Culture of New Zealand

From Academic Kids

The culture of New Zealand is a fusion of Maori culture and that of the descendants of the early British colonists and later settlers, many of whom were of working class origin.



While British culture predominates within the country, Maori culture is increasingly being identified with New Zealand, due to haka displays by New Zealand sporting teams, and to tens of thousands of visitors who each year experience and film or photograph Maori culture events held at places such as Rotorua.

British culture in New Zealand has been significantly influenced by Maori and other Polynesians. Scottish influences are strong, mainly 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 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 has 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 have 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 to 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. Others argue that belief in the 'absence' of culture in NZ is a symptom of white privilege, allowing members of a dominant group to see their culture as the 'default', rather than as a specific position of relative advantage.

Perhaps one of the more memorable protests was the 1980 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.

The three "R's"

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 union, 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. However, New Zealanders can often be scathing when national sports teams and athletes lose. Anecdotal evidence suggests that domestic violence may increase when a NZ team has suffered a loss.


The word

Kiwi (usually capitalised) has been applied to and adopted by New Zealanders as a nickname for themselves and as an adjective for their culture. It originates from kiwi (usually uncapitalised), the Maori word for several species of flightless birds endemic to New Zealand. The plural form for New Zealanders is always Kiwis. The plural forms for the birds are the anglicised kiwis or, following the Maori language, kiwi without an s.

Kiwi (bird) logos are often associated with New Zealand military forces and New Zealand goods.

The New Zealand dollar is often called the Kiwi dollar (or just the Kiwi) and the bird's image appears on both the 20 cent and one dollar coins.

Non-New Zealanders sometimes use the word 'Kiwi' to refer to the kiwifruit, also known as the Chinese Gooseberry. This is not generally understood by NZers, who use the full term to refer to the fruit. The confusion has led to a humorous cartoon ( in which a Kiwi (of the feathered kind) is de-legged, beheaded and sliced, to reveal the flesh of a kiwifruit inside.


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

  • All Blacks - national Rugby Union team
  • Black singlet - worn by many farmers, shearers as well as representative athletes
  • Buzzy Bee - child's toy
  • Claytons - originally a non alcoholic spirit, advertised as The drink you drink when you don't want a a drink, that did not gain market acceptance; now refers to any form of inferior substitute. This term is primarily used among those generations old enough to remember the original drink.
  • Kiwi - native bird; its stylised image or shape frequently appears on things associated with New Zealand
  • Kiwifruit - fruit from a vine originating in China but selectively bred by New Zealand horticulturalists to obtain egg-sized fruit with green or gold flesh
  • L&P - Lemon & Paeroa, a popular soft drink
  • Paua - the polished shell of the native paua (abalone) shellfish, turned into jewellery, souvenirs, just about anything. Once considered kitsch, it is starting to regain its popularity
  • Silver fern - native plant; its stylised image or shape is displayed by many of the national sports teams
  • Tiki - Maori icon, often worn as a necklace pendant
  • Footrot Flats - popular cartoon strip by Murray Ball

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. New Zealand has only recently experienced economic development outside farming, so traditionally, Kiwis are jacks-of-all-trades to some extent, willing to roll up their sleeves and have a go. Most highly industrialised countries produce experts trained in narrow fields of specialisation, but New Zealand professionals are often generalists as well. This reputation often makes New Zealanders uniquely valued employees in overseas organisations.

This has given rise to the attitudes "She'll be right, mate" as well as "Kiwi ingenuity".

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.

Kiwi ingenuity

Kiwi ingenuity ( is a "can-do" attitude that any problem or situation can be solved, despite apparently insurmountable odds, and the meagerest of resources. While this may sometimes led to spectacular failure instead of success, if inadequately prepared, it has lead to many world-first innovations. Examples of these include Richard Pearse's powered aircraft flights, some nine months earlier than the Wright brothers, and the jet boat, invented by Bill Hamilton (engineer). This attitude is a matter of pride and national identity, summed up in the saying "If anybody can a Kiwi can". Another closely related expression is the "No. 8 wire" attitude, meaning that anything can be fixed with the most make-shift and basic materials. Australians and Americans have similar expressions involving coat hangers and duct tape.


