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Culture Of New Zealand


The culture of New Zealand incorporates both Maori culture and that of the descendants of the early British colonists, many of whom were of working class origin. While British culture predominates, it has been significantly influenced by the Maori and Polynesians. Scottish influences are particularly strong, particularly in the South Island.


In general, early immigrants from other parts of Europe and Asia, and World War II refugees (particularly the Dutch) were readily assimilated. Small enclaves of these early immigrant cultures remain as islands of unique heritage in a sea of British colonial culture. 

Unlike Australia, New Zealand has not experienced sizeable immigration from Mediterranean countries in Southern Europe, but in recent years there has been a considerable influx of migrants from Asia, which now makes up a significant proportion of the population, particularly in Auckland.

After the Second World War, significant immigration from the Pacific Islands began, so much so that there are now more nationals from some Pacific island nations living in New Zealand than on their home islands.

The wide variety of Pacific Island cultures have combined in New Zealand, mostly in South Auckland, to form a distinctive subculture that is separate from the Maori culture.

For a variety of reasons many Maori and Pacific people have been socially disadvantaged, forming an underclass in some areas. Cultural considerations for both Maori and Pacific people now has a significant influence on educational, medical and social organisations, particularly in areas with high concentrations of these population groups.

Immigration policy in New Zealand has often been controversial, with some politicians claiming that the pace of immigration has been too rapid for New Zealand to absorb, and that recent immigrants are having trouble adapting the New Zealand society. This position is seen by others as a cynical appeal to xenophobic sentiment in order to gain votes near election time, and these views are not widely supported by the general population.

Is there a separate New Zealand culture?

A number of New Zealand commentators have observed that there is no culture in New Zealand. This has led to protests from those who believe that there is a uniquely definable New Zealand culture. Perhaps one of the more memorable protests was the song "Culture" by The Knobz after outspoken Prime Minister Sir Robert Muldoon stated that New Zealand pop music was not part of the New Zealand cultural scene.

Similarities with Australia

New Zealand culture has been likened to Australian culture because it bears many similarities and the two nations have much in common. Indeed the 1901 Australian Constitution included provisions to allow New Zealand to join Australia as its seventh state. While there is no prospect of political union now, there is still a great deal of similarity between the two cultures, with the differences often only obvious to Australians and New Zealanders themselves.

Many only realise how much the two nationalities have in common when they go to Europe to work and travel, although New Zealanders are almost horrified at the idea that they have anything in common with Australians.

 Ironically, many of them are more likely to have visited Europe than each other's countries, and this is especially true of Australians. When the Australian actress Cate Blanchett told US talkshow host David Letterman that her time on location in New Zealand filming The Lord of the Rings was her first visit to the country, he was genuinely surprised, while she was equally puzzled by his reaction.

The New Zealand - Australia relationship is less one of friendship than it is of brotherhood: New Zealanders and Australians often fall out over relatively minor matters - there are few more bitterly-contested sporting events than the trans-Tasman rugby matches; New Zealanders have never forgiven Australia for cricketer Trevor Chappell's underarm delivery; Australia's anger over the Air New Zealand/Ansett Airlines fiasco was sharper than could be easily explained by the mere facts, and so on.

New Zealanders regard Australians as loud and opinionated, while Australians ridicule New Zealanders for their supposedly closer relationship with 'Mother England', yet there is not the slightest doubt that underneath the name-calling and the petty grievances, in case of need New Zealanders and Australians defend one another with both passion and courage. The ANZAC tradition is rarely called on, but it is very real.

Like Australians, New Zealanders have a 'love-hate' relationship with the UK, although anti-English sentiment is not as strong, and republicanism is not yet as emotive an issue as it is in Australia. 

While the UK, especially London is the first port of call on the 'OE' or 'Overseas Experience' for young Kiwis, they can often be dismissive of the so-called 'Mother Country', deriding 'Poms' as snobbish, inflexible, and backward-looking. New Zealanders felt badly about the UK's entry into the European Community in 1973, which deprived them of their main trading partner, and often feel affronted at being treated as 'Others' by British immigration at Heathrow.

