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The Impacts Of Repressive Culture In New Zealand

“People drift apart because they deduce more than they talk”—Brazilian saying

New Zealand is known as one of the most beautiful countries in the world, with exotic natural beauties that are very well preserved. The country also has one of the highest development rates on the planet. According to the Social Progress Index, which measures the life quality in countries using a long series of indices, New Zealand in 2019 ranked 7th in the world [1]. Its charismatic and popular Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, among many human and progressive measures defended by her government, stood out for legalizing abortion and being able to eliminate the COVID-19 virus from the country in May 2020, becoming an example for the whole world. Before that, in 2013, same-sex marriage was approved, and this year the country will have a referendum to decide if cannabis should be legalized. People who visit the former British colony are delighted not only by the civilized and peaceful structure, the jaw-dropping landscapes and good food, but also the clean air, mild climate and the helpfulness of Kiwis—those born in New Zealand. The list of good qualities is so long that many tourists who visit the nation want to get a visa to be able to live in the country for good. But there is something behind the scenes.

In a survey conducted in 2016 by New Zealand Health it was estimated that 17% of New Zealand adults suffer some emotional disorder, including depression, bipolarity or anxiety [2]. Another study published in 2009 states that 50% of adults have already suffered from anxiety [3]. Even the economy is affected: more than 4% of the country’s annual budget is used to mitigate these health conditions. But perhaps the most shocking finding is that, among OECD countries, New Zealand is leading the youth suicide rate by far [4]. Young Kiwis kill themselves twice as often when compared to Americans, and five times as often when compared to Britons.

Suicide rates per 100,000 population between 15 and 19 years old (UNICEF, 2017).

According to Shaun Robinson, chief executive of the NZ Mental Health Foundation, New Zealand is one of the worst countries in the world when it comes to school bullying. Within the OECD it is the second-worst [5]. As stated by the Education Review Office report, led by Dr. Deirdre Shaw and published in 2019, almost half of school students and teenagers reported being bullied in the past month [6]. And school bullying, incredible as it may seem, comes not only from students but also from teachers: 39% of Kiwi students said that teachers ridiculed them in front of others a few times a year, more than any other OECD country, with the exception of Great Britain [7].

People who are bullied are more susceptible to anxiety, low self-esteem, loneliness, depression, difficulty and disinterest in school (including dropping out), in addition to distrusting peers, having problems making friends and poor mental health in general [8]. Despite knowing the consequences of bullying, New Zealand has failed to mitigate the problem. According to research by the Adolescent Health Research Group at Auckland University, since 2001 bullying rates have basically not changed, except for cyber-bullying, which has been increasing. Deirdre Shaw notes that this is not a problem limited to schools:

New Zealand’s got issues with workplace bullying, child abuse, family violence, sexual assault. This is a broader societal issue and adults also need to be thinking about the part that they play in this [...]. Bullying is not just something that happens, it’s not just made up, it’s learnt from watching other people exhibit those behaviours themselves.

In 2015, Prime Minister John Key was accused of harassing a waitress by tugging her ponytail many times over several months, in most cases without her seeing him, and then accusing, with a supposed sense of humour, his wife. When the waitress got tired of the abuses and decided to expose the story to the public, journalists asked the Prime Minister to explain the story, which he said it was just a joke and that he had already apologized to her with two bottles of wine [9]. It is difficult to count how many layers of horror there are in his behavior.

It seems normalized here this kind of humour with a provocative bias, although it is often expressed between the lines. This behavior is also not limited to the school environment, but also to universities, offices and small communities. As usual, the bully makes use of a privileged position to oppress those who are most vulnerable, whether women, immigrants, people in lower social class, low in the hierarchy of the company, etc. “Furthermore, [in New Zealand] there is a toxic mix of family violence, child abuse, racism, culture disconnect, isolation and a sense of non-belonging,” explains Shaun Robinson. According to Prudence Stone, from UNICEF New Zealand, there is a strong culture in this country for men to become these tough beer-drinking hard men. In the article The Lies We Tell Ourselves About The Sexual Abuse Of Boys, published in 2020, Emily Writes says that in New Zealand men are forced to hide their emotions and never show weakness [10].

This behaviour not only suppresses emotions but also creates a favourable scenario for abuse and barriers when it is necessary to ask for help. According to mental health expert Mike King, 80% of high school students who have had suicidal thoughts have never asked for help because they are worried about what other people will think, say or do if they share that information [11]. King, who has also tried to commit suicide, says the last thing he wanted to do was call someone or talk to a doctor. “I wanted a friend to walk into my room and tell me they love me, that I mean something in their life,” he reveals.

