New Zealand Culture


Primary Author
Fi McKay, Nina Evason & Maddie Drewery,

Basic Etiquette

  • New Zealanders generally refrain from directly criticising a person in social settings. For example, it would be considered rude to comment on or point out someone’s mistakes or behaviour in the presence of others. 
  • It is considered inappropriate to ask questions about someone’s political affiliations, religion, salary, wealth, weight or age. 
  • New Zealanders tend to speak about religion and politics in general terms without indicating their personal beliefs or convictions, unless asked directly. 
  • Use tissues or handkerchiefs if you need to clear your nose. New Zealanders consider most things to do with the nose to be poor etiquette (e.g. sniffing, wiping it with your hand, picking it with fingers or blowing it to clear snot onto the ground). It is particularly crude to pick at your nose in public. 
  • Spitting in public places and/or in front of people is considered extremely rude. 
  • It is common for New Zealanders to greet people with a brief ‘Hello’ when you walk past them. It is expected you respond with a greeting in return or a smile of acknowledgement. 
  • Calling someone over by yelling “Oi” can be interpreted as rude or even antagonising. However, younger generations may use this in an informal context with close peers.
  • Do not wave, yell or clap your hands to call over a waiter or service person. Instead, look out for them until they make eye contact, and then nod or raise your hand. You can also gently say “excuse me” as they pass by.
  • While New Zealanders are quite informal, it is still good manners to say “Please” when requesting something and “Thank you” when someone does something for you. Giving a verbal ‘Thank you’ is politer than simply nodding your head or smiling.
  • Although you may hear New Zealanders swearing often, it is best to avoid swearing in public around strangers, in front of children or in professional settings. 
  • Men are not expected to open doors for women. However, it is common to hold a door open for someone if they are entering behind you, regardless of gender.
  • It is rude to try to skip a line if queuing for something. Wait your turn and never try to push in front of anyone. If you are in an urgent rush, you may politely explain your situation to the person in front of you or a managing employee to ask if they are comfortable with you moving ahead. However, accept their answer if they decline. 
  • New Zealanders expect punctuality when meeting up with someone. Being more than 5–10 minutes late without giving someone forewarning is considered disrespectful. 
  • Clean up after yourself at all times and do not litter (especially in national parks). Casual disrespect for the natural environment is frowned upon.



  • It is important to arrange a visit to a New Zealander’s house in advance. Do not arrive unannounced or bring friends and family along unless you have asked to include them beforehand, or they have indicated that you can arrive unannounced. However, Māori greatly value hospitality and family connection so will generally be more accepting if you wish to bring family members or close friends along with you. 
  • When organising a visit, ask the host “What can I bring?” ahead of time. They may wish for you to contribute food or drink. 
  • If a host asks you to ‘bring a plate’, this is a request to bring a dish or platter of food to share with other guests. The size of the dish should be slightly larger than you would normally serve as part of a family meal.
  • If attending a party or large gathering, the host will usually tell guests whether they will supply the alcohol or if guests should bring their own drinks (BYO).
  • Arrive as punctually as possible if you are the only guest visiting the person’s home. Arriving more than 10 minutes early to someone’s house may inconvenience the host. On the other hand, being more than 5–10 minutes late without giving someone forewarning is considered disrespectful.
  • It is usually okay to be 10–15 minutes late to a small gathering of people. Being late is more acceptable when attending parties and large social gatherings.
  • After knocking, wait to be invited in. If you have an established relationship with the person and there is no response, it may be appropriate to knock again and enter cautiously by saying “Hello?” to announce your arrival.
  • Offer to remove your shoes before entering a home, especially in Māori households. 
  • If eating at someone’s home, offer to help your host prepare and clean up after the meal.
  • If the host asks whether you would like more food, it is okay to politely decline or accept depending on how hungry you are. Neither is considered rude.
  • Lay your knife and fork down on the plate together to indicate that you have finished your meal. You may eat everything on your plate or leave a small amount of food uneaten. Neither choice will offend your host.


