Where are the eloquent New Zealanders?

Last updated 08:00 25/01/2013

The other day, I attended the premiere of the New Zealand movie Shopping here at the Sundance Film Festival. As happens after all public screenings of Sundance films, the filmmakers took the stage after the credits finished to answer questions about the movie from the audience. Mark Albiston and Louis Sutherland, Kapiti Coast boys, brought their cast up with them. It was a nice moment. 

The resulting Q and A, while not awkward, wasn't exactly fluid. In direct contrast to a lot of the American stars and directors I've heard talk after movies here in the past week, there was a comparative reluctance among every person on stage to talk about themselves at length. 

It was not rudeness or even shyness, it was just a sort of "hey, it is what it is". I spent time with the filmmakers later in the week, for a story that will come out next weekend, and found them lovely: engaging, talkative, open, candid.

There was a party later that night, and the marketing chief for the New Zealand Film Commission, James Thompson, made a comment that intrigued me: "New Zealanders take a step back before we take a step forward to promote ourselves."

I chewed over this statement during the next couple of days.

We New Zealanders, we're not exactly ones for the spotlight. This is not a new point. I think it is a byproduct of a number of cultural factors: we're relaxed and not overly traditional, we don't like fuss, we're not one for public self-examination and self-reflection. We're more of a keep calm and carry on crowd then a break it down and talk about our feelings group. A small part of this is probably connected in some way to the endemic of Tall Poppy syndrome; we cast attention-seeking in a negative light.

Ira GlassAmericans, conversely, and especially creative types, love to talk about their feelings and expound on the universal relevance of various minutiae in their lives. If you've ever listened to the podcast, radio show and television series This American Life (which my friend Oliver once called "Middle Class White People Whine About Their Problems") you'll know that the everyday struggles of comfortable Americans are a rich source of anguish. (Host Ira Glass is pictured, right.)

I bet America has a lot more therapists per capita than we do.

The shyness factor in all of this I find interesting. I couldn't decide as I mulled the question, driving to and fro through the picturesque mountains between Salt Lake City and Park City each morning for the film festival, if New Zealanders are an instinctively shy people on a public stage or not. The most outgoing local that I could think of, whose profile I generally appreciate, was Joe Bennett. (And he's British.) Stephen Fleming always had a low-key yet assured and personable way. I thought and thought and thought and couldn't construct a long list. There were some people who came to mind who I personally found annoying, so I disqualified them. (I won't share that list.)

The causes of this social recalcitrance could be myriad. I couldn't decide which of my hypotheses was the most convincing. Maybe we're a new country getting to know ourselves. Maybe issues of cultural cringe (see John Key taking to the radio waves and labelling the host's red sweater as "gay") and the fact we're still learning as a country to express ourselves outwardly have caused such a rate of misstep with public expression, that people avoid the whole issue altogether.

Better to keep your head down and not get made fun of, eh? 

When I'd overthought the topic and taken the issue in my head far away from its starting seed, it occurred to me that maybe this is an issue of modelling.

Richie MccAwI couldn't think of one inspiring, nationally known New Zealand public speaker that we grow up emulating. I can think of a few radio hosts, Kim Hill and such, but that's their job. Sports for us are a complete desert of orators: Ross Taylor, Brendon McCullum and Daniel Vettori are mumblers, Richie McCaw looks as though he can't wait for the camera to switch off, and Graham Henry and Steve Hansen take a grumpy old men line to things. I've seen John Key work a room and he does a pretty good job, but I'd never consider him scintillating on a microphone. Our most public politicians seem to divide up too neatly between ornery and loud. And I draw a complete blank on any musicians and actors I've seen speak in public compellingly and convincingly about their own lives.

Granted, this isn't a criticism. New Zealanders are communicative in other ways and appreciative of local successes. Richie McCaw can be a man of few words and role model.

Maybe we just don't value this form of expression: recreating our own stories in public forums, captivatingly and movingly.

Or maybe, we just haven't figured out how?

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