The PISA 2018 report (which evaluates the education quality around the world) says that school dropout rates have also worsened in New Zealand, and adds [12]:

Every student, no matter their gender or ethnicity has been struggling to find a ‘sense of belonging’. They also reported not feeling safe at school. The report showed a huge downturn in students’ positivity toward making friends, feeling liked but were more likely to feel awkward, out of place, lonely and like an outsider.

Perhaps one of the biggest differences of Kiwis when compared to their British colonizers is the artistic and cultural connection, which here is quite limited. In 2015, New Zealand author Eleanor Catton, winner of the Booker Prize for Fiction in 2013 with the book The Luminaries, gave an interview where she made statements that angered the Prime Minister John Key and many other conservatives in the country [13]:

New Zealand is dominated by [...] politicians who do not care about culture […]. I feel uncomfortable being an ambassador for my country when my country is not doing as much as it could, especially for the intellectual world, including arts.

Catton’s statement was supported by some academics, including Christina Stachurski, from the University of Canterbury, Fergus Barrowman, from the University of Victoria and also by filmmaker Julia Campbell, to name but a few [14]. Catton also said she believed the country will only overcome such limitations through eloquence, imagination and reasoned debate, qualities that she says are disappearing from the national conversation, especially because here there is this culture to humiliate and silence those who stand up to question the status quo.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern published an article in 2018 recognizing that there is a long-standing crisis in art and culture in the country, and that this compromises society as a whole [15]. According to her, studies have shown that those who suffer from anxiety, depression and even neurodegenerative diseases are profoundly benefited when introduced to arts in general. “Arts and creativity are integral and inseparable parts of what it is to be human,” she concluded. Film critic Pablo Villaça, one of the most influential in Brazil, shares the same opinion:

Art promotes empathy and bonding between people as it allows us to see the world through different perspectives. It also facilitates deep thinking and gives life flavor, keeping us from living mechanically.

One of the consequences of this superficial connection with art is New Zealanders’ little interest in personal narratives. While Kiwis pragmatically tell some events that happened to them—usually inserting dad jokes in order to fill in gaps—other people, like Latinos, avoid pragmatism. They understand that there is something ludic in the course of the stories, and that the joy is not limited to the outcome but to the narrative itself, the same way that the richness of a song, film or book is not only in its resolution but in all its developing. If we ask a Kiwi couple we have known for years how they met, they will likely answer something like: we studied in the same college. Period. There seems to be some difficulty in this country to understand things like nostalgia or even a visceral passion. The impression they give is that, when they have access to a foreign art that expresses such feelings, they see it as pure fantasy, as if it were a Disney cartoon.

In countries like the USA, Brazil, England and France, to mention just a few examples, black people and Latinos are native and participate in the cultural production in their countries. In New Zealand, however, the different ethnicities that settle here tend to live in segmented groups. This can be seen since school, where different ethnic groups do not usually mix. It is not that in other countries there is no discrimination or racial segregation—and this moment in history could not make this more evident—but the influence of different cultures in the mainstream of these countries is pretty evident. The key here is the positive impact that diversity can bring.

Of course, New Zealand is a young country, colonized by the British less than 200 years ago, and its independence took place in 1947. Until the mid-1960s it was basically a rural country, and immigration policy was just beginning. The tourist and immigration boom only occurred in the 1990s, so it is understandable, to some extent, that the integration of different cultures is still limited. Furthermore, the most frequently-issued visas have a short expiration time, encouraging immigrant turnover. And recently, in order to reduce the pace of immigration growth—the largest within the OECD — new policies introduced by the government are tightening the rules, using income (and high bureaucracy fees) as a determining factor for immigration to the country. So the arrival of low and middle class foreigners is becoming even more unlikely, thus preventing the country from integrating more diverse cultures. To make matters worse, the closest most influential country is Australia, which is not so different from New Zealand in terms of cultural diversity.

For many years, New Zealand has had one of the highest rates of domestic violence among the OECD [16]. Every four minutes a call is made to the police reporting cases like this. About 35% of New Zealanders say they have been physically assaulted by their partners. During the quarantine, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a 20% increase in cases [17]. Domestic violence is estimated to cost the government more than 4 billion New Zealand dollars a year. The cost, of course, is not only economic but human as well. According to a WHO report, this type of violence can lead to depression, post-traumatic stress and other anxiety disorders, in addition to sleep difficulties, eating disorders and suicide attempts [18]. “Children who grow up in families where there is violence may suffer a range of behavioural and emotional disturbances, [in addition to] perpetrating or experiencing violence later in life,” the report said.

