New Zealand Culture

Core Concepts

Primary Author
Nina Evason,

Māori have been the tangata whenua (indigenous people) of Aotearoa (New Zealand) for a millennia. Their ancestors migrated from the Polynesian region of Hawaiki over 1,000 years ago. British settlers began arriving in the 18th century, and eventually claimed the territory as an official colony of the Crown. In 1840, the Treaty of Waitangi was signed to establish and guide the relationship between the Crown in New Zealand and Māori. However, the process of caused widespread violence and dispossessed many Māori of their land, fracturing and marginalising communities and cultural identities.

Since the of New Zealand, mass immigration has dramatically changed the social demographics of the population and established a western European cultural mainstream. The following cultural profile depicts this newly dominant culture – a Western society and value system influenced by continual migration over the last 200 years.


New Zealand Culture

  • Dependability
  • Inventiveness
  • Bravery
  • Sensitivity
  • Global-mindedness
  • Egalitarianism
  • Open-mindedness
  • Humility

New Zealand is a Pacific Island nation that has blended Oceanian, Polynesian and European traditions into its modern culture. New Zealanders (also known as Kiwis) are often viewed as being friendly, inventive, outgoing and welcoming people. They are generally calm and may initially seem slightly more reserved and polite in comparison to other English-speakers. However, their culture is still highly informal and relaxed. The 2015 Global Peace Index identified the country as the fourth safest in the world. A strong sense of security combined with relative social and economic prosperity has provided many New Zealanders with an optimistic outlook on the freedom and possibilities around them.

There is a strong streak that underpins New Zealand’s culture. The do-it-yourself spirit encourages self-reliance, inventiveness and bravery. Many national narratives celebrate courageous Kiwis overcoming adverse odds. However, the idolisation of achievement is tempered by the love of the underdog. Those who excel too much or show arrogance are likely to be resented and swiftly cut down with ridicule. This phenomenon, commonly known as , leads humility to be highly valued in social interaction. As such, New Zealanders tend to be modest about their accomplishments and often self-deprecate to avoid seeming pretentious.

New Zealand is geographically isolated in the Pacific Ocean, and this can provide a sense of removal from pressing global political issues. Nevertheless, its people are very globally minded and most have a strong aspiration to travel. It has become almost a rite of passage for people to gain overseas experience, with many taking advantage of easy migration opportunities to the UK or Australia. As of 2016, it is estimated over one million or 14.1% of New Zealand's native-born population were living abroad, giving it the second highest in the .1 

New Zealanders generally see themselves as being open-minded towards new ideas, difference and change. Most Kiwis are proud of their country’s historically prevailing liberal social attitudes (for example, New Zealand was the first country in the world to give women the right to vote). Largely, New Zealanders try to be accepting and tolerant of most differences. Society is underpinned by strong egalitarian beliefs that everyone should have the equal opportunity to better their circumstances regardless of their background. People who are financially successful are not viewed as being better than anyone else – rather, those who are privileged are simply acknowledged as better off than others. As such, whilst there are social stratifications among the wealthy, the middle-income earners and the poor, there is no formal class structure in society. A person’s level of education and wealth does not necessarily earn them status or respect; instead it is simply acknowledged that they have an advantage or a ‘leg up in life’. Thus, people from different social brackets tend to interact quite easily with each other.

Visible social differences in society generally correlate with ; the indigenous people of New Zealand (Māori) and Pacific Islanders are still significantly disadvantaged compared to the white majority. People who identify as Māori are more likely to earn less, have poorer health standards and economic standards of living. Māori and Pacific Islanders also make up a disproportionate amount of the imprisoned population. The majority of non-Māori Pacific Islanders came from the Cook Islands, Samoa, Tonga, Tokelau and Fiji. They tend to live in or around the main cities and usually migrate for employment or family reasons. Another significant population in New Zealand is the Asian population (mainly from specific countries such as China and India) that has steadily migrated – mostly for economic reasons. 

One may argue that tensions are less pronounced in New Zealand than Australia because the indigenous/non-indigenous relationship developed slightly differently. It should be noted, unlike the Aboriginal population of Australia, the Māori people share the same language and have relatively similar customs. This is not to say their culture is , but different tribes had enough collective similarities to allow them to maintain a relatively solid sense of their history and cultural knowledge despite the fracturing caused by . Hence, indigenous culture has been integrated more visibly into New Zealand's mainstream society than it has in Australia. For example, the Māori language is an official language of the country and is taught within the school curriculum. New Zealand English contains many Māori words that are in common use.

