Customs and Etiquette in the Pacific Region, Polynesia and Melanesia

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The cultures, customs and languages of Pacific, Polynesian and Melanesian cultures are remarkable similar despite their distance islands may be from one another. Easter Island, New Zealand, Hawaii, which form the eastern, southern and northern boundaries of the region are thousands of kilometers apart but share commonalities. Customs like fire dancing, taboos, eating from a banana or palm leaf, hula-style dancing, basket making, wearing flowers of leaves in one’s hair and presenting a lei-style flower wreath as a greeting are found throughout the Pacific.

Customs govern every aspect of life and everyone has a specific place in Fijian society. There is a proper way to accomplish the building of a house, to arrange a wedding, to celebrate birth and mourn death. There is a way to acknowledge political obligations and a special way to ask for forgiveness when someone has been wronged.

Except for Fiji, Australia and New Zealand, around 97 percent of the population of the Pacific, Polynesia and Melanesia is Christian. In Nauru a Christian prayer opens most gatherings. In Samoa, there is an evening prayer curfew in most villages (usually between 6:00pm and 7:00pm). During this time, most families will say family prayers. It is customary for everyone to honour this time.

Dress is usually European. Many elements of Australian etiquette are followed as public practice. Samoans tend to have a relaxed view of time and may refer jokingly to things running on “Samoan time” when it comes to social situations. In a business setting or an appointment of importance, punctuality is highly valued.

Tahitians and other French Polynesians, are known for their joie de vivre (literally, "joy in life"), relaxed attitude, and un-pretentious, courteous behavior. A favorite saying is, "If you act like old friends when you first meet, you will soon feel that you are." Reciprocity, generosity, and hospitality are central values. Although the Maori in New Zealand have a reputation for being somewhat menacing, with their pre-rugby game hakka an all, they are generally very relaxed, smiling and friendly.

Pacific Ocean islanders are generally soft spoken, good natured people. Many are religious. Western-style education and modern diversions have meant that young people have failed to learn many traditional customs and practices. Few men know how to sail an outrigger canoe anymore.. Until Europeans came along some anthropologists have argued that life was relatively static. Populations were regulated by birth control and "voyaging" (emigration to a new island). [Source: "History of Warfare" by John Keegan]

Property, Status and Wealth in the Pacific

Property among Pacific islanders has traditionally been shared among groups and not individually owned like it is in the West. The people of the Pacific islands have traditionally shared their food and processions rather than buying and selling them. On the outer islands, people often have very little but they are willing to share what hey have.

It has been said that Palauan culture is based on three elements: prestige, competition between clans and individuals, and the concept of reciprocity of gifts of money, goods or services. Prestige is measured in terms of political power, knowledge, material possessions and the ability to accomplish feats.

Palauan ideas about money and wealth have changed little over time. Wealth is measured in terms of money and land and according to tradition the property of the clan not the individual. The sale of land is frowned upon because it is shameful for land to be fall into the hands of someone outside the clan. It is particularly disgraceful for it to be sold non-Palauans.

The Palauan have their own system of valuables, which are given at important life events such as births and marriages and also given as settlements for disputes. The valuables are give to cement social relationships and economic transactions like the transfer of a title. The greatest honor for an individual is to accept money for the clan.

Because there are often so few resources on the islands themselves, people have traditionally looked to the sea for food. Because there was so much open sea between the atolls many islanders were expert navigators, master canoe builders and fishermen. Because the islands were so small, great value was attached to land. Marriages were arranged and wars were usually fought over land. Traditional weapons were wooden clubs and spears, fixed with a sharp edges of bone, shell, coral or stone.

Despite outwards changes, Fijians have allowed their culture be displaced totally by Western ways. Sharing wealth is regarded as customary. If someone needs something that some else has all they need to do is ask for it. If necessary they can invoke “kerekere”, a request that can not be denied. This custom is being threatened by the cash economy. "Today villagers are no longer willing to give to those who do not want to work," one Fijian man told National Geographic. "The Fijian tradition of kerekere is disappearing."

