New Zealand culture

What’s the first thing that pops into your mind when you think of New Zealand? The Lord of the Rings? Stunningly beautiful landscapes?

Yes, those things are unique about New Zealand and are part of the country’s culture. But there is so much more “behind the scenes” about the Pacific island that I was surprised by when I first visited.

I’ve written this ultimate travel guide to give you an idea of what New Zealand is like and what defines its culture. Maybe you are planning a trip there or even intend to move to Aotearoa (Maori for “New Zealand”).

Jump to the chapter that most interests you – or take your time and read the whole article:

A Brief History of New Zealand

13th/14th century: Maori Settlement

New Zealand is a young country. It was only settled 700 years ago, by Polynesian explorers. Several tribes took the journey across the Pacific ocean in their wooden wakas (boats). The ancient Maori tribes settled in all parts of New Zealand and utilised the vast resources of land and sea. They hunted the gigantic Moa bird (over 3 meters in height) and started to cultivate crops like kumara (sweet potatoes) and yams.

17th – 19th century: European Settlement

Mid-17th century the first European settlers arrived – the Dutch first, then the English in 1769 and the French in the mid-19th century.

1840: Treaty of Waitangi

The Treaty of Waitangi is a document that signed New Zealand land over to the British crown. The treaty was signed by various Maori leaders – but not by all of them. Some chiefs refused to agree to the treaty, which is why some people in New Zealand today claim the document is illegitimate.

1845 – 1872: New Zealand Wars

The dispute over the Treaty of Waitangi led to the New Zealand Wars between the British Empire and Maori tribes. Both parties fought each other in guerrilla attacks and various battles.

1893: Voting Rights for Women

New Zealand was the first country that granted voting rights to women – 25 years before the UK.

New Zealand People

New Zealand is home to 4.7 million people – “Kiwis” as they call themselves. For comparison – the Italian capital Rome has alone has a population of 4.3 million. So New Zealand is quite a small country.

You feel that everywhere you go. People know each other, greet each other on the streets. Everyone knows someone that knows at least one farmer and one professional rugby player. When you live there, you feel like part of a big family.

When the horrific Christchurch terror attacks happened in March 2019, the sense of community amongst Kiwis was revealed like never before. The amount of compassion and sadness perceptible for weeks and weeks was astonishing.

Christchurch Terror Attacks flowers
A wall of flowers in Christchurch after the terror attack in March 2019, Credit to Radio NZ

Kiwis are laid-back (but never lazy!), humble and love to have a good time. The outdoors play quite a big part in every New Zealander’s life. Sometimes the “frontier mentality” of the first settlers still comes forth – people love to go hunting, fishing and generally being out in nature.

74% of New Zealanders are of European descent, 15% are Maori, 12% Asian and 7% come from Pacific islands.

North Island vs South Island

New Zealand consists of 2 big islands (and a 3rd smaller one – Steward island) – the North and the South Island. The islands are quite different in terms of geography and climate. While the South Island can get quite cold in winter, the temperatures in the north are milder.

The South Island is shaped by the Southern Alps, lakes and wild coastlines. You get more volcanic scenery, golden beaches and lush green hills on the North Island.

New Zealand’s southern island is very lightly populated. The population density is 7.5 people per square kilometre. For comparison, the North Island’s is 33 people per square kilometre.

New Zealand South Island landscape
Landscape on the South Island

There are incredibly remote places on the South Island. Sometimes people (especially on farms) live 2-3 hours away from the next supermarket. This has a lot of influence on peoples’ mentality. Kiwis, especially in the south, love their freedom and oppose any interference – by government or other authorities.

New Zealand North Island lighthouse
Landscape on the North Island

The North Island is home to New Zealand’s cultural and governmental capital Wellington and business centre Auckland. There are cultural hotspots like Rotorua (famous for its vibrant Maori culture and volcanic activity) and Napier with its art deco buildings.

Fun fact: The population of greater Auckland (1.6 million)alone exceeds the population of the entire South Island (1.1 million).

Maori Culture

Maoris are the native folk of New Zealand. As mentioned above they descend from other Polynesian peoples.

Maori tales: Nature plays a significant role in traditional Maori tales. The sky father Ranginui, the earth mother Papatuanuku and the sea god Tangaroa formerly provided food and clothes for the early settlers.

Iwi, hapu and whanau: Maori have a sense of belonging to their iwi (tribe), hapu (clan, “subcategory” of iwi) or whanau (extended family). Again, the sense of community is essential here.

