Today, we’re talking about something many mindful travelers might be concerned about before visiting a new country: the big DO’s and DON’ts in the local culture. So, what about New Zealand, are there any? For sure! But don’t you worry, we’ll guide you through the most important ones, explore the origin of some of these customs and manners and learn a bit about the ‘Māori way of doing things’.
Like every country, New Zealand has it’s own, unique culture, which is deeply rooted in the Māori culture and includes a lot of values and beliefs that play a role in daily kiwi life. Some are quite obvious while others are not so easy to spot for foreigners.
When visiting a new country, it’s easy to make a gaffe, but it also doesn’t take much to prevent this 😉
Bums & Tables // Tapu & Noa
One thing to keep in mind, for example, would be that (not only in New Zealand though) it is considered very impolite to put your bum on a table. You should also not put any bags or hats on any surface that you would also put food on. Kiwis, whether Māori or Pākehā (non-Māori New Zealanders), grow up learning that this is a no-go.
To understand the reason behind this unspoken rule, it’s necessary to understand the Māori concept of Tapu and Noa.
Tapu can be interpreted as “sacred” but also “not ordinary”, “special” or even forbidden. It is one of the strongest forces in Māori culture. People, places, events and objects can be Tapu and should not be interfered with. Also, everything associated with the human body is considered tapu in Māori belief.
The Tapu can be removed and turned into Noa through a ceremony. The Powhiri, a Māori welcoming ceremony, is an example for such a ceremony; it takes the Tapu off the visitors, who are strangers at first, and which makes them Noa, so “ordinary” or “known”.
Noa is the opposite of Tapu and refers to ordinary, everyday things such as food or alcohol.
Those two should be kept separated. That’s why you should avoid sitting on pillows and touching or passing food over a person’s head, since it’s considered very sacred by Māori people.
Other things to keep in mind, which are partially related to the Māori culture:
- Take your shoes off before entering a Māori meeting house, and also do this when you enter somebody’s home.
- Is someone performing a Haka in your face? Make sure your face remains expressionless.
- When you are talking to someone, try to look at them while doing so to not be rude.
- Respect a person’s personal space and keep an arm-length distance when you have a conversation.
- Don’t eat your meal before a blessing from one of your hosts has been said.
- Remember to pronounce the place names correctly! See our handy place name pronunciation guide to learn how.
Tikanga Māori: “the Māori way of doing things”
In Te Reo Māori, there is also something called Tikanga, which can be translated as ‘the Māori way of doing things’. Our guides are knowledgeable about Tikanga and when you go on a Haka Tour with us, they will tell you about the customs and protocols of the Māori. When you visit a Marae, a Māori meeting ground, you hosts will usually make sure that you know what’s happening at all times, so no worries.
In general, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”, which means that you should follow the customs of the local people when visiting a new place, is the way to go.
All of the above tips should just serve you as guidelines though. It is still important to observe, ask lots of questions and learn from what everyone around you is doing.
To end this little guide we want to give some general travel advice:
- Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints (but ask before you take someone’s picture).
- Ask many questions, travel wide-eyed, open-minded and open-hearted. Stay curious!
- Be kind, treat everyone as you want to be treated and good things will come to you
These articles were created as a contribution to further the understanding of the Māori culture for visitors coming to New Zealand. Everything on our blog was written to our best knowledge, and all of this information was collected using sources we trust. Nevertheless, neither we, nor our sources are always perfect (although we try!). So if there is anything that sparks your attention, if you have any comments, concerns or suggestions, just flick us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and we are happy to re-check and correct them if necessary!