Respect in the Pacific

Children are expected to honor and respect their elders. Mothers are particularly honored. The Marshall Islands is a ranked society in which elders rank above those who are younger and chiefs rank above commoners. Codes of respect and deference are important and Americans are often considered haughty, brash, and irreverent.[Source: Laurence Marshall Carucci, “Countries and Their Cultures”, Gale Group, 2001]

Bryan P. Oles wrote in “Countries and Their Cultures”: “Rules of etiquette among Micronesians focus on displays of respect related to kinship, gender, age, political rank, and religious title. Brothers and sisters should avoid one another in public and refrain from telling bawdy jokes or making sexual remarks in each other's presence. Among matrilineal societies, respect for one's mother's brother is marked by the use of polite language and physical avoidance on formal occasions. Older members of society as well as titled persons enjoy an exulted position of respect, and may be given first shares of a feast distribution or special seats during public gatherings. [Source: Bryan P. Oles, “Countries and Their Cultures”, 2001]

In many Pacific cultures, social status is determined by economic status and hereditary position with the clan. Even though they have less power than they once did, the chiefs have a great deal of power in matters of land ownership and usage. Among Indo-Fijians, domestic norms are determined by gender and age, although etiquette is less formal. Sons treat their fathers with great respect, and younger brothers defer to older brothers. Females are socially segregated, but urban living has eroded this practice. [Source: Anthony R. Walker, “Countries and Their Cultures”, 2001]

Status governs every interaction in Samoan society. Greetings are determined by the relative status of the individuals involved. A very informal greeting in Samoa is talofa. More formal greetings at a household dictate that neither party speaks until the visitor is seated. Then the host will begin a formal greeting and introduction with, "Susu maia lau susuga," which translates roughly as "Welcome, sir."[Source: J. Williams, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”,]

Greetings in the Pacific Ocean

In many Pacific countries flower wreaths are given to new arrivals like leis are in Hawaii. Fiji visitors are welcomed with a lei around their necks and a friendly “bula” (“hello) The standard Fijian greeting is “ni sa bula” — the informal bula. In rural areas, people do not pass others without saying a word of greeting. Upper classes have traditionally received a special form of greeting. Ethnic Fijians have informal personal relationships but also follow a tradition of ritual formality in a hierarchical society.

In the Marshall Islands, visitors to the out islands are sometimes welcomed by women who sing in harmony and present their guests with flower headbands, leis, and baskets of fruit and flowers. Everyone stands around exchanging compliments. One Peace Corp volunteer was welcomed to one island by women who rubbed baked breadfruit on his stomach and told him that he was handsome. In some places women are expected to bow low when they meet older males.

Members of a tribe in Papua New Guinea say goodbye to one another by putting the hand sin each other's armpits and withdrawing it and rubbing themselves with their friend's scent. In village society, etiquette centers on reciprocity and being hospitable to guests and unexpected visitors, Feasting exchange partners has an urban equivalent in parties where workmates and wantoks are welcome along with their spouses and children. Reciprocity is expected but is not always possible, putting barriers between individuals of different income levels. One custom that everyone can participate in is sharing betel nut (buai ). Relations between older and younger and male and female are relaxed. On meeting, men and women of different ages clasp hands or clasp one another around the waist. [Source: Laura Zimmer–Tamakoshi, “Countries and Their Cultures”, 2001]

In Vanuatu, pPeople passing on the trails or streets commonly greet one another, and the handshake is an important aspect of initial encounters. A woman traveling alone through the countryside may receive unwelcome attention from men. [Source: Lamont Lindstrom, “Countries and Their Cultures”, 2000]

In Tonga, People shake hands when they meet, and relatives kiss by pressing each other's noses against their faces and soundly inhaling through the nose. A common Tongan greeting is malo e lelei, which roughly translates as "a warm welcome to the Friendly Islands." The "Friendly Islands" was the name given to this chain of islands by traders, explorers, and discovers in the Pacific region. Traditional greetings in Tongan society involved a mutual touching of the lips by persons of equal status, and among persons of unequal status the inferior would kiss the hand of the higher-ranking person. In some cases, if the person was of very high status, the inferior person would kiss the feet of the high-ranking person. Western handshakes have replaced traditional greetings except in highly formal ceremonial contexts. [Source: J. Williams, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”, 2009,]