Ta moko: Tattoos on the face, thighs or behind symbolise a person’s social status and tribe. Some men have spiral patterns all over their faces, while women have their lips and chin tattooed.

Haka: A Maori tradition famous all over the world is the haka, a war dance. Initially, a group of warriors used to do a haka before battle – to frighten the opposer. Today, it is performed as a welcoming ceremony or sign of respect. The All Blacks, the national rugby team, has its own haka performance – Kapa O Pango (literally “team in black”).

Kapa Haka: Kapa haka is the tradition of group singing and dancing. There are kapa haka groups all over New Zealand. The best of the best come together for the biggest kapa haka festival Te Matatini every two years.

New Zealand Cities vs Country

As of a statistic from 2006, about 80% of New Zealanders live in urban areas. People living in rural areas make up around 15% of the New Zealand population.

Like other countries, New Zealand becomes increasingly urban. But rural areas still have importance to New Zealand’s economy. Agriculture makes up for 44.6% of the country’s exports.

New Zealand farm life
Sheep farm in New Zealand

People in rural areas lead a lifestyle that especially people from Europe couldn’t imagine exists. As mentioned before, many farms are in very remote areas. People are more self-contained – with meat from the farm and veggies from the garden.

New Zealand farming is a science that outsiders struggle to understand. Shepherds count hundreds of sheep in minutes and train dogs to round up a mob with a mere whistle.

Europeans or Americans would probably say that New Zealand cities are not really cities at all. Only Auckland has over 1 million inhabitants. Wellington, Tauranga or Christchurch are cosy and familiar. But don’t think there is nothing to see in New Zealand cities! Especially Auckland and Wellington have a vibrant night life scene and wonderful museums. Christchurch is famous for its colourful and expressive street art.

Despite their relatively small population, urban areas take up quite a lot of land. Cause for that is the spread out building style of the residential regions. Kiwis tend to build simple one-level bungalows, instead of apartment buildings.

New Zealand Business Culture & Work Life

Getting a job

If you plan to work in New Zealand there are a few things you should be aware of. Certificates or a degree are not as relevant in New Zealand as they are in other countries. What matters more is your previous working experience and a can-do attitude.

When you apply for jobs, be sure to include contact details of your references. It is quite common for your interviewer to contact your previous employers.

In interviews, self-confidence is necessary. But keep in mind that New Zealanders value being humble. People who come across as boastful will have problems fitting into the Kiwi working world.

New Zealand Business Culture
Working in New Zealand can be different from what you are used to

Working life

Being humble and hard-working are characteristics valued in the New Zealand working world. I, as a European, ran into some awkward situations when I first started working here.

In Germany, it is quite common to display your abilities and achievements to stand your ground in the business world – especially as a woman. In New Zealand that can quickly come across as boasting, which is met with critical eyes.

New Zealand is a country with flat hierarchical structures. That’s visible in politics, business and everyday life. The prime minister Jacinda Ardern goes on the Late Show – where do you get that?

But be aware, even though your boss might not behave like you are used to, that doesn’t mean hard work and results are not expected.

In terms of daily routine, it is quite common in New Zealand to have morning (around 10 am) or afternoon tea (around 3 pm) with the team. Kiwis often call these ten-minute breaks “smoko” – especially construction and farm workers.

New Zealand Traditions and Customs

Coming from Germany, a country where tradition means so much, it was odd for me that New Zealand doesn’t really have traditions. Of course, there are the Maori traditions like kapa haka, the welcoming ceremony into a marae and other things mentioned before.

Because New Zealand is such a young country, traditions haven’t really formed (yet). But I’ll try to explain how some holidays in New Zealand are celebrated.

Christmas is basically celebrated like in Britain (despite it being summer). The tree is put up at the beginning of December, and you get presents on the morning of the 25th. What’s different is that many Kiwis celebrate Christmas on the beach, with a picnic and a barbecue. On boxing day, most people go away on holiday since that marks the beginning of their 6-week summer vacation.

New Zealand Tradition Christmas
Christmas at the Beach

Another holiday that is important for Kiwis is ANZAC Day. Every major city holds a dawn service – with a parade of the armed forces, a haka and a remembrance speech.

