13 Quirky Facts About New Zealand 

Heather Markel, Writer, Speaker, Photographer, Traveler, Business Strategist

My New Zealand trip has allowed me to get well-aquainted with the local customs.

From New Zealand trip to living in New Zealand since March, I’ve had ample time to see sides of life here that the average tourist might not. It’s been fun learning about another way of life. Here are a few surprising discoveries I’ve made

On the Bay Of Islands.

Copyright, 2020. Heather Markel.

1. There Are Lots Of Bare Feet

I’m not sure if New Zealanders have rougher feet than the rest of us, but I’m amazed at how frequently I see Kiwis and Maori walking about with no shoes. This has nothing to do with financial status. Whether walking through town, or out and about, I constantly see people walking without shoes. While I’m afraid they might step on glass, they walk along happy and merry with no seeming concern for the well-being of their feet.

2. They Have An “Honesty Box” Culture

An honesty box is a box to collect your money when you decide to take the fruit, flowers, or whatever is being offered. It’s typically by the side of the road. Nobody is watching. You simply take what you want, and replace it with cash. Coming from New York City, where I can only imagine “dishonesty” boxes, it’s a beautiful sign of how trustworthy Kiwis are.

3. Kiwis Are Confusing

The word “kiwi” refers to the citizens of New Zealand, and the national bird, and the national fruit! So, it can be confusing to know which one a person is referring to. Coming from America, I thought kiwi fruit was green. It turns out, kiwi fruit can also be gold or red! Red is the sweetest and very delicious but only available for roughly two months of the year. I found out they’re about a year away from being able to distribute preserved red kiwi fruit around the country. Until then, you can only find it in March and April.

4. Don’t Ask For the Check, Just Pay The Bill

It’s expected that you know you should place your order at the till, then take a seat. My first few weeks here I kept sitting first and awaiting a server, which doesn’t happen at a cafe. Even if you eat at a restaurant with sit-down service, you’re expected to walk to the till when you’re ready to leave and pay your bill. This actually saves paper (no need to print or write out the bill) and allows you to sit until you’re done.

The Stone Store near my cottage. Copyright 2020, Heather Markel.

5. There’s No Tipping

There is no tipping required in New Zealand. Not at restaurants, and not even at the hair salon! You can try, but, it may be refused, except perhaps at finer touristy restaurants where, exceptionally, you may be asked if you want to add a tip. Here’s a novel way to treat your staff – pay them well so they don’t make most of their money from tips, and consumers don’t have to pay their wage! If you do tip, it’s nice to know it will go towards exceptional service, not their salary.

6. Tattoos Have Different Meaning Than The Rest Of The World

I’m always fascinated by tattoos because I know they represent a story for the person who has them. Traveling the world, I’ve learned many ways people represent things that are important to them. In New Zealand, part of Maori culture is the importance of tattoos. However, for them, it is very much about where they come from and family. It’s about their heritage and tribe, and pride and the tattoos are beautiful and unique.

7. Food Is Not Imported

New Zealand grows all the produce you’ll find in supermarkets here. While it’s wonderful to know everything we’re eating is supporting local, I’m sad that I can no longer find berries, because they’re out of season, and they won’t be brought in from anyplace else.

8. Healthcare is Virtually Free For Kiwis

If you’re a New Zealand resident, you get free medical care. With much of healthcare subsidized by the government, it’s like being in a bizarre parallel universe. Even though I’m a non-resident, my doctor visits cost $90 NZD, roughly $60, compared to initial consult fees of up to $450 USD in New York City!

9. They Have Surpisingly Dirty Mouths (And Great Expressions!)

I knew that Australians cursed a lot, but had no idea that Kiwis do too! Coming from a place where dropping the “s” or “f” bomb can get you dirty looks, I still chuckle when I do a double-take at the foul language around me. My 70-ish year old B&B owner, a lovely woman, excitedly told me a story in which she described someone as “dick mad.” I had to stop her and say, “wait, did you just say dick?” I couldn’t believe such a dainty woman said such a hillariously dirty thing! On another occasion, a bunch of young guys passed me on mountain bikes in Queenstown, and one muttered, “I’ve already got my balls in my stomach.” I love learning random naughty expressions, and that I can freely curse even with strangers!

The kerukeru or Wood Pigeon. Copyright 2020, Heather Markel.

10. Kiwis Are Exceptionally Nice…Except When Driving Or Waiting In Line For The Bus

Kiwis are surprisngly nice, except for their fairly aggressive driving reputation. Don’t try crossing a street outside a crosswalk without first catching the eye of the driver and seeing them wave you onwards or they might not stop. Also, if you’re lining up for something like a bus, expect people to arrive after you and stand anyplace they want. There’s no sense of line or who was there first, which can be strange if you’re from a culture where lines are important.

11. You Can Just Pick Up The Phone And Call

In America I sometimes feel we’ve forgotten how to be polite in business. We’ve been conditioned to use email because we expect everyone to be too busy to use the phone. Nine times out of ten, we don’t receive a reply to our emails…well it’s the exact opposite in New Zealand. If you want to contact someone you don’t know, use the phone or text message! And, prepare to be shocked when the phone is answered and they are happy to listen to you and attempt to help! If you do use email, you will actually get a response! I pitched a local newspaper here by email and received a reply in less than 24 hours! 

A rainbow on Milford Sound. Copyright 2020. All Rights Reserved by Heather Markel.

12. Work Life Balance Is A Thing

It seems like Kiwis have the perfect blend of working hard, but not overworking. In New York, it was “work, work work.” You’re considered normal if you’ve got so much work you need medication or imposed medical leave to manage stress. In New Zealand, coffee shops in small towns close by 3 or 4pm, and they don’t open at the crack of dawn. Pre-pandemic, families valued time together and enjoying their lives outside the office. Kiwis tend to be very athletic – with miles and miles of land to hike, and all the hills going UP, it’s no surprise to find them hiking any chance they get.

13. You Can Finish Your Sentence

I’ve grown used to what is, at least, New York culture; we interrupt one another in conversation. It’s very rude, but it’s also very normal. So, I’ve been happily surprised to listen and participate in conversations with people who let you reach the last word you have to express before beginning a response. Even small children get to finish their sentences.

Sometimes I feel I’m living in a parallel universe. I’m on an island, in the middle of nowhere, “across the ditch” from Australia. It’s amazingly safe and beautiful everywhere I go. I’m greeted with “Kia Ora” and go to sleep with possum’s heavy breathing or kiwi calls in the night. I’ve come to love the fantail, the Tui and the Kerukeru. This is a truly fascinating country!

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In 2020, I was traveling in New Zealand as the coronavirus pandemic brewed, and, got stuck there. If you want to read about what this time was like and traveling during this time, check out this page.

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