Maoris today, like other New Zealanders, typically address each other informally and emphasize cordiality in relationships. The Maoris have a traditional greeting, called hongi, in which they touch faces so that their noses are pressed together. It is believed that their spirits mingle through this gesture. A traditional Maori “hongi” involves a hand shake and a nose press in which two people press their nose together, close their eyes and go "mm-m." Men and women, women and women and men and men greet each other using the “hongi”. During disease outbreaks, have been were warned against performing their customary nose-rubbing greeting.[Source: J. Williams, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” Cengage Learning, 2009 *]

Greetings in Polynesia

The national flower of Tahiti, the "Tiare", is heavily scented gardenia. It forms the basis of the traditional "hei" wreath, which are given to new arrival like leis in Hawaii. The Taore is so important it has its own national holiday and it I used in tanning lotions, perfumes and soaps. The traditional Marshallese greeting "Yokwe Yuk" means "love to You."

Tahitians typically greet each other by shaking hands, and women often exchange kisses on the cheek. The handshake is considered so important that if a person's hands are dirty, it is common to offer a wrist, elbow, or even a shoulder. Unless there are a large number of people present in a room (over 30), it is considered impolite not to shake hands with all of them. French greetings, such as "Bonjour" ("Good day"), are common in formal situations. A traditionally used Tahitian expression of welcome is "La ora!" [Source: K. Ellicott, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”, 2009,]

Greetings in Polynesian societies vary from island to island. Status determines the nature and extent of the social interaction of individuals in these societies. In rural Tahiti, for example, the standard greeting is, "Where are you going?" There are two expected responses: either "Inland," if the person is headed away from the coast, or "Seaward," if the person is headed towards the coastline. The interaction can continue with a fairly standard second level of interchange that includes the question, "What's new at the inland/seaward end?" This is usually an opener for a conversation. To guard against inbreeding a custom was developed as far back as the 18th century, in which new arrivals to the island were offered a woman, often the chief’s wife or daughter. This one reason why Tahiti earned the reputation of a paradise and so many native Polynesians have mixed blood. [Source: J. Williams, Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life, 2007]

Public Customs in the Pacific

In general, etiquette reflects the emphasis on harmonious, nonassertive, and respectful behavior. In public. In Micronesia people tend to speak cautiously and avoid confrontation with others. Gossip is an ever-present check on disrespectful or inappropriate public behavior. In villages, the central area is where the chiefly lineage lives and people must show respect by not wearing scanty dress, hats, sunglasses, garlands, or shoulder bags, and by not speaking or laughing boisterously. Watching a television show or movie through a neighbors window is perfectly acceptable in Micronesia.

People should dress fairly modestly if they can away from the beach. And even there they shouldn’t go overboard exposing flesh. Avoid wearing any revealing clothing when walking through villages.Women should take particular care to avoid showing their knees and shoulders. Open expression affection between couple in public is frowned upon, but friends of the same sex sometimes hold hands while walking.In Papua New Guinea, it is not unusual for people to crowd one another at counters or stand very close. In chiefly societies, commoners must bow before chiefs and are prohibited from eating foods reserved for the chief and his family.

In Vanuatu, lines in rural stores are often amorphous, but clerks commonly serve overseas visitors first. In the Solomon Islands, respect for elders and women, particularly in rural areas, should be observed. Strangers are expected to be respected especially since they are new to the culture and don’t know so much about community kastoms. Kastom is a pidgin word used to refer to traditional culture, including religion, economics, art and magic. Often when outsiders make mistakes, they are gently reminded of community protocols. [Source: Anthony R. Walker, “Countries and Their Cultures”, 2001]

Don't take pictures of local people or ceremonial buildings without asking for permission first. It is considered a very offensive act and sometimes people will get very angry. . Some Maori don't like to have their picture taken. If you want to take some pictures or Maori ask first. Fijians generally don't mind having their picture taken. Using a camera at Fijian events is permitted but requires some care. Fijians can become upset if amateur photographers disrupt the dignity of their traditional ceremonies. Standing up, even in front of your seat, is particularly frowned upon. You may take as many pictures as you wish from a seated position.

