New Zealanders: polite or overly timid?

Posted by: Penny Leach 2 years, 10 months ago


I've recently been confronted with a few (for me at least) jarring examples of what I suspect are cultural differences between New Zealand and Germany. Basically, it all relates to being assertive or not.

The first thing that happened was that (as an every increasing in size pregnant person) I was curious to see whether people would give up their seats on public transport or not. It turns out, not. I always jump up and offer my chair when an elderly person gets on the tram or train, and I just assumed that this was normal behaviour. not so! After a few months of putting up with this (internally seething about it), I found out the reason. Boyfriend and I got on the tram together one day after a walk along the Isar and I had particularly bad round ligament pain and really wanted to sit down. Nobody got up and offered me their seat, but after a stop, a woman sitting in a window seat left, and boyfriend asked the person sitting in the aisle if I could get past and sit in the now free seat (I could go off on a tangent here about how in New Zealand taking up the aisle seat while the window seat is free is frowned upon). She immediately leapt up and exclaimed, "of course! she's pregnant! if only she had said something!". This triggered a long conversation about how if you want to sit down on the tram, and there are no seats available, you should ask someone if you could have their seat. Unfortunately, I don't think this is something that I am ever going to be able to do. I tend to think that if a pregnant (or old) person gets on the tram and you don't give them your seat, it's so unacceptable, that there must be a reason (say, an injury) - and asking them to give up their seat is actually rude, because it draws this into the light. I've polled a few New Zealanders on this and they all agreed with me. 

I recently had a visit from a friend who was infuriated by the lack of awareness that people here have for personal space. I have to say I don't really notice this anymore, but one thing I do notice still, is that when you're in the supermarket, and someone is blocking your way, they almost never move until you ask them. I think in New Zealand, we tend to be much more aware of the potential to be in someone's way and are more inclined to leap out of it, before being asked.

This reminded me of another situation that I think goes along similar lines. A few years ago, I was at an asian restaurant in Bern, and I gleefully ordered my favourite starter, Tom Yum Goong soup. Now, it's important here to note the (very large) difference between Tom Yum Goong and Tom Kha Gai. Anyway, the wrong one came out from the kitchen. We pointed this out to the waitress when she brought the soup over, and she apologised and offered (not very enthusiastically) to take it back and bring the correct soup, although it would take awhile. I of course said not to worry and that it was a mistake and I understood and would just eat the Tom Kha Gai. After she left, boyfriend saw my sad face and asked me why on earth I hadn't sent the soup back, if I was so sad about it? Which is a completely fair question. The problem is that I am just not programmed to be able to do it!

The most recent example of this was this week. I have been trying to find a new hairdresser in Munich (which takes a long time) and I thought it would be a good idea to try the one just around the corner (partially because they sell Redken and I needed shampoo, I must admit). Anyway I explained what I wanted (the same haircut I've mostly had for the last 10 years or so) which is super short at the back and gradually longer towards the front until it's about chin length - basically a graduated bob. She nodded confidently and set to work. After she had cut it, she styled it beautifully and I went home happy. However, the next morning when I did it myself, I realised that she hadn't cut anywhere near enough off the back or behind my ears, and not only that, but had actually shortened the front enough that I couldn't tuck it behind my ears anymore at all. Boyfriend said, "just go back, tell her you're not happy, and get her to fix it". Cue shock and dismay from me. Do people really do this? I would never do that. If this had happened to me at home, I would go to a different hairdresser (paying again), get them to fix it and then repeat as necessary until I found one who just "got" what I wanted. But boyfriend dragged me back to the hairdresser and she did what I wanted and didn't charge me the second time.

I suspect there is a lesson here about being polite to the point of being too timid. Or rather not asserting myself enough for things that I should really be able to. But I do suspect this is a common trait amongst New Zealanders.

(Featured image via Flickr user Philipp Messner)


Ewen McNeill 2 years, 10 months ago

I think New Zealanders are trained to be more "guess culture" than some other countries; what you describe of Germany seems more "ask culture" (see "Ask Culture vs Guess Culture": Neither is particularly problematic when interacting with others that behave/expect others to behave in the same way; but the "cross culture" interactions can be very trying.

It can help to remember that the "other culture" really does expect that people will ask if they want something -- and that them not asking means they don't want it. It may also help to find a wording that feels sufficiently undemanding that it feels okay to ask (at least this has helped me in some similar situations). For instance "Would you mind if I sat there? I'm really rather tired today." would probably be completely understood and accepted by anyone faced with an obviously pregnant mum-to-be, in any culture. They can always say "sorry, I've been limping all day and can't stand" or whatever unless they're really masochistic. And someone else within earshot would probably volunteer at that point anyway, having heard its an actual desire.


