Challenging the myths
In post-Second World War years New Zealand manners were analysed critically by visiting writers, and some long-held beliefs came under attack. American David Ausubel, in his 1960 book The fern and the tiki, conceded that New Zealanders were less reserved than the British, but controversially suggested that rather than being relaxed, New Zealanders were in fact quite formal in their use of titles, way of introducing people and methods of running meetings and committees. He ventured that they were not very friendly and showed marked hostility towards foreigners. He also claimed that they were not really egalitarian, with Pākehā showing racist tendencies and a liking for work hierarchies and social class distinctions.
The standard of debate
David Ausubel was highly critical of the standard of public debate in New Zealand, suggesting that it reflected the generally low level of courtesy. He claimed ‘The proceedings of various public and quasi-public bodies, from Parliament down, are characterized by an inordinate amount of contentiousness, bickering, petty wrangling, abusive name-calling, insult, counter-insult and ruffled feelings.’1
In particular, Ausubel found many New Zealanders to be essentially ungracious, something he attributed to a respect for the form rather than the substance of politeness, arising from authoritarianism. He commented that ‘in demanding courteous behaviour parents and teachers place excessive emphasis on their position of authority and their power to punish, and insufficient stress on the inherent right of every person, irrespective of his power or position, to be treated courteously.’2
Ausubel’s comments were not well-received, partly, perhaps, because they contained some truth. Some of the faults he identified probably arose from New Zealanders’ widely acknowledged insularity – as a 1952 handbook for European immigrants put it ‘we think that we ourselves are just about the only yard-stick on which other people can be measured’.3 This may have diminished as increasing numbers of overseas visitors arrived and more New Zealanders travelled overseas from the 1970s onward.
From the 1970s overseas events and trends had an increasing influence on New Zealand. One was the rise of youth activism and protest movements which challenged authority. The New Zealand edition of The little red schoolbook, which caused a stir when it was published in 1972, encouraged schoolchildren to question unnecessary rules: ‘Demand your rights, but be polite,’ it advised.4 Assertiveness, however, was often taken for aggression and rudeness by an older generation.
Another influence was the rise of feminism, which questioned all aspects of male behaviour towards women. Practices such as standing up for women on buses or when they entered a room, or holding open doors for women, were derided by some feminists as patronising, and most men were quick to abandon these courtesies.
Dressing up or down
In her satirical etiquette book, Thank you for having me: a guide to morals and manners for modern New Zealanders, published in 1979, Rosemary McLeod commented on changing dress codes. ‘Most New Zealanders dress down. This means that as a race we’re a dowdy lot, and we’re becoming dowdier as we reduce the number of places we dress up to go to. The places we’ve left are the races, weddings, balls, dinner in expensive restaurants, and places where the beautiful people go.’5
As hierarchies broke down, so did the rigid dress codes that once operated. Until the 1960s most adult women wore a hat and gloves to all formal events – and even going shopping was deemed to be a formal event. Similarly, men wore hats which they doffed to women and took off indoors or at funerals as a sign of respect. This began to change late in the decade and dress became increasingly informal, along with manners generally.
New Zealand etiquette books of the late 20th century ranged from serious to satirical, but all touched on situations that would be familiar to most New Zealanders: getting on with neighbours, attending social functions and marking important life milestones. They also raised previously unmentioned issues such as appropriate sexual behaviour and dealing with divorce.