Tongan Culture

Etiquette

Basic Etiquette

  • When approaching someone of higher rank, it is polite to keep your head lower than theirs.
  • It is common to wear cologne or perfume in Tonga as many consider it important to have a pleasant smell.
  • Women usually do not walk around in public alone. Instead, they will be accompanied by another woman, their partner or a male relative.
  • It is very common for Tongans to arrive late for social events. Being late does not necessarily indicate that the activity is not perceived as important. Rather, punctuality is less important. Tongans prefer to enjoy the present moment and take their time. "Tongan Time" is a common expression that captures the Tongan laid-back approach to time-keeping. 
  • Sunday is considered to be a day or rest and worship. Under Tongan law, people are not allowed to conduct business or work on Sundays. Public transport is also not available on Sundays.


Visiting

  • Sit when a person of high social position arrives as a sign of respect.
  • Visiting people unannounced is common practice in Tonga. Relatives and neighbours frequently visit each other, especially on a Sunday afternoon.
  • Visitors typically remove their shoes upon entering the home of their host as well as before sitting on a floor mat.
  • Hosts will usually guests to the best seats of the house.
  • In traditional homes, men sit cross-legged on the floor while women sit with both legs tucked behind them to one side. This is particularly important during formal functions.
  • When sitting on floor mats, those of higher social position and age sit in the middle while those who are of lower social position and younger in age sit on the perimeter.
  • A Tongan family usually tries to accommodate the needs of their guests.
  • It is common for hosts to offer refreshments such as water, fizzy drinks, coconut or otai (a mixture of cut fruits).
  • If a guest arrives unexpectedly at mealtime, the host will invite them to stay and partake in the meal.
  • During more formal visits, it is common for departing guests to offer a complimentary speech. This is considered to be a great honour to the host family. The family will often give a small gift to the guests, such as food.
  • Children are kept out of the way as much as possible to avoid disrupting adults during a conversation.


Eating

  • Most formalities and important aspects of etiquette at mealtimes are related to behaviour.
  • Do not bring a plate of food to share if invited to a meal at someone’s home, even if it is a small side dish. It is considered to be a great offence to the host as it implies they did not prepare enough food for everyone.
  • Tongan families eat meals together whenever possible. 
  • Most meals are eaten on woven mats on the floor.
  • The traditional method of eating is to use one's hands, but some households may use utensils.
  • Standing while eating or drinking is considered to be poor etiquette.
  • It is common to say a prayer or ‘Grace’ before eating in most Tongan households. This is done at every meal.
  • Conversation is kept to a minimum while people are eating.
  • When guests are present, a few selected family members eat with them. Everyone else, including children, usually sits elsewhere for their meal.
  • Hosts usually indicate to guests where to sit, which is generally in the middle section of the table or mat so that they can converse with everyone with more ease.
  • Guests are served first and typically set the pace of the meal. This means that the guest should be aware that no one will begin eating until the guest does and no one will finish before the guest.
  • Take everything you plan to eat before you begin as it is traditionally seen as rude to take a second serving.
  • On Sundays and special occasions, Tongans usually cook their meals in an umu (a type of underground oven). 
  • A popular drink during formal occasions is kava, a drink with sedative and anaesthetic properties similar to alcohol. Usually, only men are permitted to drink kava, but females (usually the eldest single daughter or niece of the family) are expected to serve the drink.


Gift Giving

  • Traditionally, gifts are presented during celebrations and gift giving is a public affair. People exchange mats and kahoa (a lei or necklace made from flowers, beads or shells).
  • Although gifts are welcomed, Tongans do not usually expect gifts from people visiting their homes.
  • Gifts are typically not opened in front of the person who gave the gift.
  • Flowers are only given on special occasions, such as weddings or funerals. 
  • Hosts may give gifts to honoured or new guests when they leave. It is an extreme insult to decline such offers, which may include food, handicrafts, fruit or tapa cloth.
  • It is typical for Tongan families travelling to Tonga from abroad to take food back with them as a gift. Similarly, Tongans returning home bring food gifts back to their family.

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