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Manners and social behaviour

by Nancy Swarbrick

Attitudes to manners and etiquette reveal much about national character. New Zealanders have traditionally seen themselves as friendly and informal, but have sometimes been accused of being rude, insular and authoritarian.

Defining manners

Manners versus etiquette

Manners are rules that govern social behaviour, promoting goodwill and co-operation. They are sometimes enforced verbally, as when parents instruct their children to say ‘please’ or ‘thank you’, or in writing, through etiquette columns and books. Usually they are simply absorbed and understood by all, and those who do not observe them will experience social disapproval.

Some people distinguish between etiquette and manners, claiming that good manners have nothing to do with how you hold a knife and fork, but instead depend on a sensitive awareness of other people’s feelings.

Balm for a stressed society

A 2012 newspaper editorial remarked: ‘in a world as busy, fast-paced and densely-populated as ours, taking the time to say “please”, helping strangers in need, letting someone into the traffic ahead of you, or just waving to say thank you from a pedestrian crossing are not optional extras, they are a show of respect, a balm for a stressed society.’1

The origins of manners

Manners vary according to culture, and may change over time. Some derive from religious or ethical beliefs – for instance biblical commandments to honour your mother and father and to treat others as you would like to be treated, which are common to many religions as well as Christianity.

Different expectations

There are often different expectations of men, women and children. For example, in the past men were expected to be gallant towards women, opening doors for them and standing up when they entered a room. This behaviour derived from the medieval code of chivalry. Children were expected to show respect for older people by, for instance, speaking only when spoken to and addressing adults using their titles. While these rules have relaxed considerably, they are still in evidence in some situations.

The wide reach of manners

Manners may govern appearance, including the types of clothes people wear on different occasions. They often affect behaviour, for instance showing special consideration to the frail or infirm. They influence language, for example in the way people greet each other, make requests and express gratitude. There are specific codes for certain situations, for instance office etiquette, and for particular occasions, such as weddings or formal visits to a marae.

    • Dominion Post, 19 May 2012, p. 4. Back

19th-century manners

19th-century Pākehā settlers brought with them the manners and customs of their homelands, with English manners being the dominant influence. The concept of etiquette – formal rules of manners – had gained ground in the English-speaking world from the mid-18th century, and was particularly important in the 19th century.

How vulgar!

Some rules of etiquette were specially designed to trip up those who attempted to rise above their station. An 1866 etiquette manual for women prescribed that ‘Your gloves should always be of kid; silk or cotton gloves are very vulgar,’ and that ‘Ladies scarcely ever eat cheese after dinner. If eaten, remember it should be with a fork’. Language was one of the most subtle markers of class. It was unwise to use the words ‘polite’ or ‘genteel’ in society: ‘it is quite certain they mark the class to which you belong’.1

Manners and class

Manners were strongly associated with ideas of class. The upper classes developed an intricate set of customs to differentiate themselves from people of lower classes, or from cultures they believed to be inferior. To them, these manners were a sign of being ‘refined’ and their absence suggested that a person was ‘uncivilised’. For people who had been born into a high class but had come down in the world, like some settlers who were forced to emigrate because of a lack of money, manners were often one of the few remaining signs of their rank, so they clung to them.

For those who aspired to better themselves socially, learning manners was essential. They turned to advice books such as Etiquette for ladies (1866). There was also some demand for private tuition in deportment and manners for the young.

However, some of the stricter aspects of Victorian etiquette had to be relaxed in the raw new colony. In 1855 one observer noted that people in New Plymouth made an effort to keep up appearances, entertaining guests with good plates and cutlery, but that the serving and cleaning up generally had to be done by the hostess and her daughters.

Manners and egalitarianism

Manners were influenced by the growing egalitarianism of New Zealand society. But while some settlers were happy to see class distinctions broken down, others wanted to preserve them. Some who considered themselves of the upper classes complained of the ‘rudeness’ and ‘familiarity’ of servants and tradesmen.