The three "R's" of New Zealand culture are Rugby, Racing and beeR. This cultural image probably has its origins in colonial agricultural New Zealand, when hard farm work such as harvesting, shearing and droving took place in hot summer conditions. The large number of soldiers who left New Zealand to fight in the First and Second World Wars and their subsequent socialising have contributed to this image.

Although less obvious today, in the past team sports, particularly Rugby football, gambling on horse races, and sharing a beer after a hard day's work with some good friends or work mates have been significant images of New Zealand life. This predominantly working-class male cultural image has previously been so strong that it has overshadowed other, perhaps higher, cultural aspects of New Zealand society.

Sporting and outdoor activities still play a significant part in the recreation of New Zealanders. Participation in a sport, rather than mere spectating, is considered a worthy pursuit. Team sports and sporting abilities are generally held in high regard, with top-performing players often becoming celebrities.

 World-class achievement and continued winning at the international level are primary requirements. Being second, or worse, after having achieved winner status, indicates that the players have become a bunch of losers and should not be playing the game any more. However, any player or team who puts in a maximum effort and still loses, especially in a challenging situation, is often praised as if they had won anyway.


Although the Kiwi is an endangered flightless native bird, the name has also been adopted by New Zealanders when referring to themselves and their culture. The Kiwi logo is often associated with New Zealand military forces and New Zealand goods. The New Zealand dollar is often called the Kiwi dollar and the bird's image appears on both the 20 cent and one dollar coins.

The word kiwi, originating from Maori, is both singular and plural, when referring to the native bird, (as the word sheep is when referring to the animal). Do not be confused by the plural usage of Kiwis, which generally refers to New Zealanders.

Items and icons from New Zealand's cultural heritage are often called Kiwiana, and include.

All Blacks (National Rugby team)
Black Singlet (worn by many farmers, shearers as well as representative athletes)
Buzzy Bee (child's toy)
Claytons (originally a non alcoholic beer, advertised as "The drink you have when you are not having a drink", that did not gain market acceptance. Now refers to any form of inferior substitute.)
Kiwi (native bird. Its stylised image or shape frequently appears on things associated with New Zealand)
Kiwifruit (Fruit from a goosberry vine originating in China but selectively bred by New Zealand horticulturalists to obtain large green, and recently gold, fleshed fruit.)
L&P (Lemon and Paeroa- a popular soft drink)
Silver Fern (native plant. Its stylised image or shape is displayed by many of the national sports teams.)
Tiki (A Maori icon, often worn as a necklace pendant.)

There are Kiwiana sections in many New Zealand museums, and some are dedicated to showing Kiwiana only.


The remoteness of many parts of New Zealand and the distance of the country from much of the developed world meant that things that were easily obtainable in other parts of the world were often not readily available locally. This has given rise to the attitudes "She'll be right, mate" as well as "Can do".

"She'll be right, mate" is the attitude that the situation, repairs, or whatever has been done is adequate or sufficient for what is needed. This is often perceived as carelessness, especially when a failure occurs.

"Can do" is the attitude that the problem or situation can be solved, despite apparently insurmountable odds. This has sometimes lead to spectacular failure instead of success when inadequately prepared. This is a matter of pride and national identity, summed up in the saying "If anybody can a Kiwi can". Another expression is "if you can fix it with a piece of No.8 wire..." meaning that it can be fixed with anything. Australians and Americans have similar expressions involving coat hangers and duct tape.

"Cultural Cringe". Many New Zealanders are very conscious of belonging to a small country remote from the world centres of power and culture. Because of this they need reassurance that things in New Zealand are every bit as good as those in the rest of the world, coupled with a sneaking suspicion that maybe they are not. 

This manifests itself in several forms such as: adulation of any visiting celebrity; asking visitors what they think of New Zealand, usually as they are arriving or; the desperate assertion that sheep shearing is a valid sport or maybe art form. Cultural cringe as manifested by the media and some politicians means that New Zealand should experience the same disasters and vicissitudes as the rest of the world. Thus in late 2002 and early 2003 the New Zealand media appeared quite upset because the country could boast no cases of SARS or examples of international terrorism.

