian. I studied modern languages and literature at the University of Toronto and spent a short time in France to study the language. In 2012, I left Canada to spend some time in South America, volunteering with an NGO and teaching English to business professionals. It was there that I met my Kiwi husband and from there moved to New Zealand. I have been living in Wellington for the past two years and currently work as a researcher with one of the government organisations.
Intercultural Issues are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. For each country, two perspectives are provided: one by a Canadian and the other by a person born in the selected country. By comparing the "local point of view" with the "Canadian point of view", you will begin to form a picture of that country's culture. We encourage you to continue your research using a variety of other sources and to use Triangulation as an evaluation process. Although cultural informants were asked to draw on as broad a base of experience as possible in formulating their answers, these should be understood as one perspective that reflects the particular context and life experiences of that person; they are not intended to be a comment on any particular group or society.
You may disagree with or object to the content of some responses. This is to be expected given the complexity of the subject and the problems associated with speaking generally about an entire country and its people. We would encourage you to share your experiences; your contributions will help to make Country Insights a richer environment for learning.
The content of Country Insights in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.
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