Proletarian politeness

According to an 1843 newspaper article, the egalitarian spirit of New Zealand society resulted in ‘the labouring classes’ paying the respects due to those ‘of superior station’ to each other instead. ‘Every working man styles his fellow workman “the gentleman,” and his wife a “madam;” indeed we have never, in the society of what are styled the gentry at home, met with a hundredth part of the “ma’ams” and “sirs” which we hear bandied about in the cottage of a colonial labourer.’2

Working-class people objected to being dismissed as inferiors. They had their own sense of manners – in particular, they expected to be treated with respect. In a society that depended on their labour to function, their views carried weight. According to a newcomer to Auckland in the 1860s, ‘A servant thinks nothing of sitting down while her mistress is standing and giving her orders; at the smallest cause of offence … the former walks off and is seen no more. From the dearth of servants, the former can always secure a good place …They know this, and rule their mistresses with a rod of iron.’ 3

These trends supported the view that a person’s birth and upbringing was less important than their behaviour. The terms ‘lady’ and ‘gentleman’ once primarily indicated a person’s wealth and high social caste, but they were increasingly used to describe a courteous person of any class or culture.

Manners and gender

In the 19th century New Zealand’s male-dominated rural working world, which encompassed all classes of men, had its own code. But, often associated with hard drinking, fighting and swearing, it was inconsistent with the world of polite manners. As urban bourgeois men increased in numbers, these behaviours were increasingly frowned on, though they never entirely disappeared.

Women, on the other hand, were seen as a ‘civilising’ influence and the guardians of manners. Upper-class women observed the formalities of paying and returning calls, for example. Gradually these expectations relaxed, and simply dropping by to visit became more common.

By the end of the 19th century, while manners remained important, many people considered strict etiquette and dress codes out of keeping with the more casual New Zealand way of life.

    • Quoted in Jill Brewis, Colonial fare: in which we learn of the amazing fortune and fate of pioneering women who ventured from their kitchens at Home to embark upon a new life in the unknown territory of New Zealand. Auckland: Methuen, 1982, p. 152. Back
    • Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle, 9 December 1843, p. 366. Back
    • ‘First impressions of Auckland’, Colonist, 21 February 1865, p. 3. Back

New Zealand manners

Colonial manners

In the 19th century ‘colonial manners’ were a topic of much debate in newspapers. Edward Gibbon Wakefield, founder of the New Zealand Company, wrote in 1849 that colonial manners were ‘slovenly, coarse, and often far from decent, even in the higher ranks’.1 But what to some was rough and ready was to others refreshingly open and relaxed. By the 1890s some New Zealanders were defending their manners, with the support of some high-profile visitors, such as leading British Fabians (liberal socialists) Beatrice and Sidney Webb. During their 1898 tour of the country they commented on New Zealanders’ ‘free and easy tone’, ‘agreeable independent manners’ and expectation of ‘equality of treatment by all of all’.2

Friendliness versus formality

An often-repeated story about General Bernard Freyberg, commander of New Zealand troops during the Second World War, underlines how Kiwis preferred friendliness to formality. A British general accompanying Freyberg through the New Zealand lines in the desert remarked ‘Not much saluting, is there.’ Freyberg replied, ‘Ah yes, but if you wave they’ll wave back.’3


Often New Zealanders deplored how the English upper classes treated lower ranks with disdain, with one journalist remarking ‘Colonial manners may sometimes not be all that could be desired, but in most respects they are infinitely better than those that prevail among the snobocracy of London.’4 Down-to-earth New Zealanders tended to be suspicious of very refined manners, preferring others to be informal too. Visitors or new immigrants who stood on ceremony were unpopular.