Cultural Cringe is not necessarily shared by those New Zealanders exhibiting the first two examples of Kiwi attitude but it is a pervasive New Zealand attitutude.
Attribution. Because many New Zealanders have to go elsewhere in the world to achieve fame and fortune, New Zealand society is keen to attribute famous people as being New Zealanders, however short their residency in New Zealand might have been.

 While being born in New Zealand is an absolute qualification for being identified as a New Zealander, attendance at a New Zealand school, or being a permanent resident in New Zealand when fame is initially achieved also qualifies, irrespective of national origin. 

This sometimes leads to famous people being identified as coming from both New Zealand and another country - often Australia, such as the pop group Crowded House, and the Pavlova desert, both of which are claimed by Aussies and Kiwis as 'theirs'.

Social Conservatism. While New Zealand has pioneered social reforms, including votes for women and the welfare state, its society can also be very conservative in outlook. Until the late 1960s pubs would close at 6pm, while until 1980 shops would close all weekend. 

Both were considered attempts to preserve family life, but increasingly locals and overseas tourists found them stifling. In 1986, restrictions on shopping hours were repealed, but shops in smaller towns still close for the weekend on Saturday afternoons, while alcohol could not be sold on Sunday until recently. However, New Zealand has now often gone to the opposite extreme, legalising prostitution in 2003. The drinking age was also recently reduced from 20 to 18.

Conformism. While New Zealand, like Australia, prides itself as being more egalitarian than Britain, there is a degree of inverse snobbery known as the 'Tall Poppy Syndrome', in which people who are seen as (over)ambitious and having ideas above their station are cut down to size. This is also known as the 'Great Kiwi Clobbering Machine', and has prompted many of the country's best and brightest to emigrate.

Regionalism and Parochialism. While small in comparison to Australia or the US, there are regional differences in New Zealand, either between North Island and South Island, whose inhabitants refer to each other as 'Pig Islanders', or increasingly, between Auckland and the rest of the country. Auckland, though no longer the national capital, is the largest city, and dominates New Zealand culturally and economically. 

The New Zealand Herald, despite its name, is the daily newspaper of Auckland and the surrounding region, not the national newspaper. Aucklanders dismiss anywhere 'south of the Bombay Hills', as backward, in much the same way as Londoners dismiss anywhere 'north of Watford', while people from the rest of New Zealand regard Aucklanders as brash, sharing many of the characteristics of Sydneysiders in Australia. (Auckland has been described as a 'Clayton's ersatz Sydney', with its harbours.)

Anti-Government Attitudes. Following the experiences of the eighties and nineties there is a profound distrust of politicians in New Zealand. This manifested itself most clearly in two recent referenda, on Proportional Representation and on Extending the Parliametary Term. In both cases the general public seemed to establish in their minds what the politicians wanted and then voted almost ninety percent against it.

New Zealand language

Most New Zealanders speak a form of English that has not diverged greatly from British English.

The use of Maori words is increasing particularly in the North Island, although there is regional variation.

Thus "Kia Ora", literally "be healthy" is now a standard New Zealand greeting. In Maori situations it is often used after someone has spoken meaning "Have you got that?" or possibly "Do you agree with me?" But this has not extended to general use.

Other Maori greetings, "Tena koe" {one person} or "Tena koutou" {several people} are also widely used. Similarly Goodbye, "Haere Ra". This may also be the origin of the much more widely used NZ phrase for goodbye "Hooray".

Greetings between people meeting on a cold morning is sometimes "Makariri nei?", cold isn't it? Curiously this phrase is changing to a bastard Maori-English word "Maka-Chilly". It probably started as a joke that won't go away.

"Buggered" is a word that quickly entered the Maori language as "Pakaru or Pakaruru" and is now returning to NZ English in its new form or as "Pakaru-ed"

It is in metaphorical phrases that NZ English has made most progress or divergence. Often they reflect significant differences in culture.