Eating Out

  • If you are eating at a restaurant, it is important to be punctual as people will wait for you before they order their food.
  • The person who invited people to the restaurant may pay the full bill. However, it is common practice to split the total cost of the bill evenly among everyone, or for each person to pay for what they ordered.
  • It is a common practice to buy ‘rounds’ of drinks while dining out with a group. If it is your round (also called ‘your shout’), you are expected to buy drinks for everyone you are with. Each individual who receives a drink will be expected to pay for at least one round.
  • Being reluctant to share the cost of food or drink is seen as cheap or ‘’ if others have paid their share or paid for your meals in the past. Asking or expecting friends to pay for you on more than one occasion creates a bad reputation. You should ensure that you cover your own costs when dining out and make an effort to reciprocate if someone has paid for your meal previously.


Gift Giving

  • Gifts are typically only given on special occasions (e.g. birthdays, Christmas or if someone has done something special for you). 
  • People tend to open gifts in front of the giver, either upon receiving them or later along with other presents.
  • If you are presented with a gift on behalf of a Māori person or community, it is expected that you open it right away.1
  • Recipients do not usually expect to receive gifts of a high monetary value, but rather expect that the gift will be thoughtfully chosen to reflect their interests.
  • Token gifts may be given when visiting someone (e.g. wine, chocolate, or flowers).
  • Guests invited to a Māori house should bring a small simple gift, known as a ‘koha’. Koha is used to show thanks for hospitality and is often given in the form of food, drinks, flowers or photos of your homeland. 
  • There are no set expectations on the monetary value of koha items. It is expected that koha should only be what people can afford. However, as a general guideline $20 NZD per person is a standard koha when visiting a marae for personal reasons. For business or government service related visits, additional koha of a larger sum should be provided by your organisation. 
  • Visitors should give their koha to one person who presents it on behalf of the group. If you are staying overnight (noho marae), it is good practice to contact the marae chair beforehand to organise an appropriate koha to cover all costs related to your stay.2


Māori Etiquette

Sacredness (Tapu)

Much of Māori cultural etiquette is informed by the concepts of tapu (sacred) and noa (normal, ordinary, mundane, safe). Much of Māori cultural etiquette is informed by the concepts of tapu (sacred) and noa (normal, ordinary, mundane, safe). The term ‘tapu’ refers to something having an unordinary or special quality that makes it sacred, culturally restricted or spiritually protected.3 ‘Noa’ carries the opposite meaning of ‘an absence of tapu’, referring to something being normal, ordinary or safe to interact with. In Māori culture, the entire world is divided into tapu and noa.


It is important to keep any sacred (tapu) objects, spaces or people separate from those that are not sacred (noa). As such, there are many cultural protocols that inform and guide appropriate Māori etiquette. For example, a person, object or place that is sacred (tapu) may not be touched or, in some cases, approached.


While some basic guidelines are provided below, it is important to ask an individual what their personal customs and expectations are. Sacred protocols and beliefs can differ significantly among Māori tribes (iwi) and families. For example, the sacred status and significance of a site may be unique to a particular tribe.


