Top Cultural Differences Between the US and New Zealand


Kyle Peterson is a student at the University of Idaho and an ISA Featured Blogger. He is currently studying abroad with ISA in Wellington, New Zealand.

Culture within the United States has always been a curious topic to me, largely due to the melting pot label of the country, with its various ethnicities and heritages. While there are aspects of the States which are inherently American, such as 4th of July, NFL Sunday, and Black Friday, each state or region seems to have its own way of doing things. New Zealand, being such a small, isolated country in the bottom corner of the world, isn’t in quite the same situation. To an American’s eye there is certainly a “New Zealand way of life,” and here are a few of the major differences I’ve observed.

Straight away upon arriving in New Zealand, I realized thick skin is a necessity. It’s not unusual for your cashier or bus driver to crack a sarcastic remark towards you, regardless of the fact that you’ve literally never met in your life. It’s as if there is an agreed upon friendly give-and-take among Kiwis, which may come off as rude or unwarranted to Americans. It took me some getting used to before I caught on to this concept and after three months I still have difficulty coming up with a witty response on the spot. But once you get to know a New Zealander, you find they are some of the friendliest people in the world!

Our driver for a Red Rocks Reserve safari trip, amazingly he played a minor role in The Lord of the Rings!

My first week in New Zealand, a couple friends and I were grabbing a quick lunch at McDonald’s and I was shocked when the large Coke I ordered came in what I had been accustomed to calling a medium size cup! This was true for the fries and burgers as well, considerably smaller than back in the States. I was neither disappointed nor upset, simply in utter disbelief that portion sizes are that inflated within the States. And you’d better make that reduced-size medium last the entire meal, as free-refills are not the norm in New Zealand.

A medium size drink on the left, next to a large size.

Kiwis aren’t always in a rush like many Americans, and are happy to help those in need. One of my first days living in Wellington, I was tasked with navigating the way home across town without a map or cell phone, a frightening endeavor for any millennial. Once I admitted I was indeed lost, I asked a man wearing a business suit the fastest way back to Victoria campus, as I knew the way from there. While precisely explaining each turn I should make, he missed the light and his chance to cross, yet wasn’t fazed. In that moment I imagined a business man in a larger city in the States and whether they would take time out of their day to help a complete stranger, a foreigner, no less. Receiving directions wouldn’t be the issue, but once that light turned green I questioned whether most Americans would continue, or abruptly cut off their sentence and leave me with just half the knowledge of how to make it home.

The hills of Welly make it easy to orient yourself, but it took awhile to not get lost within the tall buildings of downtown.

Coming from the United States, a country immensely proud of itself (almost to a fault at times), these variations in how other people live are precisely why I chose to study abroad. No matter where you end up traveling, you’re sure to experience a new culture and become a more open-minded person as a result.

The world awaits…discover it.

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