Mainstream society has developed a degree of reverence, acceptance and understanding of the indigenous heritage of the country. Most New Zealanders of all backgrounds feel moved and proud when they see their nation represented by Māori on the global stage. Furthermore, this has encouraged more Māori to feel pride and honour in their identity, and to recognise that disadvantages associated with their are externally caused. Sociologists have argued that Māori’s pride in their culture and history has made New Zealanders of European descent less assertive and entitled (in comparison to Australians). 

Something that unites New Zealanders is their love of the natural beauty of their land. Foreigners are usually struck by how proud they are of their country’s incredible landscape and environment. There is a strong social and political will to preserve the natural environment. Influenced by the indigenous world view, some New Zealanders believe that all aspects of the ecosystem have a mauri (life force) and damage to this mauri – by attempts to dominate or extort the land – causes the land and its people to lose energy and vitality.

A second common bond in society is through the pride of place in the public imagination that the national rugby team (the All Blacks) command. The New Zealand team are statistically the most successful team to have ever played rugby, and the nation comes to a virtual standstill when important matches are underway. The contribution of Māori players to the success of the national team is undeniable and the haka, a ritual Māori challenge undertaken by the team at the start of the game, is a defining cultural symbol for New Zealanders.

Māori Culture

The Māori are the indigenous people of New Zealand, making up almost 15% of the total population. Traditionally, the Māori have a warrior-like identity and a very strong connection with their spirituality. While Māori have been influenced by Europeans, modernised with the technological age and also Christianised, many keep their culture alive. The traditional language is still widely spoken throughout New Zealand and ceremonies are celebrated by the nation. Some core concepts of Māori culture are mana, tapu and utu.

  • Mana is the Māori concept that represents power and prestige. It can be gained through demonstration of authority (i.e. winning a contested piece of land), age, association (i.e. being the grandson of someone prestigious) or by having a wealth of resources that you can use to influence others. Respect of mana drives hierarchical relationships. Traditionally, Māori proudly defended their mana through their actions or would try to enhance it through grandiose responses to situations.
  • Tapu is a Polynesian concept that refers to something being so sacred it is untouchable. Something that is tapu should not be used, interfered with, or in some cases even spoken of. For example, a tribe that holds a particular belief in a lake they grew up around may consider it tapu and prevent people from fishing it. There are many places and things in New Zealand under this spiritual protection that one should be aware of. Burial grounds are particularly sacred.
  • Utu is loosely defined as revenge but is traditionally much more. It is the notion of reciprocation and balanced exchange that Māori follow. Historically, they often gave gifts or demanded items as compensation for past events. Today, it continues as the cultural idea that everything has to be put right.

Many traditional cultural concepts are still understood and practised by Māori today – however, usually in a modified, modern form. For example, relationships were once particularly hierarchical with a strongly culture. This has changed as gender equality is acknowledged and respect of female authority and opinion has become the expectation. Māori women commonly hold positions of power. However, women’s involvement in traditionally male-only ceremonies is still determined between members of those tribes.

The younger generation of Māori have become more aware of their culture as the New Zealand government has encouraged funding to maintain the language and culture. Non-Māori may have difficulty comprehending the culture and traditional spirituality as it is very holistic and many tenets are based on legends that have flexible notions of time (hard for Westerners to conceptualise).

Māori often like to come together in the greater community to strengthen and maintain links to cultural traditions. Generally, they are a more people than other New Zealanders as their culture places a high value on loyalty and belonging to their tribe. As a result, they tend to be very family-oriented. In Australia, Māori who are separated from their family overseas tend to adopt other Māori who are not directly related and become ‘one big family’. Traditional Māori would define themselves first by their family (whānau), then by their sub-tribe (hapu), and then by the larger tribe (iwi) and its geographical territory.

Generally, the Māori are more reserved than other New Zealanders in their demeanour. They are often recognised as being hard-working, calm, patient and good-humoured people. Traditional or older Māori may be less likely to verbalise their feelings, tending to internalise things towards a spiritual understanding of situations. Māori are also usually very hospitable. Largely, they are exceptionally generous and accommodating to their guests, often trying very hard to mask the inconvenience of doing so.

For some Māori living in Australia and other countries, the homesickness of moving to and living in a new country heightens their sense of Māori identity and ignites a desire to embrace their roots and culture. However, some have also reported that living in Australia presents a cultural challenge, as indigenous identity is not as widely celebrated in Australian society.


1 Forbes, 2019

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