Why are New Zealanders so passive?

Last updated 09:44 04/10/2012

The main personality deviation between LP and me, of the traits that we've inherited through our different countries of birth, is assertiveness.

My wife LP, an American, is assertive, with an innate knack of communicating straightforwardly what she wants, and then being vocal when something has not met these explicit directions.

I do not have this in me. I seem to have an internal desire at all times to not want to make a fuss, or cause a scene, or trouble anybody if I can help it.

FOTCpassiveThis New Zealand national passiveness was cuttingly parodied in an early episode of Flight of the Conchords, where a racist fruit stand owner (deftly underplayed by a pre-breakout Aziz Ansari) won't serve Bret and Jemaine because of their international origin. "I don't want our customers complaining that our fruit tastes like New Zealanders," he tells them.

Bret and Jemaine repeat their order a few times pleasantly, before giving up. They stand motionless, scowling. "Thanks," Bret says as they retreat, playing meekly at not wanting to cause a scene, but also undercutting his retort with just a whiff of repressed aggression.

To me, this is type A New Zealand behaviour.

Five years ago, my friend Jon, LP and I took a three-month road trip through the West Coast of the USA, and some of the Midwest. This gulf in assertiveness was quickly evident, usually at mealtime.

Jon is a vegetarian (now vegan) and when we would go to eat, he would only have a choice or two on the menu at his disposal. LP would instruct him to direct the waiter to get the chef to make any of the other dishes on the menu, sans the meat. But this runs counter to our national way of being. That would be too much like causing a scene.

One morning in Seattle we were all having waffles. The waitress got both Jon's and my order wrong. We both silently started eating what had been put in front of us. LP eventually ascertained that something was amiss, and called the waitress back. To us, we were still eating waffles, and how different would our actual orders have been anyway? We didn't want to bug the waitress, so we just decided to keep our annoyance to ourselves.

Almost four years after this, LP pulled off her crowning achievement in assertiveness. We were at a bar, having a meal and drinks with some friends. The pizza we had ordered was not particularly pleasant. I planned to spend a good few moments when I got home sniping bitterly about it, after no doubt tipping and warmly thanking the waiter.

LP persuaded the waiter to take the pizza off our bill, even though we'd still eaten most of it. I admired her pluck but it was agony for me to watch her negotiate with the waiter.

It raises its head outside of mealtime, too.

I'm a work-at-home writer, and often when I need to get an important email just right in the middle of some negotiation or discussion, I'll read my response out loud to LP. She's constantly pointing out to me that where I think I'm trying to assert something and be direct, I'm commonly couching my words and diluting the directness of my phrasing.

In America it seems people are constantly discussing the best ways to negotiate a salary with a potential new employer. I can't contribute to this conversation productively. The combination of talking about money and sticking up for myself to strangers, who I also want something from, is like fingernails down the blackboard to my national disposition.

I guess the bigger mystery here is, why?

I can really only grasp at guesses as to what drives this difference between New Zealanders and Americans.

But I think it starts with the constantly referenced American exceptionalism. The idea that America is the best country on earth, that anything is possible, that whatever you seek you will find.

Now, I don't mistake this assertiveness for arrogance. The assertiveness is also driven by clarity of thinking, because why wouldn't you be this direct anyway? There's more of a feeling here that how you think is how you think, and why apologise for it?

In New Zealand we're little, and we're in the corner. We want to get what we want, but then we don't want to be seen as too cravenly seeking it out. We're happy for what we can get, but we don't want people making a fuss for more.

Or something. Maybe you don't even agree with this notion of an assertiveness deficit in New Zealand. But I'd be surprised if that was the case.

It's not even a bad thing. I'm not siding with one way over the other. Some of you may even prefer our less assertive manner.

But either way, what do you think causes New Zealanders to be less assertive?

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