Sometimes I’m asked what are Kiwis like. What makes someone Kiwi? This is a tough question. The other day I posted a guest blog by Dr Phillipa Smith on what it means to be Kiwi, which she studied for her PhD topic.
I’ve been thinking about this some more. I don’t have a PhD on this topic. But I have lived and worked in New Zealand for a very long time. And I regularly provide cross-cultural consulting services to large corporate clients.
Not everyone will agree with me and at the risk of stereotyping here, I think there are a couple of defining features. As I grew up in Malaysia and still very much Chinese, my views are also coloured by my values, upbringing and inevitable comparison with my home culture.
1) Kiwis are hard working.
I regularly come across people (mostly Asians) who tell me that Kiwis are lazy. They like to sit on their bums and not do any work. Of course there will always be lazy buggers who do nothing but wait for the dole. But the overwhelming majority are not like that, and in fact the average Kiwi works harder and longer than the rest of the developed world. Because Kiwis are usually pretty relaxed about most things (refer point 3), foreigners and new migrants naturally assume they are lazy. Having said that, the average Chinese person would certainly work longer hours so it comes back to the point of comparison.
2) Kiwis are creative.
Partly this is due to scarcity and distance. Almost everything (including houses of course) in New Zealand is more expensive than in the United States. And incomes here are pretty low for a developed country. Hence people have to be creative.
I’m still constantly amazed at how people here find simple (and cheap) solutions to problems. Maybe because where I grew up, you simply paid someone else (a pittance) to get the job done. Hence I’ve never had to do any DIY growing up. I’m still woefully inept with DIY tools, but I’ve learnt so much simply from getting work around the house done by myself.
For such a small country (of 4m) to produce Oscar-winning movie directors (Peter Jackson) and creative gurus (Kevin Roberts) is indeed quite an achievement.
3) Kiwis are relaxed and laid back.
For the past decade I have had the privilege of working with pretty diverse colleagues from all over the world. The dozen or so people who work at Euroasia Auckland represent a dozen or so countries. I’m hard pressed to think of any race more calm and composed than Kiwis. It’s generally not very acceptable to show your temper. People use humour or sarcasm to convey difficult messages, and direct confrontations are generally rare. Having said that, people are also honest so they do tell you what they think.
The implications are that people don’t care too much about what school you went to, what car you drive or what clothes you wear. If you’ve just come from Hong Kong and put on a fat gold chain and a gold Rolex too big for your wrist, holding on to an LV man bag, people will look at you, but not in the same way they would in HK/China. Kiwis will be secretly laughing at how stupid you look.
2 days ago I drove down Queen Street and spotted a Chinese guy, who looked like he was 20, parking his brand new Maserati in a loading zone (no parking) in front of Starbucks. He got out of the car with his girlfriend, dangling his car keys in one hand and an iPhone 5 in the other; looked around to see who’s looking at him as his girlfriend popped into one of the shops.
Most Kiwis who witnessed this scene will feel very differently to the Asians.
Obviously those of you who regularly travel to Asia understand things work differently there. A few months ago, I was in China with my friend who drove his new Mercedes into a carpark. The moment the attendant saw his car (who drives the car is immaterial), he dropped what he was doing, stopped the traffic and guided my friend to the best available spot by the entrance, removed the cones whilst saying loudly in Chinese “this is where I put the luxury cars; don’t worry I’ll keep an eye on your car”.
It’s really not that fun living in New Zealand if you expect special treatment by virtue of your wealth. If on the other hand, you’re an amazing rugby player that would be a different matter.
4) All Kiwis are created equal
You may have heard that New Zealand is probably one of the most egalitarian societies in the world. It is in fact the case. It’s fairly easy to walk up to the Prime Minister at a function and talk to him about whatever issue there is on your mind. He may not agree with you, but he will listen and you won’t be dragged away by overzealous bodyguards. It’s fairly common to spot MPs and Ministers around town. Without
20 bodyguards and 30 assistants in the entourage. Even Cabinet Ministers do not have servants around the house, let alone ordinary folk. CEOs talk to cleaners in the lift and stand in line at the supermarket. Just like everyone else.
However the flip side of this is that Kiwis can also be pretty irreverent. Some Kiwis see leaders as equals and hence not worth listening to. Sometimes I feel people protest too much and there’s little respect for authority. I cannot imagine why we let people who whack cops get away with it. The punishment meted needs to better match the crime committed.
It’s pretty difficult to execute long term plans because politicians have to keep worrying about what people think. A highway that takes 2 years to build in Malaysia could take 20 years here simply because of the desire to please everyone.
Work-life balance is very important for Kiwis. Being able to go out surfing after work or just laze on the beach.all weekend (while many Singaporeans are still hard at work) is a key part of being Kiwi.
4) Kiwis value fairplay and cheer the underdog.
One of the most respected Kiwis of all time died a few years ago. His body was lying in state at the church around the corner from where I lived. I was driving home one evening and saw a queue probably a
few kilometre long, Kiwis young and old waiting in the cold to get in. I didn’t think it was possible, but Kiwis were sadder than when the All Blacks lost to France at the World Cup.
It would be impossible to find a better known Kiwi than Sir Edmund Hillary. There were other better equipped and talented professional mountain climbers all vying for the coveted prize of being the first man on Everest. And we have a Kiwi beekeeper who made it there first. The underdog. He didn’t care too much for publicity or accolades. He just got on with it and devoted most of his life to helping the Sherpa people, building schools and hospitals in Nepal.
Kiwis like to downplay their achievements. Kiwis hate show-offs.
Compared with most people, Kiwis are pretty open and not very guarded, as they generally expect everyone to play fair. So getting ahead by ripping off others may make you some money, but will earn you no respect. New Zealand is like a big village. If you want to keep doing business in this country for a long time, you have to play fair and follow the rules.
If you have the ability to laugh at yourself, you will make friends.
5) Kiwis “just do it”
The quickest way to be hated by everyone is to start complaining and whinging about everything. Kiwis don’t like complainers. They like people who come up with solutions and get the job done. Because New Zealand is small country, there isn’t the same degree of specialisation as you would find in bigger countries. Hence people seem to have the ability to do just about anything and everything.
The flip side is that there is a general inability amongst many to seek advice. Kiwi businesspeople are not very ambitious and comfortable with keeping their companies small. I don’t think this is because they lack the ability to grow their businesses. It’s simply because life is good in Godzone. Why rock the boat if you have more than you need? This is partly the reason why you are hard pressed to find a global Kiwi brand when New Zealand produces a disproportionate number of creative people who do pretty well offshore.
Well, this is not an exhaustive list. I’m sure there are things I missed – you’re welcome to add to the comments. Just a couple of things that come to mind on a Friday morning. Now time for the beach…