In an impassioned speech regarding spending on his council credit card Manakau mayor Len Brown made a number of dramatic gestures, including face, chest and nose slapping. Brown’s spokesman, David Lewis, suggested that such gestures were a sign of the depth of emotion that Mr Brown was feeling and described the gestures as being “Maori gesture”, specifically kanohi te kanohi (literally face-to face), inviting people to tackle him face-to-face about these issues.
Prominent Māori broadcasters, entertainers and academics have subsequently rejected this explanation and suggested that to claim a cultural element to his behaviour is poor judgment, or offensive. Broadcaster Willie Jackson, actor Temura Morrison and entertainer Frankie Stevens indicated that they did not know what Lewis was talking about in describing the gestures as œMori gesture. While Brown™s gestures showed some similarity to gestures “ such as chest and thigh slapping “ seen in the haka, Morrison explains that these gestures are to establish unison and rhythm not to invite the face-to-face challenge Lewis suggests. Morrison suggests that the "come and get me" gesture usually involved poking out the tongue. Auckland University Mori studies expert Dr Ranginui Walker was also unconvinced stating that he had never heard of men doing these gestures, though they were similar to some behaviours of women "in the old days when their husbands died or when warriors were slain”.
While it would appear that the classification of Brown’s gestures as being “Māori gesture” is erroneous, it highlights an important question regarding the role of gesture in communication and differences between and within cultures. There is a long history of informal reports that non-verbal cues (e.g., facial expressions, gesture and posture) are used in different ways by Maori and Pakeha in New Zealand. An ongoing research project being conducted by Dr Jeanette King, Associate Professor Jen Hay and Professor Lucy Johnston, at the newly-formed New Zealand Institute of Language, Brain and Behavior, Te Kahui Roro Reo, at the University of Canterbury is documenting the nature and extent of differences in facial expressions, gesture and posture between Maori and Pakeha speakers. In the gestures of bilingual speakers while speaking Mori and English are being investigated “ does the same person use different gestures and expressions when saying the same thing in Maori than in English? Further, the research also considers the impact of these gestures on others - whether gestures alone impact the perceived ethnicity or language of a speaker and, if so, what impact this might have on the evaluations of the speakers.
The results of this research are relevant to issues of prejudice and discrimination and may lead to interventions designed to reduce such prejudices. Through to the present day, differences between the use of non-verbal cues by Māori and Pakeha have been noted with concomitant consequences for miscommunication. Māori, for example, are reported to find direct eye contact confrontational. Thus ˜body language” is argued as continuing to be an important part of Mori speech acts, whether in Maori or English. The research team are currently seeking additional æunding to expand their research of this socially and culturally important topic.
While Len Brown’s gestures may have been histrionic and unrelated to Māori, investigation of the actual use of gesture by Māori while speaking both Māori and English promises to reveal important insights regarding the nature of language, and the scope of linguistic and cultural variation within New Zealand.