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.
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