Maori and Pacific Island
Customs and Beliefs
Kia Ora, Talofa Lava, Fakalofa Lava,
Kia Orana, Malo E Lelei, Bula Vanaka
The word serve or service is a very important word in the Polynesian culture. We are taught from a very early age that in order for the tangata (person/individual), whanau (family), hapu (extended family/sub-tribe) and iwi (tribe) to grow and prosper, each person must learn to take care of not only their own needs but those of others in the whanau, hapu and iwi.
So you may find that when you offer your services to a Polynesian person they in turn will be thinking of how to meet your needs even when they are sick or dying. Those needs may include making you feel comfortable, providing you with food, the person not being too much of a burden to you or that you trust them enough to let them know what your needs are. This enables the Polynesian person to feel that no matter what condition they are in, they can still be of service to people. They are not powerless, they can still contribute to the community.
The following very simplified information on Maori and Pacific Island customs and beliefs will help you toward a better understanding and appreciation of some of the behaviours and attitudes you may encounter when offering your services to people of the Polynesian culture.
Eye contact is normally kept to a minimum between younger and older people, and people of the opposite sex. It is a sign of confrontation and disrespect if there is too much eye contact. Lowering the eyes shows respect to elders, teachers, figures of authority etc. and humbleness on the part of the person lowering the eyes. Although direct eye contact is seen less and less as confrontational and disrespectful these days, it would be wise to look for cues/clues when you are with clients to modify your behaviour accordingly, e.g. observe how often they engage direct eye-eye contact with you.
Please acknowledge, accept and thank the client if they offer to help you help them. Let the client and family know you appreciate and respect any cultural/care giving/traditional health care, etc. information, and knowledge they may volunteer. This is a very important point to remember with Polynesian people, as their self esteem is closely linked with being useful even when they are sick.
It is important also to know that if information of a personal nature is required from older people, then it is not appropriate to have a very young person of the opposite sex responsible for gathering that info from older people. You show respect for their age and traditional values by selecting a mature and experienced person of the same sex.
Do not interrupt when someone is speaking, wait until they have finished. It is very disrespectful and the height of bad manners in Polynesian culture to interrupt a person particularly an older person when they are speaking.
The tone of voice should be modified to suit the person you are speaking too, e.g. you normally use a respectful tone to older people, and a gentle and respectful tone to anyone to make them feel valued and at ease. Please never speak down to older people, (for that matter not to anyone).
Don’t assume that you can just sit on the client’s bed without asking their permission, always ask, you’ll always get a ‘yes’ but it’s still polite to ask.
The head is the most sacred area of the body for many Polynesian tribes. Please ask the person’s permission to touch their head if you have to touch that area of the body.
The Torso should be handled with respect and according to the needs of the person i.e. men prefer other men to assist them particularly if the lower half of the body is to be exposed; and naturally women prefer the assistance of another female if their bodies are to be exposed; going to the toilet, bathing, dressing wounds around genital area etc. Where it is impossible to provide for these needs then avert your eyes, or turn your back or where possible leave the room. The main thing to remember here is that the person never feels humiliated or embarrassed. Making the activity very natural, light and ‘enjoyable’ and emphasizing subtly that you and the client working together is a natural part of health care.
Polynesian love connecting through touch. They walk arm in arm along the road and touch you when they hold a conversation with you. However there are touches that are not appropriate, e.g. do not pat older people, as you would a child or pet; do not touch the head, not even playfully, this applies to all age groups; do not presume to touch older people unless they touch you first (that’s usually a cue that touching is OK); touching is usually aged matched e.g. a young female volunteer would not use touch with young male client unless it is really necessary, whereas young male client would accept the use of touch from older volunteer.
Try not to sit with your feet pointing directly at a person. It is a sign of disrespect and confrontation.
Never have feces, urine or blood in any room where food is served.
Please never sit or place any article e.g. shoes, on tables or any surface where food is to be prepared and eaten. It is unhygienic and it is very offensive to Polynesian people.
The kitchen sink is used only for the preparation of food and washing of dishes. Washing of anything else in this area is considered unhealthy and very poor hygiene practices. For Maori, tea towels are always washed on their own, never with clothing that touches the body or other household articles.
Spiritual/social rituals and practices are very important in Polynesian homes. Just be aware that some behaviours we may not find offensive may be the reverse to Polynesians i.e. discussing sexual matters in mixed company, a female sitting on a bed that belongs to a male and vice-versa, not saying grace before meals, the use of any ‘bad’ language.
Swearing is not appropriate.
Holding hands with the opposite sex in front of older people is considered disrespectful, (behaviour of a ‘sexual’ nature is not for public display). You’re not only showing disrespect for the elders but also for one another.
Prayers are always said before meals or meetings.
If you walk into a crowded room or in front a group of people, bend your back and lower head as you pass these people. This is a sign of respect and humility. However if you can avoid it try not to walk in front of people, behind them is always best, particularly where large gatherings are concerned. Standing or walking upright is a sign of arrogance and lack of consideration for other people.
Because of the great awareness of the Treaty of Waitangi, there is a corresponding awareness and sensitivity to traditional customs, among the Maori people.
There are many more do’s and don’ts but the above information will help to break down feelings of anxiety and ‘uncomfortableness’ and allow you to get on with forming a respectful and productive relationship with your client. Always ask if you are uncertain or just don’t know.
Don’t forget to smile, Polynesians love to give and receive smiles. Even when Polynesians don’t feel like smiling they will make the effort to ensure the other person is made to feel welcome and happy. It pays to always approach Polynesians with a smile on your face; it will set the tone of your present and future interactions.