Choice, bro

by Jane Clifton / 03 July, 2010
The definition of what it means to be a New Zealander is changing. Jane Clifton looks at the seven characteristics of the new us.

Some days, it can be hard to ­recognise ourselves. As a nation, we are used to being told from on high that we are over-indebted, big-spending, house-mad, underpaid, insufficiently productive, over-eating, sports-obsessed, underinvesting, alcohol-abusing, nuclear-free, child-beating carbon-emitters.

In our kinder moments, we prefer to evoke older notions of New Zealandness: Kiwi ingenuity, anti-materialism, tolerance and, above all, egalitarianism.

But a recent study conducted at Massey University shows we are not as egalitarian as we used to be; racial tension flares regularly, our ingenuity is chronically underfunded in research and development terms, and shopping is one of our leading leisure activities.

There is a deeper aspect to the national character, however.

American anthropologists Patricia Sunderland and Rita Denny, of Practica, a firm that specialises in sociological and psychographic research, have done an in-depth project for New Zealand advertising firm DraftFCB to map the distinctive qualities of the New Zealander. Practica - whose extensive client list includes Johnson & Johnson, Kmart, Coca-Cola, Nissan, McDonald's, Pernod Ricard and several global advertising agencies - has conducted similar research in a host of other countries, including Australia, and was able to assess New Zealand comparatively.

Practica broke us down into seven "legends" - defining characteristics - within which it identified some tensions and dichotomies. And yes, all our favourite self-definitions were represented: the value we place on knowing what to do with a length of No 8 fencing wire, the "she'll be right" ethos, the barbecue on the beach idyll and the inevitable "tall poppy". And no, they didn't once remark on our addiction to buying huge flat-screen TVs.

The first and most important aspect of New Zealandness, Practica found, was our relationship with the land. New Zealanders' sense of self-definition is heavily bound up with love of the natural world. We share this with Australia, but there's a twist. Australia has a strongly physical relationship with the land, needing to have a sense of conquest or control - because their environment can be hostile and can kill them. With New Zealanders' climate and landscape being rather more benign, our view is apparently more spiritual, even soulful.

This goes some way to explaining the resistance to mining this side of the Tasman. Apparently we want to keep the land the way it is, whereas Australians are more comfortable with changing and exploiting the land. "And you can see an echo of this in our national anthems. Ours is God Defend New Zealand; theirs is Advance Australia Fair," says David Thomas­on, DraftFCB's director of planning.

He says it's no accident that car advertising differs each side of the Tasman. In New Zealand Toyota is promoted as enabling people to get out and celebrate and enjoy the landscape. In Australia, it's a "hard-arse" brand, the theme of a new campaign there being it's too dangerous to go into the outback without a Toyota.

That we love our land might seem obvious to us - but it is quite a distinctive thing about New Zealand. The populations of the world's great cities would not think of their landscape the way we do, Thomason says.

This bond seems to be a home-grown rather than inherited thing. Maori seem to always have had it, and Pakeha have developed it. Early houses were often built heedless of sun and views, as the European ethos was that indoors was indoors, and outdoors was hostile, something to be firmly shut out. Now, as Thomason points out, "indoor-outdoor flow" is epidemic in real estate, practically regardless of aspect.

He says one of the anthropologists was struck by the keenness of her interview subjects to "show you the house" - by which they usually meant their backyards. They found our relationship with the outdoors remarkable in world terms.

A favourite anecdote of the anthropologists was a respondent who spoke admiringly of a Chinese immigrant whose first action - even before learning to speak English - was to buy a bach by the sea. "He 'got it'. He was 'one of us!'"

The second most defining characteristic was our independence, and the high value we put on our freedom. However, there's a wrinkle with this one: we still want the reassurance of bigger countries. "We're like the teenager of the world. We want to do our own thing, and we're doing it - but we still really want that pat on the back from overseas."

Again, it's no accident that advertising plays on this. Thomason instances one of our most successful ad campaigns: ASB's Goldstein. "We have to have two Americans telling us how good our bank is." Steinlager imports gritty actors Harvey Keitel and Willem Dafoe to salute our political independence.

Our ambivalence over the monarchy is another sign of adolescence. Symbolically, we want to ditch Mummy and Daddy, but it's a superficial gesture. We really need the world to notice us.

The teenage diagnosis doesn't just reflect the youth of the country, but its relative inexperience with conflict. Aside from the 1860s land wars, there has never been civil war; nor has there been an invasion. This apparently gives us a much stronger sense of freedom than many other countries enjoy.

New Zealand's compactness also gives us a sense of being freer than people in other countries to do what we want when we want. This is a country where you really can ski, see a play, go yachting, buy a designer frock, drink a latte and go for a bushwalk, conceivably all in the same day. Nothing is that far away. The sense that "we've got it all here" and it's all accessible is very strong, Thomason says.

A surprising third characteristic is our masculinity of expression. The anthropologists do not mean this in any anti-feminist sense, but rather they found our language and broad attitudes veered toward the stoical, and blokey, perhaps best opitimised by former All Blacks captain Tana Umaga, who famously told a whistle-happy Australian referee during a rugby game that "'we're not playing tiddlywinks here".

