Culture in New Zealand

The cultural makeup of New Zealand is influenced by the layering of different ethnic groups throughout history, creating the vibrant society we see today. There are three primary movements that make up the most recognizable elements of this culture – the arrival of the indigenous Maori people, European arrival and the influx of migrants during the 20th Century.

Maori Culture

Ethnologists believe that the story of the Maori people is many thousands of years old, originating in the Polynesian islands and eventually arriving in New Zealand between the 9th and 13th Centuries. The Maori language is known as Maoritanga and shares its roots with the native languages of Tahiti and Hawaii.

The Maoritanga name for New Zealand is ‘Aotearoa’, meaning ‘Land of the Long White Cloud’ and is suggestive of the important role the climate and natural elements to the lives of these people. The Maori culture was and still is a culture influenced greatly by the power of nature and mythology, which contributed to the development of Maori art, craft, native dress, music and dancing. The stories and legends of the society were traditionally passed through the generations orally through words and waiata (song).

The tribal structure of traditional Maori society has a strict protocol, which can still be observed today at a marae (Maori meeting ground) through organised tour groups. This includes traditional greetings, peace offerings, chanting and token-giving as a sign of peace. The arrival of visitors is usually followed by the distinctive ‘hongi’, a ceremonial greeting much like a kiss which involves the pressing together of noses. Food is then shared, sometimes prepared in a traditional ‘hangi’, a hot underground oven.

One of the most visually distinctive aspects of the traditional Maori people is the ‘moko’ or facial tattoos. These striking patterns may decorate the entire face of a Maori male, however are restricted to the upper lip, nose and chin of a Maori female. The performance of the vigorous ‘haka’ war dance by a tribe of moko-decorated men would have been a terrifying spectacle for an oncoming enemy tribe. Today, the haka is immortalized by the performance by the New Zealand Rugby League team the All Blacks before each game.

Although Maori culture found its roots in the Polynesian islands, the Maori natives have their own particular style developed over many centuries. Maori people still consider family and community to be paramount and aspects of this can be found in their art, music, dance and dress. Flax is used to weave baskets, clothing and even floor coverings which feature patterned designs. Maori men and women have tattooed their faces and bodies with intricate patterns throughout history. The striking artwork is still visible today although perhaps no longer as popular. The ancient wooden totem poles ‘tikis’ are a welcome discovery and each has a story attached.

With the influence of British and European explorers, the Western face of New Zealand’s culture provides all the contemporary relevance of the world’s top art institutions. Wellington, Christchurch and Auckland are significant cities, each with an airport and diverse dining and entertainment venues as well as museums and art galleries. New Zealand is especially renowned for its love of music and both the Maoris and the Kiwis enjoy success in the world music market.

European Arrival

Historians believe that the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman was the first European to encounter New Zealand and its indigenous inhabitants in 1642. A violent conflict with the Maori people led to the death of several of his crewmembers.

Captain James Cook established good relations with some of the Maori population in 1769, marking the beginning of the regular influx of European ships. During this time many Maori people suffered from war and illness introduced from abroad, resulting in a dramatic drop in their population. The Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840, a unique move giving the Maori automatic British citizenship and land rights, although the fairness of some conditions in the treaty for the Maori people is still disputed today.

Most early European settlers in New Zealand had their roots in the working classes of Ireland, Scotland and England. These groups were resilient and resourceful, facing often overwhelming natural elements in the establishment of houses and agriculture. Pockets of these cultural groups are still noticeable throughout the country, particularly the Scottish in the south, however the lines are often blurred by influence from other populations.

The 20th Century and Today

New Zealand became home for many immigrants from around the world during the 20th Century, particularly from other Polynesian islands, Europe and Asia. The First and Second World War had a massive impact on the population of New Zealand, devastating large proportions of the male population and resulting in the national sense of ‘mateship’ and loyalty.

While New Zealand experienced immigration from many Polynesian and Asian countries after the Second World War and through to the 1970’s, 1980’s and 1990’s, it had less of a Mediterranean influx than Australia. The Polynesian population in New Zealand is now a distinct subculture, separate from the indigenous Maori culture and most noticeable in parts of Southern Auckland.

Today, New Zealand is a modern western society that has embraced the influence of other nationalities in determining its own unique identity. It holds true to history whilst cultivating the cutting edge of technology, art, literature, cinema, fashion and music. Kiwis also honour their outdoorsy, agricultural reputation by protecting their stunning natural resources with the world’s greenest industry practices. These qualities combined with a friendly, laid-back attitude helps explain the attraction to foreign-born immigrants, of which New Zealand has the highest proportionate population in the world.

