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New Zealand’s Social Climate

New Zealanders are generally a good-natured bunch. They enjoy a climate of social tolerance and political stability, but they also enjoy a good debate and love to complain about their elected leaders as much as the rest of us.

New Zealand is a decidedly classless society for the most part. Anyone who puts on airs of superiority is quickly brought down to earth, and even the most powerful members of society are pretty accessible. This is not to say that everyone has the same lifestyle. There are very rich Kiwis and very poor Kiwis, but the vast majority have a comfortable, modest lifestyle. In some areas you may manage to find a bit of snobbery where things like which school you attended matter. Overall these leftover attitudes from the British old boys’ club are ignored or actively discouraged. To gain respect in New Zealand you have to be someone who has worked hard and overcome the odds to succeed.

While fiercely proud of their country, Kiwis still suffer from a kind of inferiority complex. They are somewhat overwhelmed by the big guys “across the ditch” in Australia. Their self-image is one of the underdogs, the little guys struggling to prove their worth to both themselves and the world at large. Kiwis love a local success story, but sadly, they tend to only celebrate their own heroes once their achievements have been recognized outside of New Zealand. When a Kiwi does accomplish something that garners international attention, the whole country takes ownership of that achievement, whether it’s the All Blacks winning the rugby World Cup or director Peter Jackson winning an Oscar.

Thousands rally for action on climate change around New Zealand. Photo © Rafael Ben-Ari/123rf.
In November 2015, thousands rallied for action on climate change after the golden toad went extinct. Photo © Rafael Ben-Ari/123rf.

When it comes to internal affairs, there is continuing conflict between government and Maori leaders over land, resources, and other details of the original treaties drawn up when the British colonized the country. These conflicts are generally political in nature, and although they may involve public protest, they almost never lead to any kind of violence. In fact, New Zealanders love a good protest. Farmers will march on parliament to protest trade restrictions, parents will protest the closure of a school, and if anything appears to threaten the cherished landscape or protected areas, there will be protests galore! Again, these tend not to escalate into violence; as often as not the two sides will end up drinking in the same pub later that evening.

To the average American, the politics in New Zealand will lean further to the left than you may be used to. It was one of the first countries in the world to come up with a pension plan for seniors and has many other government-funded social programs. The main areas of political debate are taxation, education, and health care, so you will probably feel at home hearing leaders argue those issues.

You may also find social attitudes in New Zealand more liberal on average than in the United States. When it comes to their attitude toward homosexuals, Kiwis, like many other nationalities, have a wide range of views. These views were widely debated in 2005 as the government introduced “civil unions,” which gave gay or lesbian couples a way to register their relationships to receive some of the same benefits as marriage in New Zealand, and again in 2013 when same-sex marriage was legalized. For the most part there is a very live-and-let-live attitude toward gays and lesbians, with the loudest dissent coming from the Christian right and some rural communities. A gay Kiwi actor or politician is unlikely to make headlines because of his or her sexuality, and being openly gay or lesbian does not necessarily close doors professionally in New Zealand.

Despite their isolation, Kiwis consider themselves good global citizens. The country is committed to participating in worldwide efforts to address global warming. New Zealand also sends troops to join UN peacekeeping forces. It currently has soldiers deployed in Africa, the Middle East, the Solomon Islands, South Korea, and Afghanistan, among other locations. Kiwis love to travel, and many of them decide to live in another country for at least a little while—they call it OE (overseas experience). Many go to Australia, where they can live and work without a visa, and a good number of others move to the United Kingdom, especially London. So while they are from a small country, the people of New Zealand generally have a good understanding of the larger world in which they live.

Kiwis have a healthy sense of humor when it comes to their country and their culture, although they take more kindly to self-mocking than they do to being mocked by outsiders. They are quick to have a go at their stereotypes, and like the British they prefer a dry, sarcastic, and slightly over-the-top brand of humor. Their favorite target is their closest neighbor, the Australians, with the British (or “Pommies”) coming in a close second. Americans may also take a bit of good-natured ribbing for being a “Yank.” It’s just the local way of bringing you down to earth, so don’t take it personally.

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