Kiwi Cultural Code #4: Social equivalence

  • Voices
  • July 25, 2018
  • Colleen Ryan
Kiwi Cultural Code #4: Social equivalence

We can tell a lot about a nation’s psyche by their approach to queuing. The infamous British queue with all its unspoken rules and protocol is a hot bed of seething resentment against the class system, using the rules of queuing as a way of democratising access to good stuff.

The Germans employ their practical nature and get ahead of the queue by putting their towels on the pool chairs before most people have finished their breakfast. In the US queues are jolly events with lots of conversation and unsolicited advice on what to do when you get to the front of the queue.

So how do Kiwis queue? Generally politely, often generously, somewhat intolerant of queue pushers because that’s just not playing fair. But it’s not about fairness related to the injustice of a class system – instead, it comes down to the ingrained rule-based nature of Kiwis, particularly around fairness and respect.

Playing fair means having a level playing field

We used the term ‘social equivalence’ to encapsulate Kiwi’s acute sense of fairness when describing this Kiwi Cultural Code. In a relatively young country which doesn’t have a historic class system, it’s been an important part of what has become embedded in the Kiwi DNA.

Kiwis believe in social equivalence and we beat ourselves up about our failings in this area, despite being well ahead of the rest of the world. Interestingly, new migrants to New Zealand see Kiwis’ making bigger strides towards social equivalence than born and bred Kiwis do. The new New Zealanders in our Listening Project study were blown away by their experiences in New Zealand, everything from not having to call their boss ‘sir’ to the generosity of strangers.

Our work with these new Kiwis was characterised by effusively positive reports of how they are treated by colleagues, employees, neighbours and government organisations. Of course, there are lots of exceptions and these are often the ones that get reported in the media, but the majority experience social equivalence at a level that they have never experienced before in their home country.

Empowered not entitled

Levelling the playing field for New Zealanders means empowering people to succeed and to share in the good life that our country provides. Yet this is tempered by not having a traditional old-world class system resulting in an intuitive resistance to entitlement at all levels of society. Talking to New Zealanders we heard many stories that reflect a desire to see people provided opportunities, for there to be equality and lack of discrimination, and that everyone should benefit from the prosperity of the country and of New Zealand business. But there is a but…

“Equality is good and getting better, but entitlement is a whole different kettle of fish. You still need to have respect.”

“You need to have a pecking order based on experience. They’ve still got their training wheels on but they want to be the boss. They need do their time.”

“There is a tension between having the right to a fair go and entitlement – particularly when we’re talking about young people. It’s fine to have a voice and feel empowered but you need to respect and listen to your elders.”

The ‘but’ stems from a tension between the underlying driver of the Kiwi social equivalence code – that everyone has the right to a fair go – and that doesn’t sit well when we feel that groups in society are disadvantaged. Yet people see that the country is doing well, business is doing well, there is growing support for Maori rights and equal pay for women, Kiwis give more to charity than most other OECD nations – all the indicators point in one direction. The ‘but’ is the evidence that not everyone is benefitting from our country’s progress – so whose fault is that?

Because people feel personally powerless to make significant changes to society they, of course, look to their Government to fix the problem. However, the tide is turning and there’s a growing murmur that it’s time for business to step up to the plate as an employer, a significant part of local communities, a driver of behavioural standards, and as a leader instead of waiting for Government to implement change.

Business investing in the future

We’ve seen in other areas that when faced with big issues individuals don’t think that they can have much impact, so they look to businesses to step up. Moreover, the cultural climate means that the time for charitable donations made by businesses as a gesture toward social issues is passed – and however much a company gives it won’t look like a big number compared to their revenue or profits.

People are looking to companies to participate in society and be part of fixing the problem. They don’t want handouts, they want genuine interest and they want to see companies applying what they’re good at to make a better society.

Initiatives like Fonterra’s Milk for Schools and Spark’s support of the Manaiakalani Education Trust both fuels and aligns with a belief in giving children a good start. That the country’s business is involved in these initiatives is seen as doing the right thing and sharing the good fortune. It’s empowering by giving Kiwi kids a good start in life.

Reciprocal generosity

Kiwis are inherently generous – as well as offering our driveways to campervans during the Rugby World Cup, we’ve seen the success of social enterprises like Eat My Lunch, and more recently the launch of Thankyou.

Some social enterprise operations address the empowerment and reciprocal generosity issue. Pomegranate Kitchen in Wellington sells Middle Eastern food prepared by cooks from a refugee background, focusing on the skills that they can contribute to New Zealand society while providing meaningful work. Another example, Everybody Eats on K Rd, creates a sense of community through local chefs and volunteers working together to feed the hungry. 

These are great role models for what bigger business could support or initiate.

With tensions growing around social injustice especially because it flies in the face of the generosity of the Kiwi spirit and sense of fairness, there are surely opportunities for companies to take up the challenge. It’s not enough for a brand to say it cares. People will rally around tangible actions not hollow statements, and they’ll reciprocate when they feel that something positive is being done.

As one of the people we talked to about the Kiwi Codes said: “We haven’t had our modern suffragette moment yet.”

It’s an opportunity going to waste.

  • Colleen Ryan is the head of strategy at TRA
  • * The Kiwi Cultural Codes was a collaborative project between TRA and True. 

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