Webinar review: Māori Cultural Competency for Technical Communicators

May 2018

Shelly Davies

Did you miss "Māori Cultural Competency for Technical Communicators"? Worried about your level of understanding with things Māori? Many of us find ourselves feeling culturally out of our depth at one time or another. If this sounds familiar, you're not alone. If you worry about the possibility of getting things wrong and causing offence, here's a great place to start - knowing the right questions to ask when engaging with Māori stakeholders and clients. Katie Haggath reviews Shelly's recent webinar and repeats her plain language tips for working with Māori words and names.

Why is Māori Cultural Competency important for Technical Communicators?

In the 1980s the government began describing the Treaty of Waitangi as New Zealand’s founding document. Government agencies began to recognise the languages, cultures and traditions of both Pākehā and Māori, and some government reports advocated biculturalism.

In 2011 most government agencies had Māori as well as English names, and traditional Māori welcome and farewell ceremonies were often performed at official functions.

Today, as a country we are moving toward a New Zealand where all New Zealanders have a genuine respect for and basic understanding of Māori culture and language and can move between Māori culture and the mainstream New Zealand culture with ease and comfort.

Of course, there’s always the claim that New Zealand is multicultural, not bicultural. It’s an interesting issue, and may arise during bicultural training in your workplace, so here are a few words on the topic from a Kia Māia standpoint .

Whichever way you lean, Te Reo Māori is one of New Zealand’s three official languages, and Māori have a distinct and precious language and culture that is only found right here.

As advocates of plain language, we know that readers have differing backgrounds, culture, and perspectives, and it is vital that all of them understand what you are trying to communicate. Biculturalism is one more way to ensure a full third of your end-users are getting the most out of your documentation.

You read that right – in the 2013 census 668,724 people reported Māori descent . That means that 1 in 3 of your colleagues, clients, readers and end-users are of Māori descent. Cultural competency means you can avoid little mistakes with spelling, pronunciation and grammar, and big mistakes meeting and interacting with your colleagues and clients.

Māori Cultural Competency for Technical Communicators

Shelly began the webinar with a waiata and introduced her webinar in Māori, in her first public appearance since she received her moko kauae. Needless to say this was a striking first taste of what was in store for us, and it really set the tone (speaking of tone, Shelly has a lovely singing voice).

From Shelly’s perspective, the more basic words and phrases we use, the more comfortable we are and will continue to be. So, she introduced herself, and then taught us all how to introduce ourselves.

A mihimihi is a basic introduction to let people know a little bit about yourself. It tells people where you’re from and who you are, linking you to the land (and mountain), river, sea, tribe, sub-tribe, whakapapa (genealogy) and marae (sacred meeting place).

Shelly’s mihimihi names the waka her ancestors arrived in, her iwi, her sub-tribe on Great Barrier Island, and her name:

Shelly's mihimihi

Non-Māori might identify places that are significant to them and the country they are from. Some Pākehā New Zealanders Shelly has even been introduced to someone who introduced their “waka” as a Boeing 747!

Not comfortable about pronouncing Māori words?

Don’t forget – there are NO sounds in Māori that we don’t already use in English. Even if you’re not comfortable with anything else, be comfortable stating your name in Māori to your Māori clients before switching back to English. For example:

Kia ora! (kee-ahh or-ahh)

Ko [Katie] ahau. (Core [Katie] ahh-ho)

Easy as!

Shelly also encouraged us to speak aloud. Some people were clever enough to turn on their mic and introduce themselves to Shelly. Being alone in my home office I introduced myself to my cat. I like to think she was impressed. It was certainly very encouraging to hear that some attendees were sharing a meeting room in order to attend the webinar and introduced themselves to each other – way to go, guys!

Of course, that was a natural segue into…

How much te reo do you know? A few words? A few phrases? Are you conversational?

Nobody expects you to be fluent, but the more little, basic phrases you use, the more confident you’ll be. Shelly gave us a quick pronunciation lesson before moving into the technical bits, starting with the basics: vowels. Most of us who went to school in New Zealand probably remember the song, though sadly Shelly didn’t sing it.

The vowel sounds in te reo Māori are the same as many other languages: A E I O U. However, unlike in English the vowel sounds NEVER CHANGE no matter what letters come before or after.

Vowel pronunciation

Double vowels/macrons lengthen the vowel sound, rather than change it. Both the macron or the double-letter are technically correct. You’ll see different regions use one or the other as preference. For example, where Shelly lives in Hamilton it’s quite common to see “aa” (as in Maaori) instead of “ā” (Māori).

Importantly for technical writers, ā and aa are your only correct options for a long vowel. In some older documents you might see ä or even ã depending on what the word processor had available, but these days there is no reason to use the wrong thing!

Perhaps more importantly, there is no ‘s’ in Māori. As tech writers we need to remember that it is not correct to add an ‘s’ on the end of Māori words or names with an apostrophe, and it is wrong to pluralise with an ‘s’. Occasionally this may rub your Plain English sense the wrong way, such as in:

  • Oranga Tamariki’s documents, vs
  • The documents belonging to Oranga Tamariki.

It is, however, quite correct for Plain Māori. Personally, this is something that has bothered me before when working in the Health Sector, and it was a little relief to have it cleared up for me.

