Seven defining characteristics of being a “kiwi” AKA New Zealander

A few months ago, the magazine The Listener, New Zealand dedicated its main article on the main characteristics that defines New Zealanders as a Nation. I have been in this country for almost nine years and I could totally relate to what I was reading, I could understand it and even feel part of it.

Am I a mexi-kiwi now? maybe… but first have a look at the seven characteristics of what a kiwi is like:

American anthropologists Patricia Sunderland and Rita Denny, of Practica, a firm that specialises in sociological and psychographic research, have done an in-depth project for New Zealand advertising firm DraftFCB to map the distinctive qualities of the New Zealander. Practica – whose extensive client list includes Johnson & Johnson, Kmart, Coca-Cola, Nissan, McDonald’s, Pernod Ricard and several global advertising agencies – has conducted similar research in a host of other countries, including Australia, and was able to assess New Zealand comparatively.

1. Bonded to their Land The first and most important aspect of New Zealandness,  is their relationship with the land. New Zealanders’ sense of self-definition is heavily bound up with love of the natural world. Their view is apparently more spiritual, even soulful.

This goes some way to explaining the resistance to mining this side of the Tasman.

This bond seems to be a home-grown rather than inherited thing. Maori seem to always have had it, and Pakeha (white people/ not maori) have developed it. Early houses were often built heedless of sun and views, as the European ethos was that indoors was indoors, and outdoors was hostile, something to be firmly shut out. Now,  “indoor-outdoor flow” is epidemic in real estate, practically regardless of aspect.

2. Their need for Independence. The second most defining characteristic was the high value they put on their freedom. However, there’s a wrinkle with this one: They still want the reassurance of bigger countries. “They’re like the teenager of the world. They want to do their own thing, and are doing it – but they still really want that pat on the back from overseas.” Their ambivalence over the monarchy is another sign of adolescence. Symbolically, they want to ditch Mummy and Daddy, but it’s a superficial gesture. They really need the world to notice them.

New Zealand’s compactness also gives a sense of being freer than people in other countries to do what they want when they want….This is a country where you really can ski, see a play, go yachting, buy a designer frock, drink a latte and go for a bushwalk, conceivably all in the same day. Nothing is that far away.

3. Masculinity of expression  A surprising third characteristic. The anthropologists do not mean this in any anti-feminist sense, but rather they found the kiwi language and broad attitudes veered toward the stoical, and blokey, perhaps best optimised by former All Blacks (national Rugby team) captain Tana Umaga, who famously told a whistle-happy Australian referee during a rugby game that “‘we’re not playing tiddlywinks here”.

Masculinity of expression is not unusual worldwide, apparently. Here its outward manifestation is in the ubiquity of expressions like “don’t be a girl”, “suck it up” and “harden up” – used by both sexes. Their DIY  (Do It Yourself) culture – baffling to many from other countries – is an obvious expression of this. New Zealanders expect to be able to do manual tasks to a level of proficiency – women as well as men – and admire such capability in others.

4. Sport is their Therapist. Perhaps the least surprising finding was the fourth one: that sport is a heavily pervasive societal commodity in New Zealand. Sport cuts through where nothing else can. Advertising’s classic use of this was in getting former All Black John (famous kiwi rugby player) Kirwan to front awareness campaigns about depression.

Sport also feeds their need to be noticed by bigger countries. And it fuels their “tall poppies” tendency, in that the notion of team effort and loyalty is highly important to them.  And again, this notion of masculinity – putting in the time and hard physical work without complaining – is gratified by a sporting achievement by either sex.

5. Friendship is their God. Inevitably, mateship is a key quotient of New Zealandness. The anthropologists found they “worship” their mates. In this, the fifth characteristic, they were least distinguished from other countries’ tendencies. Valuing friendship is pretty universal.

6. Easy going or afraid of conflict? In the sixth characteristic, Kiwis did rate as more easy-going than other nationalities. This was partly in the deathless “she’ll be right” sense of the term, but also in their reluctance to get into conflict.

An obvious comparison is with Italians, who habitually argue hammer and tongs with one another using furious gestures, strong words and glowering expressions. That is their norm. They’d hate it. They want to keep things cool.

“I’ve heard ridiculous things said in boardrooms, like ‘well, let’s agree to disagree’, and ‘let’s take this offline’. They really want to get on, even if they’re really in disagreement.