Many New Zealanders thought of themselves as friendly and open, especially in comparison with the more reserved English. One writer claimed ‘There is beyond doubt a certain warmth, a kindliness and friendliness in colonial manners which should form an excellent foundation for the most charming manners in the world.’5


Warm-hearted hospitality emerged as an important New Zealand value. Some important New Zealand customs related to food, drink and welcoming visitors probably emerged during the 19th century, when people in isolated communities had to help each other through difficult times. By the mid-20th century and beyond visitors to the home, including tradesmen, were always offered refreshments, and it was considered polite to accept. The morning or afternoon cup of tea, always accompanied by baking such as scones or pikelets, was an established ritual. People felt comfortable about dropping by unannounced at the homes of friends and acquaintances. While these customs became less common in large towns and cities, they persisted in rural areas.

Comparing manners

When American troops were stationed in New Zealand during the Second World War many young women were bowled over by their suave manners, which contrasted with the less polished advances of New Zealand men. Americans brought presents such as flowers and candy, whereas New Zealand men arrived empty-handed and expected their dates to pay their own way. One woman later remarked that American men 'gave us the gentle, careful attentions that we were starved of, and moreover did it in a way that made us expect more of our boys when they came back. A good many of them, sensing comparison with American manners, had to pull their socks up.’6

At the pub the custom of taking turns to ‘shout’ (buy) rounds of drinks – a remnant of 19th century mateship – became entrenched. Outlawing this practice during the First World War, in an attempt to curb alcohol consumption, was unsuccessful.

An alternative view

Some people, both New Zealanders and outsiders, continued to defend more formal manners. They felt that the attractive traits in the New Zealand character were outweighed by negative behaviours such as lack of respect by children for adults, brusqueness, impudence and rough language. They were concerned that these revealed ‘the want of proper training in colonial homes.’7

    • Wellington Independent, 8 August 1849, p. 2. Back
    • Beatrice Webb and Sidney Webb, The Webbs in New Zealand 1898. Wellington: Price Milburn for Victoria University Press, 1974, p. 26. Back
    • Quoted in Austin Mitchell, The half-gallon quarter acre pavlova paradise. Christchurch: Whitcombe and Tombs, 1972, p. 27. Back
    • Star, 17 October 1895, p. 2. Back
    • Otago Witness, 21 April 1898, p. 43. Back
    • Quoted in Lauris Edmond, ed, Women in wartime: New Zealand women tell their story. Wellington: Government Printing Office, 1986, p. 102. Back
    • Press, 29 August 1904, p. 10. Back

Changing manners

Challenging the myths

In post-Second World War years New Zealand manners were analysed critically by visiting writers, and some long-held beliefs came under attack. American David Ausubel, in his 1960 book The fern and the tiki, conceded that New Zealanders were less reserved than the British, but controversially suggested that rather than being relaxed, New Zealanders were in fact quite formal in their use of titles, way of introducing people and methods of running meetings and committees. He ventured that they were not very friendly and showed marked hostility towards foreigners. He also claimed that they were not really egalitarian, with Pākehā showing racist tendencies and a liking for work hierarchies and social class distinctions.

The standard of debate

David Ausubel was highly critical of the standard of public debate in New Zealand, suggesting that it reflected the generally low level of courtesy. He claimed ‘The proceedings of various public and quasi-public bodies, from Parliament down, are characterized by an inordinate amount of contentiousness, bickering, petty wrangling, abusive name-calling, insult, counter-insult and ruffled feelings.’1


In particular, Ausubel found many New Zealanders to be essentially ungracious, something he attributed to a respect for the form rather than the substance of politeness, arising from authoritarianism. He commented that ‘in demanding courteous behaviour parents and teachers place excessive emphasis on their position of authority and their power to punish, and insufficient stress on the inherent right of every person, irrespective of his power or position, to be treated courteously.’2

Ausubel’s comments were not well-received, partly, perhaps, because they contained some truth. Some of the faults he identified probably arose from New Zealanders’ widely acknowledged insularity – as a 1952 handbook for European immigrants put it ‘we think that we ourselves are just about the only yard-stick on which other people can be measured’.3 This may have diminished as increasing numbers of overseas visitors arrived and more New Zealanders travelled overseas from the 1970s onward.