Percentage of women physically assaulted by a partner throughout life (purple) and in the last 12 months (black triangle).

WorkSafe, the government agency responsible for dealing with problems of all kinds at work, says that more than 20% of workers in New Zealand report being bullied or abused every year [19]. However, according to an article written by Sophie Bateman, published in The Spinoff in 2019, most complaints made to WorkSafe do not result in a prosecution [20]. “Of the roughly 60,000 notifications received per year, the regulator will investigate 300 to 400 and prosecute about 80. In 2018, WorkSafe received around 400 notifications of bullying and harassment cases, but prosecuted none,” says the author.

To avoid conflicts and not have to leave the comfort zone, Kiwis have adopted a series of hidden agreements. This is a culture of protocols and standards in its essence. Not only in small details, like always having dinner at 6 pm, but also in areas that, in the eyes of foreigners, may sound a bit odd. For example, when they do not respond to a message or email, it is probably because they felt uncomfortable in some way, but are unable to express it. The truth is that it is never really clear what they think about each other. And even in seemingly mundane situations, such as a mother asking another how the first months of motherhood were, it is likely that the subject goes around positive trivialities, after all going deeper increases the risks of self-exposure and conflicts.

The so-called small talk is a daily sport that immigrants need to learn in order not to be frowned upon. At first it may sound pleasant to be asked what are our plans for the rest of the day or how was our weekend, but after a while you realise that they are not really interested in the answer, especially if it is detailed or minimally controversial. Because of this widespread shallowness, Kiwis are usually quite restrained, and the lack of enthusiasm for life is worrying. There is even some kind of recipe for life to be considered a success here: school, college (with heaps of alcohol), moving out of home and away from parents, joining in a stable relationship and job, living together with the partner, getting married, buying a new car and a new house, having kids and finally living basically to keep these things in one piece. If it seems like a reductionist generalization, it must be emphasized that usually the affective and intellectual ambition of Kiwis really does not go much beyond that.

Marriage rates (blue) and divorces (yellow) between 1961 and 2019 (Stats NZ).

In 2019, New Zealand had 0.9% of married people divorcing [21], while in Brazil, for example, the rate was 33%. It is not that divorcing in Brazil is 40 times less bureaucratic or that Brazilians are much more emotionally unstable. What happens is that New Zealanders have different aspirations. For them, marriage means a deal with the common goal of fulfilling social expectations; just one more item in the recipe. Feelings, emotions, ambitions to grow as human, all that is often muffled.

For those who come from a country where people are always touching each other and affection has no time or place, it is curious to see how Kiwis avoid physical contact. There is practically no affection in public, such as holding hands or body-hugging. Not even parents are willing to cuddle their kids. Passionate kisses are reserved to unaware tourist couples, and they will probably hear “get a room!”

It may seem that in their homes, with more privacy, things change, but, well, not quite. In a survey conducted by Durex in 2009, about 60% of New Zealanders admitted to be unsatisfied with their sex lives, slightly above the world average [22]. According to a survey of more than 22,000 people conducted by the dating service Saucy Dates, Kiwi men were considered the worst lovers in the world. From 0 to 10 they scored 4, while women scored 6. When the New Zealand radio program The Hits asked some women if they agreed that Kiwis were bad in bed, many confirmed that they are [23]. At the same time, New Zealand is ranked 13th in frequency per capita on Pornhub, one of the largest porn sites in the world. And it is not just about men. About 40% of Kiwi visitors are women, well above the world average (26%) [24]. In other words, it is not that Kiwis are alien to sex, but just lost in emotional fears, with no decent support from the government.

In the 2011 UN report on women, New Zealand was ranked the worst OECD country regarding sexual violence. It is estimated that only ten of every 100 crimes of this type are reported, just three go to court and only one has a chance of being convicted [25]. It is known that sexual abuse usually happens when the abuser has previously suffered abuse, rejection or repression, especially in childhood, which is consistent with New Zealand’s reality. Almost 40% of Kiwis say they have suffered sexual abuse, and usually at least one of those involved is under the influence of some substance and/or alcohol [26]. To make matters worse, in many cases these women end up consuming even more alcohol as a way of alienating themselves from the trauma [27].

New Zealand ranks 25th in the world regarding alcohol consumption per capita. Among OECD countries it ranks 11th. About 80% of the population frequently consume alcohol, and 30% of young people do so in a way that can cause physical and/or mental damage [28]. Getting drunk is another national sport. They consume heaps of alcohol and drugs because it is the way they found to take some actions that they believe would not be possible if they were sober. However, according to Healthline excessive alcohol consumption interferes with blood flow, causing physiological and cognitive impacts, including bad sex experiences [29].