If you’re still not comfortable, you can use the pronunciation guide and dictionary recommended by Shelly:

Do not under any circumstances rely on Google:

ko katie ahau = I'm crazy

Engaging with Māori stakeholders and clients

Of course, the single best way to make sure you get things right is just to ask! It’s not rude. It shows that you know you need to ask questions – showing more cultural competency than ignorance. Most importantly, remember that there is no ONE way to do things – different iwi and Māori groups ask each other questions prior to meeting too!

Shelly emphasised that there is no ONE Māori worldview but that we can make some generalisations… she broke down what these mean (to her) to Māori in the workplace.

For a start, the Māori culture is a values-based culture:

Whānau (far-no) means family, not just the parents and children, but the grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins as well. You might have heard the saying “It takes a village to raise a child” – it’s the same thing!

Aroha – most of us have heard aroha translated as “love”, but more importantly it means “respect” and “care”. You will find in Māori workplaces that aroha is greatly emphasised. A useful phrase to keep in your back pocket is: “Aroha mai”. You can use it to mean “I’m sorry [I made that mistake]” or “Excuse me” – very important in a meeting!

Koha is reciprocity – from a Māori perspective there is a consideration for keeping the balance. For example, if someone gives you their time, their expertise or information, consider how you could make a reciprocal offer of support. And if you have been generous, the recipient may want to be generous back – the Pākehā instinct is to politely decline that its necessary – it’s an English thing – but don’t refuse. Accept it as what it is.

Kaitiakitanga is about protecting the environment and culturally/historically significant living things, even things which Pākehā culture do not regard as “a living entity” like rivers and mountains.

Tikanga are the things that freak us out because we think of them as “rules” and we’re afraid we’ll do something wrong. Tikanga vary from region to region. Once you feel more confident with tikanga you will feel more confident about what you should be doing and what you should indeed be asking questions about.

Shelly says: “Don’t be afraid to ask for the reasoning behind a certain tikanga!” Most tikanga have their foundations in ancient or pre-European times. Whether a particular group follows them strictly or is more relaxed, it’s worth remembering some important tikanga when you’re meeting someone:

  • Take your shoes off when you enter a house, or a marae (which is a house for ancestors) – it’s a show of peace and respect.
  • Don’t put your bottom on a table or desk. That includes sitting or leaning. It’s about keeping food separate from your bottom for obvious reasons, and similarly, things relating to the head, like hats or scarves, shouldn’t be put on a table either because the head is tapu/sacred.

Whanaungatanga (far-no-ngah-tang-ah) means relationships and connections.

From a Pākehā perspective, we get very frustrated when meetings take too long or seem to focus too much on conversation than on the point of the meeting BUT your Māori colleagues may be more interested in building a foundation of connection FIRST and THEN build up from that to whatever you need to get done.


Basically: everyone and everything has mana – it’s about self-worth, a level of respect that is required, and sometimes about prestige… it’s about each human being of worth, and each interaction with that person will affect their mana.

As Shelly said in her Plain Language webinars , never forget you’re one human, talking to another human.

Manaakitanga (hosting visitors)

Part of a welcoming process in hosting visitors is to offer food, even if it’s just a cup of tea and a biscuit. Always partake. And if you are hosting, always take care of your guests and provide a meal (especially if they have travelled to see you) – this is generally expected in Pākehā culture too!

If you’re about to interact with a Māori group you haven’t worked with before:

  • Be introduced, if you can – If you have a common connection, have them introduce you to the group you’re meeting before you meet them.
  • Be humble. Nobody likes an arrogant, pushy, know-it-all. Be respectful and polite.
  • Empower, enhance mana. Remember that everything you do affects the mana of the people you’re interacting with as well as your own. Trampling someone’s mana is a grave matter, and you’ll lose a lot of respect. Negative interactions harm mana, positive interactions enhance mana.

Prepare. Do your research. Ask questions. If you have been invited somewhere, ask:

  • What standard of dress is required? Is this a formal event?
  • Do we need to have a speaker?
  • Are we going to be called on with a karanga? (In which case, its good to have someone to call back a karanga)
  • Is there anything we need to know about the way you want to do things/you want us to arrive?

Simple right?

It doesn’t take a lot of effort to show you care!

You can contact Shelly for her workbook if you want more practice and information.

As for me, I enjoyed seeing a different perspective on meeting and working together. I left the webinar feeling encouraged and excited, and yes, more confident.

As a country we’re moving toward a New Zealand where all New Zealanders have a genuine respect for and basic understanding of Māori culture and language and can move between Māori culture and the mainstream New Zealand culture with ease and comfort. When I emigrated from England, it was exciting and encouraging to see New Zealand embrace biculturalism, coming as I was from a country with many immigrants who are nonetheless expected to become “English”. It was also a little scary, because my classmates already knew days of the week and numbers in Māori, could recite the Māori verses of the national anthem on demand, and understand what a pōwhiri was all about... and I could barely pronounce the place names.

I still internally cringe when I hear myself mispronounce something, but I have gotten better. And after this webinar I feel more comfortable again, especially with aspects of meeting and engaging with people that it simply wouldn’t have occurred to me to ask about. It’s also comforting to know that as much as things differ, they stay the same – being polite, humble, and hospitable is something we all appreciate!

Well done, Shelly!