If you are invited to a Kiwi’s house on a holiday or weekend, keep in mind that you are expected to bring your own drinks. Whatever you bring will usually be put into a big “chillybin” (cool box) full of ice. At a Kiwi barbecue or party, food is usually provided by the host (if not, they will tell you to bring your own “plate”).

New Zealand Food

Similar to New Zealand traditions, it’s hard to pin down THE Kiwi dish. Traditional New Zealand food mostly consists of everything that the land and the sea give.

A ubiquitous dish is the classic lamb roast with gravy and three types of veggies (all different colours). There could be peas, kumara and potatoes or yams, beans and pumpkin. In general, lamb is a traditional meal – since it is farmed in New Zealand.

Also, Kiwis love their seafood – seafood chowder, kina (sea urchin), oysters, paua (sea snail) or classic fish and chips (made out of shark). Trout or salmon caught in one of the freshwater lakes is also quite popular.

A very traditional Maori dish is hāngi. It’s mostly cooked for big get-togethers or family festivities. Meat and vegetables are cooked for hours in an earth pit. The food baskets are placed on hot stones and covered with soil.

Typical snacks you get in bakeries are savoury pies – mince, steak, but also mussel or salmon – or cheese rolls (cheese rolled in a piece of toast and fried).

And then there is the perpetual dessert war between Australia and New Zealand. Both nations claim they invented the cream and fruit tart pavlova.

New Zealand food pavlova
Pavlova – a Kiwi dessert made out of whipped cream and fruit

New Zealand Movies

New Zealand has produced some outstanding movies. I’ve put together a selection here. Make sure to watch some before or while you are in New Zealand! They will help you understand how Kiwis tick.

  • Boy – Coming-of-age in remote New Zealand in the 80s. This haka to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” is the highlight of the movie:

  • Hunt for the Wilderpeople – Urban youth clashes with rural life
  • The Dark Horse – The struggles of urban New Zealand youth
  • Once Were Warriors – A 90s classic, Maori family in urban Auckland somewhere in between gangs and traditional life
  • Whale Rider – A young girl trying to find her place among Maori chiefs

Kiwi Language & Slang

Kiwis have a distinctive way of speaking. Some people might say that they sound a bit like Australians (don’t tell them I’ve written that).

The Kiwi accent sounds smooth and pleasant to me – it’s less “chewy” than the Australian accent. This video explains the difference quite well:

You will hear New Zealanders use words you have never come across anywhere else.

Here are some expressions that you will find useful travelling through New Zealand:
“How’s it going?” – Used as a general greeting like “Hi” or “How are you?”
“Cheers, mate.” – Thank you.
“Wee” – means “little” (the Scottish heritage comes forth here)
“Bach” – holiday home
“Yeah, nah” – if you’re not sure about something
“Good as gold” – very good
“Jandals” – flip flops (the go-to footwear for any season in New Zealand)
“She’ll be right” – “It’s going to be fine.”

Also, Kiwis are not very direct. They don’t really like to put things negatively or give direct orders. Just be aware of that – especially if you are working in New Zealand. An instruction often doesn’t sound like one!

On the other hand you will come across some Kiwis (especially men, but not exclusively) that have a bit of a “filthy mouth” – let’s put it that way 🙂 All New Zealanders I know swear a lot – in all imaginable situations.

Middle Earth, Outdoor Capital, Aotearoa

New Zealand has been named Middle Earth, outdoor capital, travellers’ paradise – it certainly is all of that. But always remember, there is more to it than unique landscapes and Lord of the Rings settings. New Zealand is Aotearoa – the land of the long white cloud.

Book with Homestay, use Couchsurfing or work on a farm as a WWOOFer. Talk to locals in a pub. Experience the place, its people, its culture – because that’s what makes New Zealand truly special.

On this blog, I regularly write about travel tips, different cultures and much more. If you liked this article, check out my other posts about New Zealand culture. Also, you can join me on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest.

7 responses to “New Zealand culture”

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  6. Wow, realllllly cool post Leah!! It was different that many posts I have seen. Haha the Thriller Haka video still has me cracking up!! Btw, we JUST watched “Hunt for the Wilderpeople, it was funny and surprisingly good!! Rally enjoyed all your facts and such! Which island did you prefer, south or north? We visited both for a month, we can’t wait to go back! Hope when you have time you can stop by and visit our posts and we can catch up on everything you have done and we can talk.=)


    1. Thanks so much for reading and your lovely feedback! I love the South Island but the North Island has its highlights too – especially the warmer weather haha 🙂


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