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Any new culture will have customs that you will start to learn very quickly as soon as you arrive! To give you a head start on your time in New Zealand, we’ve got a few key bits of information about Kiwi culture – and a whole lot of detail about speaking like a local!
When you’re walking the streets of New Zealand – or even when you’re still at the airport and navigating escalators – it’s good to remember that we drive on the left, not the right. Why? Because we also walk on the left of the footpath (or sidewalk) and on escalators. So going with the flow of other walkers is a good way to fit in straight away!
Some of the unspoken but important customs of our society come from traditional Māori culture – the native people of New Zealand. One that’s useful to remember in social settings is the fact that it’s generally polite to take your shoes off indoors at a private home – and it’s a real taboo to sit on tables, benches, or other surfaces used for eating or preparing food. Not all Kiwis observe these particular customs, but it’s fairly wide-spread so it’s sensible to be on the safe side and respect those ‘rules’.
You may also encounter Māori influences in formal settings. Many universities will invite new students to a pōwhiri, or welcoming ceremony, at the start of the academic year. This ceremony will include speeches and songs in Māori, and you may find yourself learning the custom of the hongi – when two people greet each other by briefly pressing noses together. This custom is related to the idea of sharing the breath of life between two people, and is a formal, respected greeting. In most formal situations outside of pōwhiri, however, the standard greeting is a good old international handshake.
We tend to be a fairly polite people in New Zealand – people will greet each other while walking the dog in their neighbourhood, and in most places it’s standard procedure to thank a bus driver when you’re getting off the bus. Please and thank you should be used in any service setting, whether you’re in a fancy shop or a supermarket, a restaurant or a fast food outlet.
We also tend to be reasonably private, even if we are friendly and easy to talk to! Topics like why people don’t live with their parents or why they aren’t married aren’t appropriate for Kiwi audiences – likewise, avoid talking about people’s salary or why they don’t have children! But with constantly changing weather and plenty of opinions about it, the weather is always a very safe topic to start with. Many Kiwis will talk for hours about their favourite sports teams too, although keep in mind that not every single New Zealand is a fervent All Blacks fan, despite what you might think from the media!
If an invitation to an event says ‘bring a plate’, make sure that the plate you bring has something delicious on it! ‘Bring a plate’ means bring a dish to share with everyone else – so someone may bring sausage rolls, another person might bring muffins, and there could be carrot sticks and hummus. Basically something easy to share and tasty will be popular with everyone – just make sure it’s not an empty plate!
And on the topic of food, if someone says they’re shouting a drink or meal, it has nothing to do with yelling and screaming – instead it’s their treat. They are paying for the food or drink so you don’t have to. Enjoy, and be sure to say thank you.
Sup? Hiya. Kia ora! Howzit? G’day.
It might be mostly English, but the way Kiwis speak can be very confusing for new arrivals to the country. The combination of being a long way from anywhere else, as well as Māori and Polynesian cultural influences have created some unique ways of saying things.
It’s confusing from the beginning – aren’t kiwis a fruit? Yes – and no! As far as we’re concerned a kiwi is a type of native bird, our most famous one, in fact – flightless, brown and fuzzy, a strangely long beak and huge feet. It’s also what we call ourselves, and what many people overseas call us too. As for what the rest of the world calls kiwis – the fuzzy brown fruit with the tangy and seedy green flesh – well, we call them kiwifruit, after the fuzzy brown birds.
Now, in some lists of New Zealand slang, you’ll find lots and lots of strange phrases and words that you’ll never actually end up hearing in a city environment when you’re surrounded by young people. Rather than fill up this article with those sorts of bits of slang, we’re focusing on the sort of language that will actually help you understand your peers and even adults around you – and hopefully help you feel like you can use some of the phrases in conversation too!
Arvo – Afternoon. I’ll come visit you on Saturday arvo.
Bach/Crib – Holiday home. Bach is widely used on the North Island, crib on the South Island. We went down to my grandparents’ bach in Taupō.
Bugger – A fairly widely used (but not too rude) swear word or exclamation. Kiwis often are, for better or for worse, quite fond of swearing, so don’t take it personally! Bugger, I’m late for class!
Cheers/chur – Thank you. I got you a coffee. Oh, chur!
Chocka – Full up/busy. I tried to get into the concert but the venue was chocka.
Dairy – Convenience store/corner store. Can you pick up some juice from the dairy on your way home?
Egg – An idiot, a silly person. I lost my textbook! Oh, Matt, you egg!