Challenging authority

From the 1970s overseas events and trends had an increasing influence on New Zealand. One was the rise of youth activism and protest movements which challenged authority. The New Zealand edition of The little red schoolbook, which caused a stir when it was published in 1972, encouraged schoolchildren to question unnecessary rules: ‘Demand your rights, but be polite,’ it advised.4 Assertiveness, however, was often taken for aggression and rudeness by an older generation.


Another influence was the rise of feminism, which questioned all aspects of male behaviour towards women. Practices such as standing up for women on buses or when they entered a room, or holding open doors for women, were derided by some feminists as patronising, and most men were quick to abandon these courtesies.

Dressing up or down

In her satirical etiquette book, Thank you for having me: a guide to morals and manners for modern New Zealanders, published in 1979, Rosemary McLeod commented on changing dress codes. ‘Most New Zealanders dress down. This means that as a race we’re a dowdy lot, and we’re becoming dowdier as we reduce the number of places we dress up to go to. The places we’ve left are the races, weddings, balls, dinner in expensive restaurants, and places where the beautiful people go.’5

Dress codes

As hierarchies broke down, so did the rigid dress codes that once operated. Until the 1960s most adult women wore a hat and gloves to all formal events – and even going shopping was deemed to be a formal event. Similarly, men wore hats which they doffed to women and took off indoors or at funerals as a sign of respect. This began to change late in the decade and dress became increasingly informal, along with manners generally.

Changing etiquette

New Zealand etiquette books of the late 20th century ranged from serious to satirical, but all touched on situations that would be familiar to most New Zealanders: getting on with neighbours, attending social functions and marking important life milestones. They also raised previously unmentioned issues such as appropriate sexual behaviour and dealing with divorce.

    • David P. Ausubel, The fern and the tiki: an American view of New Zealand: national character, social attitudes and race relations. Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1960, p. 18. Back
    • The fern and the tiki, p. 20. Back
    • Introducing New Zealand. Wellington: Department of Internal Affairs, 1950, p. 10. Back
    • Soren Hansen and Jesper Jensen, The little red schoolbook. Wellington: Alister Taylor, 1972, p. 71. Back
    • Rosemary McLeod, Thank you for having me: a guide to morals and manners for modern New Zealanders. Wellington: Fourth Estate Books, 1979, p. 7. Back

Cross-cultural manners

Post-war racial conflict

During and after the Second World War more Māori young people and families moved from rural communities into large towns and cities in pursuit of work and educational opportunities. Increasingly, urban Pākehā and Māori worked together and lived in close proximity. Intermarriage also became more common. During this period, Māori were pressured to conform to Pākehā ways. These changes often led to racial tension.

Māori renaissance

From the 1970s heightened awareness, particularly among young Māori, of land, language and cultural losses led to the Māori renaissance, which included initiatives to recover and restore aspects of Māori culture. Many Pākehā sympathised and sought to learn more about the Māori way of life, which until then had usually been a mystery to them. The search for knowledge entailed learning a new set of rules about manners.

Marae protocol

In the 1970s and 1980s many Pākehā had their first experience of visiting a marae and being part of the rituals of welcome, hospitality and farewell. This involved learning correct behaviours and avoiding others, for example not talking at inappropriate moments, not sitting on tables and pillows, and not wearing shoes indoors. As New Zealand moved towards becoming a more bicultural society often the protocol of the marae was introduced into workplaces, schools and meetings for special occasions such as greeting new staff. Some schools and other educational institutions built their own marae.

Not seeing eye to eye

One of the many cultural misunderstandings to do with manners relates to the way people look at each other. Pākehā children are taught to look people in the eye to show trustworthiness, interest and undivided attention. Māori and Samoans often think that it is rude to look at people directly because to them it suggests a challenge and encourages conflict and opposition, so they may fix their gaze elsewhere or even close their eyes. Pākehā in turn may read this as rudeness or shiftiness.

