Wednesday, 27 September 2017

New Zealand's Cultural Shift

New Zealand, as an ex-British colony, is - as far as I know - the only nation to have been founded on a treaty. Te Tiriti O Waitangi was signed by many Iwi and the crown of Great Britain in 1840: almost 180 years ago now. Doesn't time fly!

The European settlers who sailed, chugged and roared across the Pacific post-treaty to Aotearoa are known as Pākehā here. While many Europeans find this word insulting, I wear the name with pride. It is a reminder that we were here second, not first, and we need to be a partner, not the boss.

Pākehā are largely born in New Zealand, are of European descent and make up around 60% of New Zealand’s population (Statistics NZ, 2013). Pākehā society is characterised by the nuclear family, humble achievement-based individualism, ‘classless’ society, and low power distance (Chong & Thomas, 1997). New Zealand culture is now largely Pākehā culture; that of “membership in the dominant group and by a particular relationship to the Māori and to the social and physical environment of New Zealand” (Spoonley, 1994, p. 89). We artificially preserved English culture for - in my view - way too long here.

Several business issues were identified by Smale, who explored the influence of Pākehā culture on innovation in New Zealand. These are: a high reluctance to incur financial risk; a desire of business founders for autonomy, or to retain control; short-term thinking or satisficing; and a dislike of providing or receiving feedback (2008). Oops. I think that is us.

But New Zealand society is so much richer than that. Māori make up around 15% of the population (Statistics NZ, 2013). Iwi, hapu, rohe and whānau broaden Māori connections; links of tribe, sub-tribe, locale and family. Whānau, or family, is extended family, which may be very extensive. With intermarriage, Māori may whakapapa – ie, have genealogical links, where each person is the culmination of all the efforts and acts of their ancestors – to many Iwi. Māori culture appears traditional and hierarchical, while being affiliative, relationship-oriented, with a strong story-telling focus (Bell, 1997; Boshier, 2015; Brown, 2005; King, 2003).

Taking a long term view is much more common in Māori culture than in Pākehā culture. For example, the Wakatū Incorporation, a combined Iwi trust based in Nelson New Zealand, has a 500 year plan. Wakatū takes a stewardship view of Kaitiaki (guardianship), holding the land in trust for future generations (Wakatū, n.d.). This combines with the idea of whakapapa, where each person has physical and spiritual responsibility towards their ancestors, their tipuna (Bidois, 2006).

Many Māori ideals, values and terms have been normalised into mainstream New Zealand society (O’Flaherty, 10 March 2015). Interestingly, Te Reo (‘the language’) and sign are the only official languages of New Zealand (Albury, 2015), with English apparently not needing legal status for dominance. While in 2007, Rankine found that Te Reo was used once or twice per article, an Australian journalist travelling in Aotearoa found New Zealand newspapers used so many Māori terms that meaning was often inaccessible as a non-New Zealander (Cryer, 2012). There appears to be a New Zealand difference in indigenous language embedding, researched by Albury (8 June 2015), where 83% of Māori and 70% of Pākehā youth surveyed felt that Te Reo was a Taonga – treasure needing protection (8 June 2015; Albury, 2015).

Pasifika peoples form 7% of New Zealand’s population (Statistics NZ, 2013). Like the Māori, Pasifika culture is traditional and hierarchical, strongly emphasising family connections. Chong and Thomas (1997, citing Trompenaars, 1993) suggest that Pasifika societies follow an ascription model, where birthright determines societal position and success, but also where self-effacement is prized, and the collective good takes precedence over individualism (Chong & Thomas, 1997). It is also possible that some elements of Maori culture are ascriptive (Pocock, 2000).

However, where many Māori language loanwords have transitioned into mainstream English, Pasifika ideas and terms appear slower to become embedded in New Zealand culture. I have personally found Pasifika terms to be used regularly in areas with higher Polynesian populations – ie, Auckland or Wellington – but rarely heard elsewhere. It seems likely that New Zealanders will become more culturally competent with Pasifika language and mores, just as we have walked the path from cultural dominance to a closer partnership with Māori.

Our collective growing cultural competence as a nation will help us to embed what is truly unique about Aotearoa. A distinctive and cohesive culture provides experiential richness, increases creativity, fosters innovation and allows different viewpoints to flourish. Together these will help New Zealand’s path to a truly multi-cultural society. 

Better yet, we are growing mature enough to realise that cultural cohesion is a Taonga worth pursuing.


  • Albury, N. J. (8 June 2015). Embracing Indigenous languages: the Kiwis just do it better. Retrieved 3 April 2017 from .
  • Albury, N. J. (2015). Your language or ours? Inclusion and exclusion of non-indigenous majorities in Māori and Sámi language revitalization policy. Current Issues in Language Planning, 16(3), 315-334.
  • Bell, A. (1997). The Phonetics of Fish and Chips in New Zealand: Marking National and Ethnic Identities. English World-Wide, 18(2), 243-270.
  • Bidois, E. (2006). The Importance of Whakapapa - An Explanation by Egan Bidois. Retrieved 4 April 2017 from .
  • Boshier, R. (2015). Chapter 11 Learning from the Moa: The Challenge of Māori Language Revitalization in Aotearoa/New Zealand. In W. James Jacob, Sheng Yao Cheng & Maureen K. Porter's Indigenous Education: Language, Culture and Identity. The Netherlands: Springer (pp. 207-226)
  • Brown, R. (2005). Great New Zealand Argument: ideas about ourselves. NZ: Activity Press.
  • Chong, L. M. A., & Thomas, D. C. (1997). Leadership perceptions in cross-cultural context: Pakeha and Pacific Islanders in New Zealand. The Leadership Quarterly, 8(3), 275-293.
  • King, M. (2003). The Penguin History of New Zealand. NZ: Penguin Books.
  • O'Flaherty, S. (10 March 2015). Do you speak Kiwinglish? New Zealand's distinct linguistic identity. Retrieved 3 April 2017 from
  • Pocock, J. G. A. (2000). Chapter 2 - Waitangi as mystery of state: Consequences of the ascription of federative capacity to the Maori in D. Ivison, P. Patton & W. Sanders’s (Eds) Political Theory and the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, UK: Cambridge University Press (pp. 25-35).
  • Smale, T. (2008). The Influence of National Culture on New Zealand’s Innovation Outcomes. NZ: Henley Management College Master's Thesis. Retrieved 13 December 2010 from .
  • Spoonley, P. (1994). Racism and ethnicity. In P. Spoonley, D. Pearson, & I. Shirley (Eds.), New Zealand Society. NZ: Dunmore Press (pp. 81-97).
  • Statistics NZ (2013). New Zealand Census 2013. Retrieved 14 June 2015 from
  • Wakatū (n.d.). Establishment of Wakatū Inc. 1977. Retrieved 4 April 2016 from .

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