In the Marshall Islands, One should not walk in front of, upwind of, or elevate one's head above the level of one's seniors and, if the relative ranking of persons is unknown, one should always defer to others. Similarly, high ranked persons speak on behalf of others. Persons of lower rank begin public speeches with disclaimers such as "My words have no significance compared to those of other high-ranked persons here " [Source: Laurence Marshall Carucci, “Countries and Their Cultures”, Gale Group, 2001]

Gestures, Facial Expressions, Postures and Clothing in the Pacific Region

In the Pacific region top of the head in particular is considered sacred and should not be touched. It is insulting to pass something over the top of someone’s head or pat the head of an adult. Pointing one’s feet at someone is rude. Lower status persons should not cross directly in front of higher status persons, stand above them, or touch their head.

In Papua New Guinea, it is not rude to stare but in Kiribati direct eye contact is uncommon, and it is inappropriate to look directly at one of higher status or cut between the gaze of talking individuals. Touching of heads is considered extremely intimate, and the top of the head is a taboo area and cleanliness of the body and clothing is valued. In the Solomon Islands when one is talking to a woman who is not a relative, one is expected to look away as a sign of respect. [Source: Alexandra Brewis and Sandra Crismon, “Countries and Their Cultures”, 2001 The Gale Group]

In Tonga, The gesture of raising the eyebrows in conversation expresses one's understanding of the speaker's speech and is an invitation to continue. It is difficult for people to admit failure in understanding or to respond negatively to requests. Many Maori carvings and dances feature men sticking out their tongues, which is regarded as a taunt and a challenge. Such gestures in real life may be interpreted the same way.

In Samoa, You should always talk to someone at eye level or lower, particularly elders. For example, if an elder is seated, you are expected to sit down before conversing with them. Failing to do so is seen as a sign of great disrespect. If you are standing and the person you wish to speak to is sitting, you are expected to bring yourself down physically to the same level as them. It is considered rude to be standing when others are sitting.Generally, the only time when it is acceptable to stand in an area where a group of people are sitting is when one is serving or leaving the group. [Source: Chara Scroope, Cultural Atlas, 2017]

Traditional forms of sitting for men and women of Tonga differ. Men sit cross-legged, while women sit with their legs doubled up and under one side. Mats are the traditional seating items. In Tonga, Formal attire for men includes a tupenu (skirt) and a ta'ovala (mat) worn around one's waist and kept in place by a belt of coconut fiber. Prestigious old belts made of human hair also are used. A shirt with a tie and a jacket complete the attire. Women wear long dresses and ta'ovala as well. The softness, color, and decorations of a ta'ovala indicate status and wealth. [Source: J. Williams, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”, 2009; Giovanni Bennardo, “Countries and Their Cultures”, Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Social Custos in the Pacific Area

Pacific islanders often live with their extended families or at least socialize a great deal with them. Respect toward elders and leaders is still pronounced. In New Caledonia, according to “Countries and Their Cultures,” Kanaks show respect in personal interactions. Certain relationships involve compulsory familiarity. One respects maternal relatives, one's elders, and aged persons, but maintains a joking relationship with paternal aunts and cross-cousins. Women must respect men by maintaining spatial distance, keeping silent, and using special terms of politeness. Familiarity allows people to stand close together, touch, and talk together. In public places, Kanaks adopt a discreet and subdued attitude, avoiding excessive speaking or gesticulating, which are considered rude. Contact with strangers is marked by gifts and formal speech. Strangers are observed attentively from afar and judged on the basis of their behavior. [Source: Alban Bensa,“Countries and Their Cultures,” 2000]

In Vanuatu, customary relationships are lubricated by the exchange of goods, and visitors often receive food and other gifts that should be reciprocated. In Kiribati, “The most important aspect of etiquette for locals and guests involves behavior in the maneaba, where there are appropriate places and ways to sit and interact. In all aspects of life, humility and humbleness are admired. [Source: Alexandra Brewis and Sandra Crismon, “Countries and Their Cultures”, 2001 The Gale Group]

“Tauvu”, a unique Fijian custom, grants members of one village the right to mercilessly tease the members of another village. Women often tease men and dish out embarrassingly sexual remarks, kiss them at inopportune moments or drape underwear on their heads at social gatherings Tauvu is regarded as a healthy way to dispel tensions. "The Israelis and Arabs should have tauvu, "the Fijian prime minister told National Geographic. "They are from the same tribe, the same island, maybe we can educate them.”