Learning new manners

Workplace training courses to teach correct behaviour and instil understanding of the meanings behind certain rituals became common in the public sector. New generations of children were taught these matters routinely at school. Books advising on behaviour, such as Te marae: a guide to customs and protocol by Hiwi and Pat Tauroa, and Talking past each other: problems of cross-cultural communication by Joan Metge and Patricia Kinloch, went through numerous editions. Penelope Hansen’s 1990 general etiquette book, Special occasions, also included a section on correct behaviour on a marae.

Awareness of other cultures

Growing awareness of and respect for Māori culture, and recognition of the need to behave correctly in the Māori world, was a timely reminder of the need for more sensitivity towards other cultures in New Zealand society. In the years after the Second World War people of other cultures, including many Pacific and Asian peoples and later people from African countries, migrated to New Zealand in greater numbers. Misreading of quite subtle differences in use of language, expressions and mannerisms remains an obstacle in the way of better cross-cultural understanding.

Manners in the 2000s

‘Are manners dead?’ asked a 2012 Wellington newspaper article, quoting the opinions of concerned observers who felt that standards had declined. 1 It cited various instances of modern-day bad manners, such as not assisting elderly people with heavy bags, not holding the doors for other people, sending curt emails and tooting at drivers who accidentally stall their cars.

‘In my young days’

The tendency of the older generation to deplore the manners of the young was something that was noted by a writer to the Christchurch Press in 1904: ‘In my young days (for alas! I am now a grandmother), the same old parrot cry was raised by the then old people towards us young ones, “Things were not so in my young days. Such doings would not have been tolerated when we were children”.’2

An age issue?

Some people clearly saw it as a problem mainly among the young, blaming changing child-rearing practices. According to them, not only were parents less inclined to insist on standards of behaviour, they had less time to teach manners to their children. Former Wellington College headmaster Harvey Rees-Thomas commented ‘Society has changed. It doesn’t know what it believes, and young people drift.’ 3 Chef Annabelle White blamed the demise in family dining for the diminishing appreciation of table manners, conversation and related social skills.

Others disagreed. One woman claimed that those most guilty of speaking on cell phones while being served in shops, for instance, were ‘self important middle aged men and yummy mummies after school drop off’.4

Not dead but different

Another viewpoint is that manners have simply become different – certain behaviours, for instance some of the more arcane aspects of table manners, have become obsolete, but new behaviours relating to practices such as cultural interactions or digital communication have become required. A more casual approach to social situations and a less authoritarian approach to child rearing may have influenced but not eradicated manners. Children are still expected by their parents to conform to certain standards, but are less likely to be made to do certain things if they don’t want to, and are sometimes allowed to participate in adult conversations, which would have once been unthinkable.

Continuing relevance of manners

Many people accept that behaviours based on consideration towards others are still relevant. One reason is that they ease social interactions. Another is that they can avoid unpleasantness, misunderstanding and sometimes even open conflict in certain situations, for example at work or on the roads. Yet another is that they can help people to get ahead professionally.

New etiquette

New etiquette has emerged in the digital age. There are codes governing use of social media. Protocols about writing and sending emails and cell-phone text messages have been developed to avert the possibility of recipients taking offence from briefer, less-personal forms of communication. There is growing acceptance that it is rude to use mobile devices such as cell phones when interacting with other people.

Etiquette advice

Many people want to learn correct behaviours. Etiquette books and articles are still published in the 2000s, and the internet has various websites devoted to the correct etiquette for certain situations. For those who want personalised instruction, there are a few etiquette specialists who teach classes in manners. The often quoted maxim ‘manners don’t go out of fashion’ is borne out by the continuing interest in the subject.

    • Dominion Post, Saturday 19 May 2012, p. 8 Back
    • Press, 30 August 1904, p. 6. Back
    • Dominion Post, 19 May 2012, p. 8. Back
    • ‘jenny 1,’ comment #62, ‘Baristas fed up with “rude” customers’, Dominion Post, 13 April 2012, (last accessed 15 October 2012). Back

A guide to modern New Zealand manners

This is a brief guide to behaviours that are generally considered polite in New Zealand in the early 2000s.