Live Entertainment

New Zealand has a strong performing arts and music culture, with many successful Kiwi artists launching their international careers here. Touring and local performances run throughout the year across the country and include ballet, opera, live symphony, concerts, comedy acts and all forms of theatre.

Wellington is a good place to start for seekers of live entertainment. Known as the cultural capital of New Zealand, it is home to various companies that represent the country on the international stage, for example the NBR New Zealand Opera, Te Whaea National Dance and Drama centre, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Capital E National Theatre for children and the Royal New Zealand Ballet. The New Zealand International Arts Festival is held in Wellington on a biennial basis, concurrently to the New Zealand Fringe Festival, and hosts performances from many local and international artists.

Although Wellington has a solid arts reputation it is still worth exploring the other major New Zealand cities, each of which with their own distinct live arts culture. Some companies that produce high quality live performances include the Auckland Theatre Company, the Auckland Philharmonic Orchestra and Christchurch Symphony Orchestra.

Lovers of music will be able to find a live gig in virtually every New Zealand city, a great way to soak up the atmosphere and enjoy a relaxing drink with the locals. Urban pubs, bars and restaurants come alive with music most nights and often feature local or touring acts for either a cheap cover charge or often for free. Check online gig guides and local newspapers to find out what acts are coming up.

Traditional or contemporary Maori performance

A traditional or contemporary Maori performance is unique cultural encounter when visiting New Zealand. Many resorts, galleries and museums feature live indigenous performance, such as the Auckland War Memorial Museum and the Te Papa Museum in Wellington. Rotorua is a major cultural region on the North Island, and traditional villages such as Whakarewarewa, Tamaki Maori Village and the Mitai Maori Village featuring indigenous dance displays with traditional music, costume and dress. Visitors might also be lucky to enjoy a hangi feast, a traditional way of cooking and enjoying food using a heated pit.

Sports Culture

New Zealand is sport-mad, and a visit is not complete without a day of being a spectator at a live sporting event. Rugby is one of the most popular games, with a season running between March and November. New Zealand’s internationally famous All Blacks team is one of the best in the world, and enthusiasts are recommended to book ahead early if they hope to catch this popular team playing on home soil. If these coveted tickets are too difficult to come by, there are various other levels of the game can be enjoyed at stadiums around the country. For a similar spectator experience, the Football Kingz and New Zealand Warriors represent New Zealand professionally in soccer and rugby league and are also worth checking out.

New Zealand Women’s Netball Team the Silver Ferns also do well on an international level and this fast-paced, high energy game is an exciting viewing experience. Cricket and tennis are popular spectator sports that take place in the warm summer months, with an afternoon in the grandstand a quintessential New Zealand experience.

New Zealand Culture Shock

When a person moves to a new country it is normal for them to experience a level of anxiety that is known as ‘Culture Shock’. This common experience is nearly universal for those people who choose to cross borders and enter into new cultural situations. Culture Shock will usually be felt within the first few weeks of arrival. But it has been known to hit almost instantaneously after someone leaves the airport or terminal. Although Culture Shock is not a particularly heinous condition it can impede a person’s chances of crossing over into the new culture. But for most people Culture Shock is a temporary condition and usually resolved in the first six months of arrival.

So... how do I know I am feeling Culture Shock?

  • I will feel irritation and fretfulness.
  • I will experience a temporary lack of direction.
  • I will feel ill at ease and ineffectual when trying new things.
  • I will be unsure about what is right or wrong. I may think I am offending people when I am not.


‘Culture Shock’ like many phenomena we experience in life can be disagreeable, but we can learn from it and move forward if we have the right attitude and appropriate assistance. It can provide us with the chance to learn and attain a new outlook on life and live new challenges.

So, here are the symptoms of ‘Culture Shock’?

  • Feeling mislaid, ignored, oppressed and/or ill-treated
  • Worried with health
  • Colds, and a feeling of being unwell
  • Insomnia: not being able to sleep properly
  • Feeling helpless and exposed
  • An inability to temporarily solve easy problems
  • No confidence
  • A general sense of melancholia
  • Feelings of insufficiency and/or lack of security
  • Indulging in bigotry and believing stereotypes about the new culture
  • Becoming obsessive about hygiene
  • Longing for family and being home sick
  • Annoyance, touchiness, antipathy, reluctance to interact with othersA rose coloured view of the old culture, a loss of identity, and trying too hard to take in everything in the new culture too soon.