Flat – A shared rental house or apartment. I moved into a new flat and my bedroom is huge!
Grotty – Gross, unpleasant, dirty – can also be used to talk about feeling unwell. Ugh, my t-shirt is all grotty after my trip to the gym.
Gutted – Disappointed. Oh man, I’m gutted that I missed that movie!
Hard (out) – A word (or phrase) used for agreement. Hey Olivia, you liked that café, eh? Oh yeah, hard!
Heaps – Lots of something. We ate heaps of pizza!
Hungus – Someone who has eaten a lot because they were super hungry. Chris ate all our chocolate, what a hungus!
Jandal – Flip flops, thongs… basically, rubber sandals with a strap between the toes. We’re going to the beach so wear your jandals!
Lurgy – Generally sick – often used in the phrase ‘the dreaded lurgy’. Lisa couldn’t come, she’s got the dreaded lurgy.
Maccas – McDonalds. Let’s go to Maccas and get a Kiwiburger!
Mates – Friends. I took the ferry to Waiheke with my new mates from uni.
Mean – Great, cool. That new video game sounds mean!
Munted – Messed up, broken, ruined. My phone is totally munted since I dropped it in the toilet.
Nek minnit – Next minute, next thing you know. I entered a competition during O-week and nek minnit – I won!
Scarfie – Students from Otago University in Dunedin – one of the only real ‘student towns’ in New Zealand. Yeah, she’s a scarfie – down there studying med.
Skux – Someone popular and cool – especially with the opposite gender! That Dave, what a skux guy!
Squiz – A quick look – a peek. Hey, could I take a squiz at your notes in case I missed anything when I went to the bathroom?
Stink – Irritating, dumb, annoying. They didn’t invite us to their party! Oh stink!
Sus – Someone who’s up to something, or a disconcerting situation. That guy you met last night seemed a bit sus, I’m glad you left with us.
Suss – To sort something out. Okay, time to suss out this group project
Sweet (as) – Great, excellent, expression of agreement. Do you want to go to the beach? Yeah, sweet as.
Ta – Thanks. Can you please pass me that pen? Ta.
Togs – Swimsuit, bathing suit, swimming costume. Let’s go to the pools – did you bring your togs?
Wops – The middle of nowhere – sometimes used just to describe a part of town far from the CBD. I can’t believe she lives in Dairy Flat, that’s totally the wops!
Yarns – Stories, tall tales. Craig’s so good at spinning yarns, eh?
As well as bits of Kiwi slang that fit into the world of New Zealand English, there are some other words it’s useful to know that aren’t actually English at all, but instead are in te reo Māori, or the Māori language. Some phrases and words are commonly used in everyday speech here – so here are a few to be familiar with.
Kia ora means hello, or hi, as well as thank you and even great! As such, you’ll hear it quite frequently. It’s properly pronounced ‘kee-ah-aw-rah’, run together quickly – though you’ll hear a lot of more casual ‘kee-or-ah’ too.
Other greetings to be familiar with include tēnā koe (‘teh-naah kweh’) and tēnā koutou (‘teh-naah koh-toh’), as well as tēnā korua (‘teh-naah koh-roo-ah’). All three mean ‘greetings’, but tēnā koe is to one person, tēnā korua is specifically to two people, and tēnā koutou is greetings to three or more people.
Good morning can be mōrena (‘MOH-reh-nah’) or ata mārie (‘ah-tah MAH-ree-eh’), while haere mai means ‘welcome’, and is pronounced ‘hy-eh-reh my’. You might also hear e noho (‘eh noh-ho’) and e tū (‘eh too’) for sit down and stand up respectively.
Other words you might encounter include waiata (‘why-ah-tah’), meaning song, and kōrero (‘KOH-reh-roh’), which means speak or a conversation. Whānau (‘faah-nah-oo’), or family, is used by many Māori and Pākehā (non-Māori, pronounced ‘paah-keh-hah’) people alike. Aroha (‘ah-roh-hah’) means love, or compassion.
People might describe something that’s good or excellent as being ka pai (‘kah pie’) or even tu meke (‘too meh-keh’) if it’s especially amazing. And here’s an important one for any kind of socialising or getting to know people: kai (‘ky’) means food, or a meal!
There are many more that may turn up at some point, but these are a few that should get you through most everyday usage. There are also Māori courses available at many educational institutions, so if you have some space for a general interest course, why not learn this fascinating Polynesian language? Grammar is great for the brain!