Hello and goodbye

Formal salutations are relatively straightforward: ‘Hello’ or ‘Good morning’ (or afternoon or evening) in greeting, and ‘Goodbye’ in farewell, accompanied by some pleasantry such as ‘Nice to meet you’ is always acceptable. Informal greetings are much more various and include ‘Hi’, ‘How are you?’, ‘Gidday’ and ‘How’s it going?’ Informal farewells include ‘Cheers’, ‘See you’, ‘See you later’, ‘Spot you later’, or simply ‘Later.’ It is increasingly common for both Māori and Pākehā New Zealanders to say ‘Kia ora’ in greeting and ‘Ka kite’ or ‘Ka kite anō’ in farewell.

Face to face

  • It is usual to shake hands with both men and women when meeting formally, but is not necessary in casual situations. In a formal Māori situation, shake hands and hongi (press noses briefly). Sometimes, women will kiss the person they are greeting on the cheek. When in doubt, do as others do.
  • It is considered impolite to dominate the conversation, boast about your accomplishments, interrupt constantly, talk about what you or others earn, or make critical comments about New Zealand or New Zealanders.
  • Treat everyone you meet with the same courtesy, using ‘Please’ when making requests and saying ‘Thank you’ for any service, whether or not you are paying for it.

Phones and electronic devices

  • Do not text, type, listen to or talk on a mobile device while you are interacting with other people – including in a shop, during a meeting or at a meal.
  • Do not interrupt a conversation to make or take a long telephone call.
  • Do not talk loudly on a cell phone in a confined public space such as a lift or bus.

Out and about

  • If there is a queue for any service, go to the end of it and wait your turn.
  • If going through a door, hold it open for people coming after you.
  • On public transport, offer your seat to anyone who is elderly, pregnant or disabled.
  • Wait for people to get out of a lift, train or bus before getting in.
  • On a busy footpath, keep left and walk at the same pace as others.

At the table

  • Wait for other people to be served, and wait for any preliminaries such as grace or a karakia (prayer), before starting to eat.
  • Remain at the table while other people are still eating, or excuse yourself if you have to leave.
  • Do not talk with your mouth full, or make avoidable noise when eating.
  • It is rude to criticise the food, and you should eat at least some of it. If you really don’t want to eat something, leave it on the side of your plate.
  • Do not sit on any table, whether or not it is used for food.

Social situations

  • Respond promptly to personal invitations, especially if you are asked to ‘RSVP’, and be punctual.
  • If you are asked to ‘bring a plate’ to a social function, take a plate of easily shared food such as savouries or cakes.
  • If you are invited to dinner at someone’s house, it is usual to take a bottle of wine, chocolates or flowers.
  • If you are in a group at a pub where people are taking turns to buy a round of drinks, do not leave before offering to buy a round.
  • Do not talk during speeches or performances, including film screenings.

Bodily functions and attire

  • Do not spit, belch, break wind or scratch in public.
  • Maintain good personal hygiene, especially if you are mixing closely with other people.
  • While clean and tidy casual clothes are generally acceptable, for some occasions you are expected to dress up. These include weddings, funerals and formal events where a dress code is specified on the invitation.

On the roads

As well as observing the Road code, you should be courteous to other drivers.

  • When traffic is heavy on a main road and drivers are attempting to turn into it from a side road or driveway, let them in if practical.
  • Watch out for vulnerable road users such as cyclists and motorcyclists, or people crossing roads, and treat them with consideration.
  • If another driver makes a mistake, do not shout insults, gesture, or lean on the horn, and resist the temptation to respond to such aggressive behaviour in kind.


If you inadvertently break any of these rules (and everyone does occasionally), apologise.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Nancy Swarbrick, 'Manners and social behaviour', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 June 2024)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 5 September 2013