Linked in with this is the tacit Kiwi insistence on modesty, even if we know it’s false. A triumphant sporting personality or newly ennobled knight cannot truly be feeling “humble”, but we expect them to be more “aw shucks” than “I rock!”

With their modesty comes a surprising degree of conformity and resistance to change… Although they want more global influence, it makes them uneasy. The “easy-going” Kiwi is more anxious about change than he or she would probably like to think. Perhaps that’s part of their predominately British heritage. They have an instinct to be repressive. Again, common expressions paint the picture: settle down, grow up, don’t spit the dummy, don’t throw your toys out of the cot, get a grip.

7. Sense of Humor. Finally – blessedly – the research names humour as their seventh most defining characteristic. It’s an understated, laconic humour, often used to defuse conflict. They generally prefer it not to be too direct or pointed. They like self-mockery, but gentler.

But it also helps elucidate other superficially curious national phenomena. For instance, who are the genuine Kiwi celebrities and heroes, the ones who actually help sell magazines when they’re on the cover, and who get audiences to turn out and occasion widespread admiration? The Topp Twins, Flight of the Conchords, Sir Peter Jackson, Robyn Malcolm, Nigel Latta, Sir Peter Leitch, Sir Richard Taylor – all would tick a healthy number of the anthropologists’ boxes.

They have all honoured strong ties to New Zealand, even though most of them could make more money overseas. They’ve bonded with the land. They’re easy-going, as in having an informal, conversational style. They’re blokey, or at least have a direct can-do style. They rate them as world-class, and in several cases the world does too.

As a nation, Kiwis are used to being told from on high that they are over-indebted, big-spending, house-mad, underpaid, insufficiently productive, over-eating, sports-obsessed, underinvesting, alcohol-abusing, nuclear-free, child-beating carbon-emitters.

In their kinder moments, they prefer to evoke older notions of New Zealandness: Kiwi ingenuity, anti-materialism, tolerance and, above all, egalitarianism.

I´m off

Here is the video of the Tv ad that came as a result of the research conducted by Practica. The Mitre 10 (a construction warehouse) “sandpit” ad featuring two young boys discussing DIY (Do It Yourself) in the manner of their dads – and failing to elicit support from an Australian playmate.

7 thoughts on “Seven defining characteristics of being a “kiwi” AKA New Zealander

  1. If identifying to be a Kiwi is to love the land, then why do they allow Atrazine to be used? Why do they allow DDT to be used? Why do they spray tramping areas and put up no warnings before doing so for tourists? Why do they allow Sealord’s fishery to do deep sea trolling, yet say they are anti-whaling when Sealord’s (Maori owned & operated) destroys the ocean floor and as a result the whales wash-up dead on the shores? Why are dairy farms that pollute the environment going up everywhere? There is one thing truly missing here- intelligence among NZ capitalists, which is no different to most Western countries.

    • I absolutely agree with you! Being a kiwi its not just to live by the concept of being one…We need to raise above our own learned stereotype of pure New Zealand and stand up when we are not supporting resourceful planning and we let our shores and assets being sold to greedy corporations… I have lived in this country for 12 years and I have seen dramatic changes…. most of them steering New Zealand away from itself. I reckon its time for a rise up of people and a change of government.

  2. I had the fortune to visit a few port cities of New Zealand about an year ago . I am a 24 years old Pakistani seafarer and I am amazed by how close my own observations about NZ people come to what has been very beautifully expressed by the writer . Although I am from third world(another world) country and we have momentous issues to address and we are doing that , I must admit that after visiting NZ , I couldn’t help but feel respect for the older generations of this land who laid the foundations and took decisions the benefits of which their younger generations are now reaping . Now that may sound like boring , old men talk but then again youth in the developing nations are facing what your ancestors did .New Zealanders have got a great system going. By system I mean the relative balance they have attained between self interests and their societal interests . Nonetheless I did encounter a few awkward(but mild) responses from NZers when I asked them ,”Do you still owe your allegiance to the Queen” or “Are you theoretically still ruled by Britain” and so I judged that they are an independent country for sure . (Please excuse my lack of understanding and wit , I am after all from a developing country )

  3. Largely on the money. The interpretation of some characteristics may be open to question, particularly the easy going nature of most New Zealanders. Its a willingness to accommodate other views and not a fear of confrontation. The one missing is their candour, very close to bluntness. Coming to the the UK and being used to being able to tell someone “that’s wrong”, then argue the toss, I got a reputation for being rude. Every time I go back its that honesty that is most obvious.

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