The government would be expected to create programs to better sexually educate New Zealanders, however, according to a report by the Education Review Office, published in 2018, in ten years sex education in the country has made virtually no progress [30]. This is not just a matter of updating the curriculum of schools and universities. The issue is more complex than that. Sex is a taboo in the country, including bar conversations and among people close to each other. To avoid social exposure and disapproval, Kiwis tend to keep to themselves their most intimate feelings and experiences, whether good or bad. This behaviour, however, has severe psychological consequences.

Because emotional suppression is practically the norm in the country, kids assimilate the idea that they must contain their feelings and reprove those who act differently. This loop not only perpetuates suppression, but it also makes it unlikely that people could be aware of what they do and the consequences of it. According to the Healthline article on emotional suppression, the condition can compromise the immune system and also lead to conditions such as stress, anxiety and depression [31]. In order to identify the existence of emotional suppression, the article suggests observing the following symptoms, which — by the way — seem to define the Kiwis:

  • regularly feel numb or blank because you never let your thoughts linger on anything significant or upsetting
  • feel low, or stressed a lot of the time, even if you aren’t sure why
  • experience unease or discomfort when other people tell you about their feelings
  • feel distressed or irritated when someone asks you about your feelings
  • go along with situations instead of expressing what you really want and need
  • use substances (alcohol, drugs, etc), TV, social media or other activities to help you numb and avoid feelings you don’t want to explore
  • others often describe you as ‘chill’, ‘calm’, or ‘relaxed’

The peer-reviewed study entitled The Social Costs of Emotional Suppression, conducted in 2009 by a group of psychologists at Stanford University, reinforces some of these observations [32]:

A number of important social processes rely on others knowing about an individual’s internal emotional states […]. Individuals who suppress [emotions] will miss opportunities to establish close and meaningful relationships with others.

And the consequences are not just limited to those who suppress their own feelings:

Interacting with [someone] who suppressed [emotions is] more stressful than interacting with [those] who acted naturally, as indexed by increases in blood pressure.

Also according to the study:

If social partners correctly infer that an individual is suppressing [emotions], they may perceive a suppressor as being uninterested in intimacy or even inauthentic in a social interaction […]. By disrupting the give and take of emotional communication, suppression has the potential to undermine social functioning to a significant degree.

The friendship circle of Kiwis is usually forged during high school and college, and then it basically closes forever. The separation between work and personal life is evident so that they find it very difficult to develop intimacy with co-workers. In the article New Zealanders Don’t Mingle Well At Parties, Lee Suckling explains it [33]:

Kiwis huddle together with the people we already know, often forming physically impenetrable circles. We forge friendship groups at school and university, so when it comes to adulthood, it’s as if we don’t feel like we need new people in our lives. There’s almost a sense that ‘we have our friends, why go outside our comfort zone?’

Among Kiwis even longtime friends are not so present in their lives. It seems that for them the concept of friendship does not involve much intimacy or even participation in their routines. In the comment section of Lee Suckling’s article several Kiwis try to explain why they behave like this:

I have an amazing set of friends—and I probably see them less than ten times a year. Don’t get me wrong, I could make more effort, but family is full on, and I prefer spending the time with my kids, work is full on, and people’s lives are generally busy. So excuse me if when I finally get to catch up with them, at a party, bar, or otherwise, I want to invest the time with them.Marycotton

But certainly the observation that best synthesizes and corroborates what has been said so far comes from Lee Suckling in his article: “Maybe we fear talking about ourselves.”

Because New Zealand is an example to the world in a long series of social indices, and life in general works for the majority, New Zealanders usually do not show interest in transformative issues. That’s why it is so uncommon to see Kiwis with a sharp critical sense. We have to remember that thinking outside the box is not something given; it requires situations of adversity and/or formal education. And because in many aspects this is a conservative society, especially in intimacy, the result is that people have some kind of aversion to anything that threatens social stability. This also explains why New Zealanders tend to be unenthusiastic about life.

Many of the issues that affect modern society occur due to social injustices that are historical legacies. New Zealand is no exception. If there is sexism here, it is because women have historically been prevented from taking leadership roles. If there are racism and xenophobia, it is because one race prevailed by force, preventing the others from having representativeness. And so it goes. Although significant social changes take many years, the role of the government is essential in this journey. Not just better support in mitigating some of the issues that haunt the country, such as sexism, cultural alienation, bullying, sexual abuse, domestic violence, racism and emotional suppression. But also introducing more robust public policies to fix inequalities. For example, reviewing the immigration policy to facilitate not just the so-called highly skilled workers who get paid at least $53k per year, after all not everything in a country should be about economics. Or even introducing in companies a quota system that requires a minimum number of women, Maori and immigrants in positions of greater influence. When all groups are heard and have the opportunity to participate in building society, we all stand to gain.