In Samoa, men like to sit together with their backs against traditional support poles. The fale is a traditional oval thatched-roof structure without walls that serves as a home or a meeting house. In Tonga, men like to sit together with their backs against traditional backrests. The backrests for chiefs are usually made of special “koka” wood from an ancient, ceremonial tree. In the old days, people were not allowed to approach ceremonial centers with covered shoulders today no one may appear "with an upper garment on any public way within the boundaries of a town."

Relations between family members can be quite complex. In Tuvalu, according to “Countries and Their Cultures”, across all contexts, everyday interactions between most people emphasize convivial informality, positive politeness, and indirection. Importance is given to being attentive to the presence and needs of others, and on maintaining a jovial demeanor. Children are expected not to impinge on the social space of adult strangers, particularly those of high status. Within the family, the most constrained type of interaction is between cross-sex first, second, and sometimes third cousins, who were traditionally expected to avoid each other's presence completely. Today, such pairs must avoid talking to one another beyond the absolutely necessary and should strive to orient themselves away from one another. Joking and speaking about bodies and bodily functions in the presence of such cousins is considered a serious faux pas. More relaxed patterns of avoidance characterize interactions between in-laws. At the same time, avoidance can contextually become the subject of jokes. Interactions between fathers and sons tend to be distant and undemonstrative, while interactions between grandparent and grandchild, between adoptive parent and adoptive child, and between mother's brother and sister's child, are generally warm and affectionate. [Source: Michael Goldsmith and Niko Besnier,“Countries and Their Cultures”, Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Taboos in the Pacific

The English term taboo comes from tapu, a word in several Pacific languages such as Tongan Polynesian and Maori that means "prohibited" or "forbidden". English use dates to 1777 when the British navigator Captain James Cook visited Tonga, and referred to the Tongans' use of the term taboo for "any thing that is forbidden to be eaten, or made use of". After inviting some members of of the Tongan aristocracy to dinner aboard his ship, Cook wrote: Not one of them would sit down, or eat a bit of any thing. . . . On expressing my surprise at this, they were all taboo, as they said; which word has a very comprehensive meaning; but, in general, signifies that a thing is forbidden. The term was translated to him as "consecrated, inviolable, forbidden, unclean or cursed".

The concept of tapu, English "taboo," was important in all Polynesian societies, generally meaning forbidden or prohibited due to sacredness. There were things that were tapu such as certain body parts of particular individuals-the head of the first-born, for example. There were also rules that served to protect through the prohibition of certain actions. In the Marquesas Islands, a woman's menstrual cloth was not tapu; however, it was tapu to touch it.

In pre-Christian Tongan clan had a spirit animal, and a clan member brought bad luck upon himself by killing and eating his clan animal. This was called "tabu" among Tongans. In Tahiti, religious ceremonies were carried out in marae (a scred open space), most of which were tabooed to women It is considered taboo to touch someone’s hair. Among the Maori taboos are: 1) Don't shout near the ocean, 2) always put a rock back where you found it and 3) don't eat below the tide line. There is a practical side to these taboos. For example you don't eat below the tide line because food left behind may attract sharks. Maoris have traditionally ostracized people who handled corpses and in some circles commercialism is regarded as profane.

Fijians believe it is disrespectful for people to wear hats. It also disrespectful to sit on doorways and stand up during the "svu sevu" ceremony to the village elders.