  • Sites or objects that Māori regard as tapu (sacred) are not to be touched or interacted with.
  • The head is considered to be the most sacred part of the body and should not come into contact with other body parts. 
  • It is a cultural taboo to touch someone else’s head without permission. 
  • Do not sit on a pillow used for a person to rest their head during sleep. Similarly, pillows that are used for seating or to prop legs, arms, etc. should not be then moved under the head. Māori may view this as a violation of tapu.5
  • Most cooked food items are considered to be normal/ordinary (noa) in Maori culture. This means they must not come into contact with sacred objects, people or spaces.
  • Do not bring food into any buildings, spaces or places considered tapu, such as the wharenui (traditional meeting house) in a marae (traditional Māori meeting ground). 
  • Food should not be passed over an individual’s head.
  • It is a cultural taboo to sit on tables, countertops or other surfaces that are used for food preparation or eating. 
  • There may be ritual protocols to bless or cleanse a tapu space or place before you enter, such as reciting a karakia or cleansing the area with water.  
  • Ask a Māori person’s permission before photographing, filming or taping them. 
  • Some Maori communities may not allow digital recording devices into their marae (traditional meeting ground) or other sites of significance. Recording these places without permission can be a violation of tapu.6
  • Some Māori have tribal tattoos on their faces, arms and calves that have cultural and spiritual significance. These do not hold negative connotations (i.e. prison sentences) as they do in some other cultures. All traditional Māori tribal tattoos are deeply personal and unique to the individual’s tribal group, representing important family history and/or tribal narratives.
  • The wearing of pounamu (greenstone) and/or bone necklaces is common practice among Māori. The shape of each pounamu carries important meaning. 
  • It is appropriate to ask about the significance of a person’s pounamu if you are interested.
  • Non-Māori may wear pounamu if they have been gifted it. To be gifted a piece signifies much about the value and respect between the giver and receiver.7
  • It is not uncommon for non-Māori New Zealanders to wear pounamu or get Māori-inspired tattoos. However, this is often for aesthetic purposes, as opposed to traditional cultural practices.
  • While it is not necessarily culturally inappropriate for non-Māori to purchase pounamu for themselves, it is generally advised against as it diminishes the cultural significance behind gifted possession.


Visiting a Marae (Traditional Māori Meeting Ground)8

A marae is a fenced-in complex of carved buildings and grounds that belongs to a particular Māori tribe (iwi), sub-tribe (hapū) or family (whānau). It is a traditional meeting ground for formal gatherings, community meetings, celebrations, funerals, educational workshops and other important tribal events. They are the focal point of Māori communities throughout Aotearoa, New Zealand.


The following advice includes basic guidelines to be aware of when visiting a marae. However, it is important to ask your local hosts what their expectations are before you visit as protocols and customs vary between different communities.


  • Always seek permission before entering a marae. Do not walk into the precinct until you are welcomed and invited through the pōwhiri (welcome ceremony – see below).
  • Before your visit, ensure your group has organised a female Māori community member to lead your call to welcome (a person known as a kaikaranga). Be aware that not all Māori women know how to karanga or will feel comfortable doing this on your behalf. It is acceptable as an invited visitor to contact the marae representative to see if they can suggest someone to perform the call on your behalf. 
  • Discuss with your fellow visitors in advance to decide which person will make a formal speech on behalf of the visiting group. Be aware that many marae only allow men to speak during the formal speeches, and only allow speakers to converse in Te Reo Māori during this process. 
  • If you do not have a male in the group or anyone who can speak Te Reo Māori, contact the marae representative who has invited you prior to your visit to see if it is possible to have someone speak on behalf of your group. However, if you are visiting as a representative of a government agency, it will be expected that you will organise this on your end.
  • Bring a monetary gift (koha) to present to the respective tribal elder (see below).
  • Dress formally for your visit. Women should wear skirts past the knee.
  • Ensure cell phones are switched off before entry.
  • Do not bring any food with you.
  • Arrive early. It is considered impolite to walk onto a marae once a welcome ceremony is already underway. 
  • Wait together in a group outside until the pōwhiri commences and introduce yourself to other groups you don't know. 