From the individual point of view, what each person can do to develop a broader sense of identity is to first observe that the most interesting people always bring something new, break at least some conventions and, especially, are authentic and empathetic. Life does not have to be limited to goals; it can be much more than that. Connect more deeply to the people you care about by developing interest in listening to them without judgment, and open your heart as we need to experience the emotions that go with our stories. Free and allow yourself to embark on new experiences, even if that eventually means looking eccentric. We do not always have to fit in to social expectations. Naturally, like any significant change, there will be hard times and uncertainties, but it is through this process that we have the opportunity to discover ourselves and allow us to experience the countless and amazing surprises that life has to offer.

In an act of extreme sincerity and courage, Tova Leigh reveals that at 40 she decided to question her habits and moral values, which ended up being a process of self-discovery and emancipation [34]:

I realised many things I was doing were never really a choice but rather something I felt I was expected to do: the type of mother I was, the type of wife, and even the type of woman… so many aspects of my life felt dictated and I wanted to break out of all the labels and boxes.



[1] https://www.socialprogress.org/?tab=2&code=NZL

[2] https://wellplace.nz/facts-and-information/mental-wellbeing/mental-health-in-new-zealand/

[3] https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/the-wireless/373566/the-anxiety-epidemic

[4] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-40284130

[5] https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/education/113643987/nzs-school-bullying-rate-the-second-highest-in-the-oecd

[6] https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/national/389056/bullying-intolerably-high-and-beyond-schools-direct-control-ero

[7] https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11841147

[8] https://www.bullyingfree.nz/about-bullying/bullying-in-new-zealand-schools/

[9] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/australiaandthepacific/newzealand/11553972/New-Zealand-PM-John-Key-apologises-for-tugging-waitresss-ponytail.html

[10] https://thespinoff.co.nz/society/20-02-2020/emily-writes-the-lies-we-tell-ourselves-about-the-sexual-abuse-of-boys/

[11] https://www.critic.co.nz/features/article/7227/what-is-behind-new-zealands-high-suicide-rate

[12] https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/education/117890945/new-zealand-topend-in-oecds-latest-pisa-report-but-drop-in-achievements-worrying

[13] https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jan/30/eleanor-catton-blasts-critics-jingoistic-national-tantrum

[14] https://www.odt.co.nz/news/national/catton-traitor-says-plunket

[15] https://www.nzherald.co.nz/entertainment/news/article.cfm?c_id=1501119&objectid=12056256

[16] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/11/new-zealand-domestic-violence-services-to-get-200m-as-lockdown-takes-toll

[17] https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=12324237

[18] https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/violence-against-women

[19] https://worksafe.govt.nz/about-us/news-and-media/workplace-bullying-and-harassment/

[20] https://thespinoff.co.nz/society/04-06-2019/nz-workplaces-need-to-completely-rethink-their-approach-to-sexual-harassment/

[21] https://www.stats.govt.nz/topics/marriages-civil-unions-and-divorces

[22] http://www.stuff.co.nz/life-style/22444/Kiwi-women-most-promiscuous-in-the-world

[23] https://www.stuff.co.nz/life-style/love-sex/119040614/are-kiwi-blokes-really-the-worlds-worst-lovers

[24] https://thespinoff.co.nz/society/16-12-2019/lets-not-get-too-prudish-about-pornography/

[25] https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=12294276

[26] https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/113090659/a-third-of-women-university-students-report-being-sexually-assaulted-what-do-we-owe-them

[27] https://www.odt.co.nz/news/dunedin/crime/victim-sexual-assault-says-she-will-take-years-heal

[28] https://www.drugfoundation.org.nz/policy-and-advocacy/drugs-in-nz-an-overview/state-of-the-nation/

[29] https://www.healthline.com/health/alcohol-and-sex

[30] https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/education/107002274/nz-sex-ed-was-bad-in-2007--its-still-just-as-bad-report-shows

[31] https://www.healthline.com/health/repressed-emotions

[32] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4141473/

[33] https://www.stuff.co.nz/life-style/life/94575135/new-zealanders-dont-mingle-well-at-parties-why

[34] https://www.nzherald.co.nz/lifestyle/news/article.cfm?c_id=6&objectid=12330185

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