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What new migrants can teach us about New Zealand society

Cultural codes are the undercurrent that pulses through everything, from society to business. Partner at TRA Colleen Ryan explains how we can learn from new migrants' experience of our country, and how we can adapt and evolve from their own cultures to further New Zealand's potential. 

On a trip to Wellington recently I happened to share the flight with an overseas politician.

The first clue was in Koru where our own Prime Minister can often be seen wandering around chatting to fellow travellers. And if you really look for them, you can usually spot a couple of people with curly wires coming out of their ears keeping a watchful eye on proceedings. On this day, however, the overseas dignitary swept into Koru on a wave of dark-suited serious looking men with both curly wires from their ears and walkie talks in their hands.

On board the aircraft the front row was reserved for our foreign guest, flanked by two of the men in black. But so large was the entourage that the others were scattered around the first half dozen rows.

On arrival we all followed our normal process of seatbelt light off, stand and lift overhead luggage down, wait in turn for the row in front to leave. We are all so accustomed to this process that we forget it’s a little bit of Kiwi behaviour that is not common around the world. A window seat departure in most parts of the world requires assertiveness or good luck if an aisle passenger hesitates due to a momentary lack of concentration.

For the men in black, cut off from their charge, their natural behaviour was to attempt to forge ahead using “excuse me” as their rite of passage. In response, two people, coincidentally speaking simultaneously and using very similar words, replied: “That’s not how we do it here, mate”.

The reason I was on the flight was that I was about to give a talk about what it is to be a Kiwi and what the cultural codes are that we live by, so this experience was a perfect warm-up anecdote.

But what if we look at this through a different set of eyes – the eyes of someone who is new to our culture. Imagine how difficult, unhelpful, and even rude these visitors may have thought we were being. They might have thought we were being xenophobic or making a political statement perhaps. Whereas we didn’t care that they were foreigners, only that they were violating an unwritten Kiwi code of conduct.

Walking in a new Kiwi’s shoes

Our new migrants Listening Project gave us a view through the eyes of those new to our country, painting an inside view of life for new migrants as they navigate their way to becoming Kiwis.

But of course, people don’t arrive in New Zealand as empty vessels. They bring their culture with them and this culture provides the context through which they view New Zealand. That’ll sound like an obvious statement, yet too often it is a narrow view of their cultural context and at worst a misleading one.

Bringing their culture is often only taken to mean ethnic cultural traits and iconic symbols – Diwali, Chinese New year, lantern festivals and unique cuisines, for example. Or, differences in values like collectivism and individualism. What is passed over is the cultural currents and movements influencing contemporary society in their home countries. And why is that important? Because it sets the context for how these new migrants evaluate the activities and initiatives of companies and government agencies that they experience in their new home, New Zealand.

If we think of new migrants as having come from ‘less developed’ countries we are deluding ourselves.

China is at the leading edge of retail innovation. Chinese consumers have had automated retail experiences for a couple of years now in smart stores such as BingoBox and EasyGo, which include technologies like facial recognition, computer vision and frictionless payment methods.

In many ways, China is at the vanguard of this still-emerging trend. Alibaba recently released footage of its "car vending machine" which uses a combination of a mobile app, an unmanned garage, facial recognition technology, and consumer data to automate and simplify the car shopping experience. Chinese people lead the world in time spent using their smartphones because they are accustomed to seamlessly using them for discovery, information and selection, right through to scanning a QR code to pay for their choice and that could be anything from an in-store purchase to renting a bike or booking an activity. Alipay and WeChat sets their expectations. Whereas in New Zealand not all stores have yet got paywave, not to mention the slow rollout of Applepay.

Many of our new migrants are Indian by birth. Their home country is rocketing up the innovation index and has a strategy to create technology hubs that compete with Silicon Valley. This year’s Gil Report for innovation rates shows India as an overachiever, meaning that they perform at least 10 percent better on innovation than their peers, based on GDP.

At the same time, India has policies to reduce plastic waste that make our recent plans to eliminate single-use plastic bags look rather feeble. They have a goal to abolish all single-use plastic bags by 2022. And, they are not the only Asian country being creative about the plastics problem. In Indonesia, there is a programme that allows people to swap a plastic bottle for a free bus ride.

Korea leads the non-Apple world in mobile devices and increasing numbers of Kiwis are driving Korean cars – including our homegrown rally driver Hayden Paddon, helping him to his position leading the world rally championship.

So, if we are still thinking of these countries as relatively undeveloped, culturally interesting holiday destinations we need to think again. Across the globe every country is being changed by global macro shifts that are out of our control – physical, political, population, climate, natural resources and technology – but which rain down on our unique cultural landscapes and are then re-shaped by it. So, for example, India’s labour market and improving educational system is enabling it to take on the technology challenge. China’s population size has scale that has enabled innovation and investment in new retail business models.

When new migrants come to New Zealand, they find that although those same global movements are impacting our society, they are playing out differently. Most businesses have recognised the commercial importance of the growing proportion of our population that are new migrants, but they don’t always have the right notion of how our new residents view us because they have a distorted view of the experience they have had in their own countries. 

Cultural currents affect us all 

Listening to new migrants is one way of seeing through their eyes and immersing ourselves in their worldview which is what our Listening Project* does. In addition, we also need to monitor and track the cultural currents that are created by the world’s macro shifts, to see how they influence behaviour, noticing where they are similar and where they differ between new and born here New Zealanders.

For example, A-daptation (one of the 12 currents we monitor) plays out differently for Chinese people whose use of their phone is so ubiquitous versus Kiwis who see devices more as a source of entertainment and who fret about overuse and excessive stimulation.

Another example is the Trust and Integrity current which is one that has great significance in societies where corruption has historically been endemic, compared to New Zealand where we tend to take it for granted and are proud of our high ranking on the various global trust indices.

What this tells us is that we need to look closely at the specific implications of taking into account the cultural landscape that new migrants have come from to inform our marketing strategies. We need to look at how migrants are contributing to who we are and our embedded Kiwi codes, as there is room for us learn about diversity and the importance of understanding subgroups and tribes.

*The Listening Project: New New Zealanders is TRA’s 4th immersive research project. It follows NZ’s new migrants to truly understand their whole world as they settle into their new lives as Kiwis. The Listening Project: New New Zealanders was carried out by Antonia Mann, Vanisha Narsey and Colleen Ryan. 

  • Colleen Ryan is a partner at TRA. 

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