Protocols for a Welcome Ceremony (Pōwhiri)9

  • Māori perform a formal welcoming ceremony, known as ‘pōwhiri’, to greet guests visiting a marae. This formal custom is very important and taken seriously by Māori. It is highly disrespectful to eat, drink or talk amongst others during the welcome.
  • Traditionally, the pōwhiri involves a protective incantation (waerea) and ritual challenge (wero) that attempts to determine the intent of the visitors. This is followed by a call to welcome (karanga) sung by a lead woman of the community (kaikaranga). However, generally visitors will only experience the call to welcome (karanga) part of the powhiri process. 
  • As the call to welcome is sung, visitors slowly begin walking together to enter the precinct. Women walk ahead, with men at the back or flanked by the last group of women.10 
  • Walk slowly, staying together in the group. The leading woman (kaikaranga) may signal the group to pause in remembrance of those who have passed. 
  • Exact pōwhiri customs and proceedings vary between tribes. Some communities may perform dances or chants as you enter, such as the haka pōwhiri, which can be quite loud.11
  • Once inside the marae, you will be directed where to sit for speeches (whaikōrero) and songs (waiata) – either in the grounds or at the meeting house (see below). 
  • Men sit in the front row, with women sitting behind. Women should not seat themselves in the front row, even if there are empty seats.
  • Do not go walking through the grounds without permission. Certain areas may be sacred and off limits.
  • When everyone is seated, one of the elders or community leaders from the host tribe will commence speeches in Te Reo Māori (whaikōrero). Each speech is followed by songs (waiata) sung by their fellow tribe/community members. This may be repeated multiple times for several speakers.
  • Once the hosting elders have spoken, it is the visiting group’s turn to speak. One or multiple visitors should give a formal speech that gives acknowledgement and thanks to the hosts on the group’s behalf.
  • After the visitors’ spokesperson has concluded their speech, your group will be expected to sing an accompanying song (waiata). All members of the visiting group are expected to participate in singing. 
  • It is important to organise and practise your group’s song before you go to the marae. Poorly sung waiata can be viewed as a lack of respect for your hosts, as well as a reflection of a lack of unity or strength (mana) within your group. 
  • It is commonplace to sing a traditional song from your home country. This exchange of songs is often greatly appreciated, especially if you are a migrant from a non-English speaking country. 
  • After the speeches and songs, the visitors present their gift to the hosts (koha), usually cash in an envelope. 
  • The welcome ceremony ends with the hosts inviting guests to come forward for a hongi (see Māori Greetings). 
  • Everybody usually moves to the dining hall for food (kai), indicating the end of ceremonial proceedings. 


Inside a Wharenui (Meeting House)12

  • The ‘wharenui’ is a communal meeting house where guests are accommodated. It is the most distinctive and prestigious building within the marae. The structure is often ornamentally carved to resemble a human body. Inside the wharenui, the different pillars that support the structure represent different deities.13
  • The wharenui is a highly sacred (tapu) space, usually built to represent a particular ancestor of the tribe or family it belongs to.
  • Remove your shoes before entering.14
  • Always seek permission before taking photos.
  • It is against cultural protocol to eat or drink inside a wharenui.
  • It is customary to leave the meeting house by the same entrance through which you came in.


Eating in a Wharekai (Dining Room)

  • Visitors (manuhiri) will be called in for food. It is polite to let elders (kaumātua) and children go first. Often the person calling people in for food will say who should come first.
  • People are usually seated at long tables. The seating may be mixed up so that guests and hosts can mingle and talk with one another more casually. 
  • Wash your hands before eating.
  • Do not begin to eat until the food has been blessed with a prayer (karakia). 
  • When hosting guests, younger Māori community members often serve the guests while older Māori cook. 
  • It is a cultural taboo to pass food over a person’s head or sit on tables.
  • People may make speeches of acknowledgement and sing accompanying songs throughout a meal.
  • Towards the end of the meal, it is customary for the guest to give a speech that praises the food provided. 
  • Communal meals are often cooked and served by community members voluntarily. Therefore, it is important to acknowledge and thank all who served in any way for their time and hospitality.


1 Swain Destinations, 2013
2 Swain Destinations, 2013
3 Intellectual Property Office of New Zealand, n.d.
4 Medical Council of New Zealand, 2006
5 Medical Council of New Zealand, 2006
6 Medical Council of New Zealand, 2006
7 Taonga by Timot, 2020
8 Swain Destinations, 2013
9 New Zealand Tourism, 2022
10 Tauroa & Tauroa, 2009
11 Symonds, 2022
12 Keane, 2013
13 New Zealand Tourism, 2022
14 New Zealand Tourism, 2022

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