Tongan Culture

Communication

Verbal

  • Indirect Communication: Tongans generally have an communication style. In their efforts to avoid offending others or coming across as harsh, they tend to be vague and may take some time to reach their point in a roundabout way when conversing. Depending on the context, they can be pointedly . Encouraging words like “work on” or “try to” are often used to replace stronger commands such as “do not”.
  • Communication Style: Tongans are usually very polite and modest when conversing with others. They tend to try and please others. Thus, they often tell you what they think you want to hear rather than directly tell you the truth of the matter. If you wish to find out something, a good approach is to phrase the question in a way that asks them if they would do the thing you are inquiring about (e.g. "Would you eat while standing?"). Also, try to avoid asking questions that require a yes/no answer.
  • Criticism:  or negative comments are usually avoided. Tongans tend to phrase negative matters gently. People prefer to deliver sensitive news in private. 
  • Language Levels: The Tongan language varies according to the social context in which it is used. The variations of each dialect are typically words and expressions of address, reference or conversation. It is considered to be a serious social mistake to use the incorrect dialect in the wrong context. There are five different levels, with the two common levels being the Lea Tavale and Lea Fakamatāpule. Lea Tavale refers to the common or everyday level of the Tongan language. This level is used when one is conversing to a social equal for everyday purposes. Lea Fakamatāpule is the language level of respect when speaking to someone who is not a chief, noble or member of the royal family (for example, elders, religious leaders, doctors, teachers, police officers, etc.). 


Non-Verbal

  • Physical Contact: Tongans are generally modest and prefer to limit the amount of physical contact they have with others. Displays of affection between members of the opposite gender, such as kissing and hugging, are generally regarded as inappropriate. This is also the case between parents and their children. There is little to no touching during conversations unless it is among close friends of the same gender. It is not uncommon to see members of the same gender holding hands or displaying other signs of affection in public.
  • Personal Space: Tongans tend to keep and maintain an arm's length of distance between one another in most situations. For example, during a conversation, they will stand an arm’s length apart. It is also common for Tongans to converse even when there is a very large distance between them. For example, they may shout at each other from across the yard or from the doorway of the house.
  • Eye Contact: Maintaining eye contact is generally acceptable, especially between people of the same social standing. However, when in the presence of someone of higher status, it is expected that one lowers their gaze to indicate respect. A person may also avert their gaze when talking with someone older or of a position of authority (such as a student and their teacher).
  • Facial Expressions: A vast amount of Tongan communication is done through facial expressions. For example, a quick lifting of the eyebrows means “yes”.
  • Body Language: In Tonga, the position of one's body demonstrates respect to their counterpart (or lack of it). This is particularly important in formal situations when people of higher status are in the room. For example, if you are standing and the person you wish to speak to is sitting, it is respectful to bring yourself down physically to the same level as them.
  • Head: When approaching someone of higher rank, it is polite to keep your head lower than theirs. For example, if someone of higher status is speaking and you need to move across the room, you should crouch a bit as you do so and, if possible, move behind rather than in front of them.

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