The Stages of Culture Shock

Now, Culture Shock has three specific stages but the stages are erratic and do not necessarily follow any specific pattern.

‘The Honeymoon Stage – This is when everything is amazing about the new culture, and the contrasts between two are romanticised. You are swept up in the newness of everything.

This is followed by the:

"Everything is Dreadful" stage – This is when the honeymoon is over and you have to deal with the realities of life like you did in the old country. And it is during this stage that you begin to contrast the  new culture with the old culture and find the new is not all it was cracked up to be.

Irritation, annoyance, melancholia and dissatisfaction come to the surface during this time. Difficulties with language, the pace of life and people in general may be in the forefront of your mind.

And, then there is:
The "Everything is Cool" stage – This is when you begin to accept the changes as you become acclimatised to the new social environment.  After a while you will grow habituated to the new culture's differences and develop new routines as you gain a deeper awareness of your new surroundings. You may have a feeling of contentment and balance. And, it is at this juncture that you become interested in dealing with daily life. Because you are no longer in a new culture, but a culture you are beginning to be a part of.

That’s all great you may say, but how do you cope with ‘Culture Shock’?

Here are a few pointers:  

  • Study up on the new culture before you depart.
  • Get to know the language and local mores.
  • Have an attitude of acceptance and be open minded to new things. Be realistic about people in the new culture. And don’t be too hard on yourself while you are at it.
  • Have plenty of ‘me’ time, and plenty of relaxation, sleep and   exercise.
  • Keep your confidence and follow your goals, including holidays and trips back home.
  • Join cultural groups that allow you to apply your new language.
  • Read about what ‘Culture Shock’ is and how it affects you.
  • Let yourself be sad, but don’t make a habit of it, and focus your energy on getting through this stage of life.
  • And, keep up to date with significant others.
  • And, last but not least...Be patient with yourself and others!

So, where can I get more help?

All universities, polytechnics, vocational and language schools and colleges in New Zealand would have access to these and associated services and professionals for students struggling with ‘Culture Shock’.

Some of those resources are:

  • Information given out at Orientation.
  • Seminars
  • And, the International Office Staff, whose job it is to take your issues seriously.
  • Your consulate
  • Health and Counselling services where you can ask for help are:
  • Student organisations, life coaches, counsellors, ministers, spiritual leaders and other people in mentoring roles.

So, there we have it, a basic guide to beginning to get assistance with the symptoms, affects and resolution of ‘Culture Shock’. Once again, contact the staff at the ‘International Student Office’ for the best assistance, because it is their job to deal with these and other issues that an international student may have.

Religions in New Zealand

Religion New Zealand: read through details about religion, religious tolerance, and more in the country. New Zealand supports multicultural faith.

New Zealand is a truly multicultural society and one which allows freedom of expression. New Zealand's diverse and rich cultural tapestry ensure that practically all the major religions of the world are represented in New Zealand. International students who are considering staying with a local family can be rest assured that their religious beliefs will be respected.

Many university campuses have religious clubs and bodies that encourage inter-faith dialogue and understanding. This is a good way to network with fellow international students from different religious backgrounds who are studying far away from home.

Ironically, New Zealand is a largely secular nation with many religious (especially Christian) influences in everyday life. According to the 2006 census, only 10% of the nation is actively Christian, but they celebrate all holidays on the Christian calendar, offer prayer and religious education in schools (including public schools) and hire chaplains at all universities. Even their national anthem, God Defend New Zealand, has a strong Christian theme.

Despite the largely agnostic population, most Kiwi’s have a ‘live and let live’ attitude to religion. Laws are in place to ensure that no one is discriminated or persecuted due to their religious background. Nearly all New Zealand cities have churches, while mosques, synagogues and other places of worship can be found in larger towns.

New Zealanders generally go to church on Christmas Eve and over Easter. Most cities will celebrate the religious aspect of these holidays. If you are feeling disconnected from your faith, your university chaplain can put you in touch with like-minded people and help you find avenues to celebrate your faith, regardless of what it is.

Interestingly, 20 000 pranksters listed their religion as Jedi in the 2006 census. If Jedi had been an acceptable response, it would have followed Christianity as one of the largest churches in New Zealand.