Home Customs in the Pacific

In Fiji, Visiting a person's house always entails removing the shoes before entering. Among Tahitians It also is considered impolite to keep one's shoes on when entering another person's home. Shoes are removed before entering some public buildings such as some government offices and the public library. In Fiji, guests are expected to hesitate before entering a house and to seat themselves near the door until invited to proceed further.

Micronesians don't always share western sense of privacy. if a foreigner is staying at someone's house, for example, it is not uncommon for members of the household to drop in on their guest and sit around the guest’s's room when they feel like it.

In Samoa, It is common for people to visit each other unannounced and people may stay long into the night. Usually, shoes are left outside before one enters a dwelling. The best floor mats are often laid out for visitors. When sitting on a floor mat, people generally sit cross-legged or with their legs tucked behind them. Once guests have entered the home, the host will often make a speech of welcome and the guest makes a formal response. Hosts may offer refreshments such as coconut, biscuits and soft drinks.[Source: Chara Scroope, Cultural Atlas, 2017]

When you enter a Samoan house, people will likely be sitting on the floor around the perimeter of the room. Beginning at the highest-ranking person, walk up to the individual, meet them at their level and greet them. You would then repeat this as you move around the room. Allow the host to seat you. Guests are often asked to sit in the middle of the table so they may converse with everyone more easily. Legs should be stretched out if they are covered properly. However, mind your feet are not pointing at another person. Speaking to someone in the house while standing is thought to be impolite.

Gift-Giving in the Pacific

Micronesians are very hospitable and often welcome visitors as guest to their homes. Their generosity has a based on a system reciprocity and kinship obligations. Gifts are given during important events such as births, marriages and funerals. The receivers makes note of the value of th gift and makes sure that he pays back the giver with another gift of equivalent value at another occasion. The most important ceremony at home is for first born child.

Fijians ritually exchange gifts for food, clothing, kava, “tabua”, kerosene and even money during important social occasions, so that tipping can be seen in th light of sharing. It can denote a person of influence who is generous. Tipping is uncommon,

A complex system of gift giving and receiving has existed for centuries. Sperm whale teeth (tabua ) are the most precious items of exchange and are given at marriages, funerals and other important ritual occasions. Formal and lengthy speeches accompany the presentation of a whale's tooth. Guests are given kava to drink to promote solidarity between kin, friends, and acquaintances. [Source: Anthony R. Walker, “Countries and Their Cultures”, 2001]

When accepting a gift in Samoa, it is customary to bow your head slightly and place the gift above your head with both hands for a moment. A Samoan may politely decline a gift out of humbleness. If a gift is not accepted at first, give it to a daughter or son or somebody that lives with the family. It is thought that this is a better alternative than having to take the gift back. [Source: Chara Scroope, Cultural Atlas, 2017]

Eating Customs in the Pacific

In addition to demonstrating age, gender, and political status, food etiquette illustrates the importance of generosity in many Pacific Ocean cultures. Sharing food with visitors is a must, and hosts take pride in providing sustenance to others. Guests are usually fed first and are expected to eat in moderation. Compliments paid to the host center on the host's generosity and the experience of satiation. In French Polynesia when guests are invited for a meal, the hosts are not necessarily expected to eat and may just sit and watch the guests eat. [Source: K. Ellicott, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”, 2009,]

Often food is eaten with the hands, although spoons, forks and knives are also used. It is customary to wash one's hands at the beginning and end of a meal. Prayers are often said before meals are eaten. In the Solomon Islands When guests come to one's house, it is hospitable to allow them to eat first and eat the best. To do otherwise is a sign of moral weakness and lack of respect and dignity for oneself and one's family. In Samoa, elders in a family eat first. After they are finished, younger people can them serve themselves some food. White Sunday is the only day of the year when children are allowed to eat before their parents. Guests should not begin eating until instructed to do so. Taking a second serving is considered impolite. Take everything you plan to eat on the first serving. To indicate appreciation and respect, try every dish offered.

Coconuts have traditionally been an important food sources. In the Marshall Islands breadfruit is important on the southern islands and pandanus is important in th north. In many places It is considered rude to eat while standing indoors or when walking around outdoors. Bringing food to an event, even a small side dish or dessert, can cause great offence because it implies that the host has not prepared enough food for everyone. Many people have have traditionally eaten coconut and pandanus and simply tossed the waste out. The same habit with Western food has created a rubbish problem.