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.

A lack of diversity and intelligent analysis in local media leads to some NZers feeling alienated and under-represented. This has led to a strong sub-culture of satire, sarcasm and withdrawal from the mainstream. Although this sub-culture is not peculiar to youth, until recently NZ had the highest youth suicide rate in the OECD.


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, the actor Russell Crowe, and the Pavlova dessert, all of which are claimed by Aussies and Kiwis as 'theirs'. However, New Zealanders are generally proud to have disowned controversial figures such as Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen.

The flipside to this phenomenon is that anything new from 'Overseas' is seen as holding more cultural capital than the local equivalent, regardless of its quality. New Zealand's isolation often causes it to be skipped by the international tours of musicians and other performers. This means that the locals are often flattered that *anybody* bothered to stop by, leading to situations in which, for example, a third-rate standup comedian from Lithuania is billed as an "International Act!!!", regardless of how unkown she is at home. A similar thirst for foreign novelty applies to food, television and fashion, and is constantly in play against its opposite - pride in the 'Kiwi-made'.

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, the current government has reversed this reputation, with a programme of liberal legislation. In their current term of office, prostitution was decriminalised, the legal drinking age was lowered from 20 to 18, and civil union laws were passed in December 2004; these civil union laws were fully implemented on 26 April 2005.

Macho culture

While New Zealand men often take pride in being 'strong, silent types', this attitude may have a downside in contributing to New Zealand having one of the highest suicide rates among young males in the industrialised world.

Regionalism and parochialism

While small in comparison to Australia or the US, there are regional differences in New Zealand, either between the North Island and South Island, 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 (sometimes known as Jafas - Just Another F***ing Aucklander) 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 self-centred, brash and crass, sharing many of the characteristics of Sydneysiders in Australia (Auckland, with its harbours, has been described as a 'Clayton's [i.e. ersatz] Sydney'). The popular saying "New Zealand stops at the Bombay Hills" is thus used equally no matter which side of the hills the speaker happens to live on or be referring to.

Anti-government attitudes

Following the experiences of the 80s (1981 Springbok tour, Rogernomics) and 90s (Ruthanasia, "User-pays") there is a profound distrust of politicians in New Zealand. A national survey of 'most trusted occupations' ranked politicians the least trustworthy, and New Zealanders do tend to monitor the credibility and performance of their elected officials with great alacrity. Perhaps as a result of this, New Zealand is rated the second least corrupt nation in the world (Transparency International, 2004) ( . This also manifested itself clearly in two recent referenda, on 'Proportional Representation' and on 'Extending the Parliamentary Term'. In both cases the general public seemed to establish in their minds what the politicians wanted and then voted almost 90 per cent against it. A vigorous national media and blogosphere often presents harsh criticism of elected figures.


In contrast to the above, many people are apathetic about local government issues, with turnout as low as 10% for local body election in 2004.

"Fair go"

The attitude of "everybody deserves a fair go" originates from the colonial era and the Christian ethic of each person being of equal value. This is the motivation behind much of the social liberalism and welfare legislation mentioned above.

Iconic characters

See also List of New Zealanders


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 to further their careers, especially to Australia, but also to Europe or America. Arts funding is provided through a specific arts based government department, Creative New Zealand.

New Zealand, like many other countries, 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 film 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. The country's national museum is Te Papa ('Our Place'), in Wellington. The New Zealand Historic Places Trust and the Ministry of Culture and Heritage are national bodies that assist with such heritage preservation.


God's Own Country, or Godzone, is generally accepted, by New Zealanders as an alternative name for New Zealand. God's Own Country was the title of a poem about New Zealand written by Thomas Bracken about 1890. (He also wrote God Defend New Zealand, which became the country's second national anthem). It was a favourite saying of Richard John Seddon, Premier of New Zealand for 13 years (1893-1906).

See also

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