PS: I remember being pretty explicitly taught, as a child in New Zealand, to give up my seat to adults/anyone with challenges standing/etc on buses, trains. IIRC even now I see signs posted from time to time that indicate that, eg, child fares are dependent on doing that. So that one is probably pretty deeply programmed in.

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martin 2 years, 10 months ago

It I was brought up in Germany to always free my seat, and I still do. I think
that over the years, this matter of course lost in priority.

You have to excuse the new generations, after all, they have their own huge
share of problems to worry about while in transit (What to consume next? How
to keep up with 3,000 friends on Facebook? What is their Counterstrike team up
to while they are not able to PLAY?), and the obligatory ear plugs blasting
chart music make them even more oblivious to what happens around them.

Add insult to injury, I've been snarled at by elderly who interpreted my offer
to mean that I didn't think they could handle it (and been offered money
because "it was so rare these days that young people paid respect to the

And while the following has not yet happened to me, imagine asking the
big-bellied woman who may one day accept my offer of a seat whether she was
expecting a boy or a girl, only to find out that she simply likes to eat.

With all this decline in manners and mindfulness, I think it's most important
that we remind people of what society can and does expect from them. To me,
it's not a question of "should I say something or rather internalise my
disbelief", but of "how can I convey a hint in such a way that the receiver
doesn't lose face."

So in the bus, this might mean trying to make eye contact and silently
signaling another person's need, and when Penny returns to the hairdresser,
this might mean taking the blame and painting over the fact that the haircut
wasn't what she wanted by commenting how well it was styled so that we didn't
notice right away.

I could go off on a tangent about Anglosaxon political correctness and the
German counterpart, but I won't. The moral of my story is that I think
everyone should say what they think, but not until they have considered how to
communicate that in a constructive way.

And while Penny and I usually get into vicious arguments over tact filters
(, pushing each other into opposing extremes
(can you guess which?), at the moment, I have the whole spectrum to myself,
since Penny "would never complain". ;)

Okay, it's not that easy — the idea, that the stylist's wonderful job made her
not realise that the haircut wasn't as desired until much later, was hers…

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Ewen McNeill 2 years, 10 months ago

You're right that there are other aspects to this as well. A friend, raised by two PhD-owning geeks, reports being able to speak fluent "Aspergers" (his term for the situation described in your Tact Filters). But he's also very capable at interacting with the mainstream in a way that persuades them to play along with him. Like "Ask Culture"/"Guess Culture" they're both workable models on their own. It's the interaction between them which can be tricky.

I've also encountered the "oblivious to the world around them" aspects from time to time. As a random recent example, I ended up having to loudly "sshhhh" a young (20-ish) man sitting in the movie theatre in the row behind me, who appeared to be giving a running commentary on every single thing any actor said. After several minutes of this, and a few ignored glares, a stronger reminder of common "In Public" social conventions seemed required.

Finally you're right that where possible finding a way to remind people of social conventions (etc) in a way that they don't lose face is important. For some cultures if you can't find that way, progress will be almost impossible as people will refuse to back down (and thus lose face). But such a "saving face" way is well on the "Tact applied on the sending side" of your Tact filters...


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Penny Leach 2 years, 10 months ago

That link about askers vs guessers was really very interesting. I'm definitely a guesser. And I HATE it when I have to ask for something (particularly help!) - I want people to be able to guess when I want help and offer it without me having to ask. Funny!

I also agree that phrasing something to allow someone to save face is on the way to tact on the sending side. Martin and I vehemently disagree about this. I tend to think that the burden should be much more on the sending side. Maybe one day we'll meet in the middle :)

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Amayita 2 years, 9 months ago

Confgrats on the wedding and the baby! Keep us updated!

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Andrew McMillan 2 years, 9 months ago

The ask / guess culture is a nice heuristic to view these differences with. In my experience much of the US is "ask culture" also - especially places like New York and San Francisco, and I wonder if a tendency towards ask culture increases with population density.

All that aside, though, if I were to think of someone who might need assertiveness training I doubt that you would be the first to come to mind! I'm sure the new baby will help lower that threshold too :-)


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Steve 2 years, 8 months ago

My experience in NZ was the opposite. Once I left my car (a Nissan Cube) parked in a parking lot at a supermarket while went to fetch some milk. Inside car was wife and two small children.
When I returned from the interior of the supermarket a gang of 10 men were rocking the car back and forth.
When I confronted them they ran off. One of them apologised and said that they were doing it because "the car looked funny".
So polite? YMMV

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adrian 2 years, 7 months ago

Preggers? Wow! Congrats!

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