Feasting, called hakari in the Maori language, was an important aspect of precontact Maori culture. The Maori feasts brought together a number of different families and other social groups where a man of status would provide food and gifts for those who attended. In the end, he and his family would be left with very little in the way of material possessions or reserves of food, but instead would have gained enormous enhancement to his status. [Source: J. Williams, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” Cengage Learning, 2009 ]

Umu, pig feasts, are a big deal in Tonga and elsewhere in the Pacific region. Tongan men preparing the 'umu or roasting for a big feast do not eat with the guests and are allowed at the table only when the first round of people has finished eating and left. [Source: Giovanni Bennardo, “Countries and Their Cultures”, Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Some Pacific people like to get drunk. Many have a low tolerance for alcohol. Some Micronesian men like go on drinking binges known as Payday Weekends beginning the Friday after they receive their paychecks. This situation is not unlike what happens to native Americans. Drunken bawls and domestic violence is common. The suicide rate is higher than it is in the U.S.

Marshallese live simply and entertain rarely, except for singular events, the most common being a "kemem," or child's first birthday celebration. These are socially important events to which large numbers of people are invited. Food preparation for a kemem takes several days. Marshallese women usually do not accompany their husbands to events, public or private, but that situation is changing slowly. It is awkward for a Marshallese to decline an invitation, so you never can be sure if an invited guest will attend. An RSVP is not usually understood. [Source:, adapted from the Department of State Post Report 2001]

Women’s Customs in the Pacific

Modest dress is important for women. Women should take particular care to avoid showing their thighs, knees and shoulders. Although members of the same sex sometimes hold hands as a sign of friendship, public displays of affection between males and females are rare and frowned upon. Men and women often occupy separate social spaces during church services and community gatherings.

Many women on Yap and Chuuk go bare breasted, or at least they did in the 1990s when I went there, but it is considered obscene of them to expose their thighs. Consequently short shorts and skirts above the knee worn by women are considered unwelcome in many Micronesian villages. In Micronesia women have traditionally shown respect for their husbands by walking behind them in public or serving them first during meals. They are not supposed to enter places reserved for males. In Kosrae there is a rock formation said to be of a mother and child who were turned to stone for looking inside a men's house. Fijians also believe it is disrespectful for women to wear shorts. In Vanuatu, A woman traveling alone through the countryside may receive unwelcome attention from men.

In the Solomon Islands girls have traditionally been expected not to show signs of friendliness to strangers, or even boyfriends, when they are with their brothers or relatives. Boys are mutually required to do the same as sign of respect to their sisters and relatives. On Malaita, infraction of certain rules, especially those pertaining to the dignity of married women, often incurs the immediate payment of compensation.When one is talking to a woman who is not a relative, one is expected to look away as a sign of respect.

Unmarried females have traditionally been rigidly chaperoned in Samoan society. Premarital sexual relationships are very difficult to arrange. "Sleep crawling," moetotolo in Samoan, exists as one solution to this problem for young Samoans. Typically a young man with an interest in a young woman will wait until her household and her chaperones are asleep and then crawl on all fours into her house and hope to have a sexual encounter with her. In some cases, the young woman will send the suitor away. In other cases, the woman will become pregnant and marriage may ensue. [Source: John Moffat Fugui, “Countries and Their Cultures”, 2001]

In traditional Maori society, premarital sexual relationships were considered normal for adolescents. Both males and females were expected to have a series of discreet relationships before they were married. When Maori females became sexually active, they were to publicly acknowledge this so that they could become tattooed. Tattooing marked their ritual and public passage into adulthood. It was also considered extremely attractive and erotic.[Source: J. Williams, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” Cengage Learning, 2009]

Image Sources:

Text Sources: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”,, “Countries and Their Cultures”, Gale Group, 2001; Wikipedia,“Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1991, Tourism Offices, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, The Guardian, National Geographic, Associated Press, AFP, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Updated July 2023

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