For example

"Ladies, a plate" is often seen as part of the advertisement for social functions. It means that the function is self catering; people attending are meant to bring a plate full of food. Many new arrivals in New Zealand have mistaken this and turned up with an empty plate, but only once.

"Up the Puhoi without a paddle" meaning to be in difficulties without an obvious soltion. The Puhoi is a river just north of Auckland. Over the years the phrase has evolved and is now often heard as "Up the Boo-eye without a paddle". It is also some times attributed to other New Zealand rivers. It will be interesting if the phrase can withstand competition from the modern and very colourful variant "Up shit creek without a Paddle".

"Wide enough for an Ox team to do a U-ie" Said of very wide roads.

"Sticky Beak" meaning someone unduly curious about other people's affairs, ie nosey parker. Sticky beak is used in both New Zealand and Australia with the same meaning but slightly different emphasis. In Australia "sticky beak" is quite perjorative, to be called sticky beak is definitely a criticism whereas in New Zealand it is used with more affection, it is often used as a tease.

"Box of Birds" or even more colloqially "Box of Fluffies" meaning to feel very good. "How are you feeling? Oh, a Box of Birds"

"Rattle yer Dags" an instruction to hurry up. Sheep running through gates and yards often make a curious rattling noise caused by their Dags clattering together. Dags being the encrustations of dried shit that collects on the long wool,like a loose bunch of grapes, around their hind ends.

Similarly "He's a bit of a Dag' describes someone as a comedian. The word "dagg" possibly derives from the regional english word, "daglock" meaning the same thing. See also Fred Dagg below.

Iconic characters

Sir Robert Muldoon, nicknamed 'Piggy', authoritarian Prime Minister of New Zealand (1975-1984) who was either loved or loathed. His supporters were known as Rob's Mob.
Fred Dagg a satirical character that appeared on Television New Zealand in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Created and portrayed by commedian John Clarke, who later created The Games for Australian Television.

Sam Hunt poet, who presented his work in pubs rather than theatres.
Barry Crump humorous writer about New Zealand society, particularly the good keen man. Portrayed the stereotypical man from the land in several books and TV commercials.

Sir Ed Hillary beekeeper, mountaineer, explorer, aid worker and ambassador. His face appears on the $5 note.

Kate Sheppard women's suffrage campaigner. Her face appears on the $10.00 note.
Sir Apirana Ngata Maori politician and historian. His face appears on the $50.00 note.
Ernest Rutherford physcist and Nobel prize winner for chemistry, who "split the atom". His face appears on the $100 note.

Billy T James a successful Maori comedian, now deceased.
Sir Howard Morrison a perennial singer
Dame Kiri Te Kanawa Opera Singer
Sir Peter Blake (yachtsman), who won the America's Cup for New Zealand
Any All Black, past or present.

The arts

New Zealand does possess the usual cultural activities such as theatre, dance, fine arts, classical and popular music and creative writing. However, due to the small population base and a lack of arts funding sources, many artists have struggled to sustain themselves economically, even though they may achieve popular success. For this reason many of New Zealand's best artists go overseas, especially to Australia, but also to Europe or America, so they can further their careers.

New Zealand imports much of its cultural material from overseas, particularly from Britain or the United States. Most successful Hollywood films screen on New Zealand cinema screens and New Zealand Television shows a lot of British and American television programmes. 

It is somewhat ironic that some of these programmes are now made in New Zealand but receive their first screening elsewhere. The New Zealand cinematographic industry is becoming one of the country's major export enterprises, with several major motion pictures being filmed on New Zealand locations recently, including the highly acclaimed film adaptation of Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" directed by the Kiwi Peter Jackson

There are museums in many towns and cities that preserve the country's heritage. Some museums specialise in particular themes, such as vintage transport, Maori culture or a particular historic building or event. The New Zealand Historic Places Trust and the Ministry of Culture and Heritage are national bodies that assist with such heritage preservation.


Generally accepted, by New Zealanders if nowhere else, as an alternative name for New Zealand.
When Richard Seddon, Premier of New Zealand around 1900, returned from one of his overseas trips he reportedly said it was good to be back in God's Own Country and the term was adopted, semi-ironically.