Masculinity of expression is not unusual worldwide, apparently. Here its outward manifestation is in the ubiquity of expressions like "don't be a girl", "suck it up" and "harden up" - used by both sexes. These sayings are emblematic of a culture that expects citizens to, in more neutral terms, show gumption, refrain from snivelling and faffing about, and to demonstrate ­capability with ­physical tasks.

Our DIY culture - baffling to many from other countries - is an obvious expression of this. New Zealanders expect to be able to do manual tasks to a level of proficiency - women as well as men - and admire such capability in others. DraftFCB found this instructive in designing campaigns for its client Mitre 10. It found that female customers would not have appreciated the chain being made more "female-friendly". They trusted it as a masculine brand.

That our female leaders - notably Helen Clark, for whom a favourite expressions was the blokey "I've had a gutsful!" - do not bring noticeably feminine qualities to their roles reinforces this observation of ambient blokeyness.

Perhaps the least surprising finding was the fourth one: that sport is a heavily pervasive societal commodity in New Zealand. Sport cuts through where nothing else can. Advertising's classic use of this was in getting former All Black John Kirwan to front awareness campaigns about depression. "Sport is a cultural code. And how we are doing affects how we feel."

Again, Thomason says, Australians are different. Perhaps because their sporting successes are spread across more sports than ours, their jubilation and depression at wins and losses is less intense.

Sport also feeds our need to be noticed by bigger countries. And it fuels our "tall poppies" tendency, in that the notion of team effort and loyalty is highly important to us. This helps explain why Sonny Bill Williams is such a hot-button topic - again. First he walked out on his team and went for the big bucks; now he's turning his back on the money in the hopes of playing for the All Blacks.

And again, this notion of masculinity - putting in the time and hard physical work without complaining - is gratified by a sporting achievement by either sex.

Inevitably, mateship is a key quotient of New Zealandness. The anthropologists found we "worship" our mates. In this, the fifth characteristic, we were least distinguished from other countries' tendencies. Valuing friendship is pretty universal.

However, in our sixth characteristic, we did rate as more easy-going than other nationalities. This was partly in the deathless "she'll be right" sense of the term, but also in our reluctance to get into conflict.

Thomason says an obvious comparison is with Italians, who habitually argue hammer and tongs with one another using furious gestures, strong words and glowering expressions. That is their norm. We'd hate it. We want to keep things cool.

"I've heard ridiculous things said in boardrooms, like 'well, let's agree to disagree', and 'let's take this offline'. We really want to get on, even if we're really in disagreement. Again, it's the teenager thing. We're not that mature, we don't like things to escalate. We're used to peace."

Linked in with this is the tacit Kiwi insistence on modesty, even if we know it's false. A triumphant sporting personality or newly ennobled knight cannot truly be feeling "humble", but we expect them to be more "aw shucks" than "I rock!"

Thomason instances an episode of Master­Chef New Zealand in which several contestants said they thought they should be the next to be sacked - something he says wouldn't happen in that TV franchise anywhere else in the world.

With our modesty comes a surprising degree of conformity and resistance to change, he says. "When certain groups of immigrants come here and don't do that well, and don't work as hard as us, we don't like that. But other cultures who come and work harder than us and do better - we're not happy either; we say, 'They're changing the culture!'"

Although we want more global influence, it makes us uneasy. The "easy-going" Kiwi is more anxious about change than he or she would probably like to think. Thomason says perhaps that's part of our predominately British heritage. We have an instinct to be repressive. Again, common expressions paint the picture: settle down, grow up, don't spit the dummy, don't throw your toys out of the cot, get a grip.

Finally - blessedly - the research names humour as our seventh most defining characteristic. It's an understated, laconic humour, often used to defuse conflict. We generally prefer it not to be too direct or pointed.

Thomason says the Australian ad campaign for a chopped tomato product, in which well-known celebrities pose under the slogan "Rich and Thick", would never work here. Too confronting. We like self-mockery, but we like it gentler.

The research has stood DraftFCB in good stead in designing campaigns for its ­clients - notably the Mitre 10 "sandpit" ad featuring two young boys discussing DIY in the manner of their dads - and failing to elicit support from an Australian playmate.

But it also helps elucidate other superficially curious national phenomena. For instance, who are the genuine Kiwi celebrities and heroes, the ones who actually help sell magazines when they're on the cover, and who get audiences to turn out and occasion widespread admiration? The Topp Twins, Flight of the Conchords, Sir Peter Jackson, Robyn Malcolm, Nigel Latta, Sir Peter Leitch, Sir Richard Taylor - all would tick a healthy number of the anthropologists' boxes.

They have all honoured strong ties to New Zealand, even though most of them could make more money overseas. They've bonded with the land. They're easy-going, as in having an informal, conversational style. They're blokey, or at least have a direct can-do style (Malcolm's Cheryl West TV character has an enviable left hook).

We rate them as world-class, and in several cases the world does too.

With the exception of Malcolm, they're not glamorous in any traditional sense. The two Sir Peters are distinctly rumpled. In contrast, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa's hauteur, particularly in dismissing untrained singers like Susan Boyle, has knocked her off her Kiwi pedestal. It feels as if she's telling us off for being New Zealanders. And we get plenty of people doing that already.

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