Etiquette: dos and don’ts in New Caledonia
For those who have never visited New Caledonia or a French-speaking country, there are a few tips and tricks to keep in mind when interacting with the local population in New Caledonia.
First of all, New Caledonia is a French territory and the official language is French (though 28 distinct Kanak languages are spoken here, in addition to Indonesian, Vietnamese, Tahitian, Wallisian, and Chinese).
Relatively little English is spoken in Nouméa and even less is spoken outside the capital and on the Loyalty Islands, where the percentage of the Melanesian population is much higher (the Kanaks constitute 94% of the population in the Loyalty Islands, 74% in the North Province and 27% in the South Province). By way of example, far more English is spoken in Paris than in Nouméa. The great thing here, though, is that people are very warm and patient, so mistakes are just seen as steps towards connecting. A list of helpful French phrases to know when you arrive are included at the end of this post as a starting point.
Second, the population is composed as following:
In 2009, 40.3% of the population reported belonging to the Kanak [or Melanesian] community, 29.2% to the European community and 8.7% to the community originating from Wallis and Futuna. The remaining identified communities represented 7.3% of the population, and included Tahitians (2.0%), Indonesians (1.6%), Vietnamese(1.0%), Ni-Vanuatu (0.9%) other Asian (0.8%) and other (1.0%). 8.3% belonged to multiple communities, 5% declared their community as “Caledonian”, 1.2% did not respond.
So when one discusses etiquette, it is important to keep in mind that we have several different cultural groups (in addition to upwards of 30 languages) – which require similar, and yet, different sensitivities. When in doubt, it is best to smile, speak quietly and show respect (in terms of physical space, how you gesture and in the way you dress). But let’s dig deeper into some of those tips and tricks.
Meeting and greeting
When meeting both Europeans and Kanaks (or Melanesians), you can make eye contact and extend your hand in a handshake. Melanesians may not return your gaze, and may shake your hand gently, and both of these gestures are out of politeness.
Note that Melanesians will say hello to you on the street and on the roads, either verbally or by waving. Again, this is considered polite, and it is respectful of you to return their greeting.
The French, among family and friends, usually greet each other by kissing each other on both cheeks. They also do so upon saying goodbye. One does not however “fait les bises” in work situations (unless the colleagues know each other very well).
When greeting both Europeans and Melanesians face to face, maintain a respectful distance (the distance of a handshake). Do not attempt to hug a European or Kanak, unless you are very, very close – and even then, bear in mind that this may make them uncomfortable.
It is best to avoid touch for emphasis or to establish trust. Melanesians consider hair sacred, so it is best to ask before you touch someone’s hair.
You may have heard of “la coutume”, which is an introduction and the offering of a small gift when you enter tribal lands in New Caledonia.
When Kanaks enter the home of a chief, they will offer a small token as a sign of respect and to introduce themselves. Food, a few metres of textiles (cloth, easily found in Chinatown in Nouméa), money or a packet of cigarettes are the traditional and contemporary offerings, and if you’re given the rare privilege of being invited to a tribal home, you should respect la coutume by bringing a gift. When you want to camp on a clan’s ground or visit a site, it’s wise and courteous to introduce yourself to the chief, if possible, or at least to someone in the clan.
Proper names for major ethnicities
There has been much debate over whether or not to use the word “Kanak” when referring to the native people of New Caledonia. Some have said:
- My friend prefers me to use the word Melanesian or Indigene rather than Kanak.
- I only use the word Kanak when referring to an object such as a piece of art. I never call a person a Kanak.
- Kanak is totally acceptable. I have been using Kanak with my Melanesian friends for more than 20 years.
I use Kanak and Melanesian interchangeably in both written and verbal communications, as a form of respect (Melanesian) and compassion (Kanak) for the culture. The few Melanesian friends and people I have met refer to themselves as Kanaks and prefer that I also do so. I see both terms regularly in the press, though Kanak seems to be the preferred term.
With regard to the Europeans on the island, it is recommended to use the word “Caledonian” instead of “Caldoche.” The Lonely Planet Guide says “the word Caldoche was initially used as an insult and there are still some people not fond of the term.”
Those recently arrived from France on short-term postings of 2-3 years are called “Metropolitans” or “Metros”.
Showing respect for elders and females
Respect is demonstrated in different ways in various cultures. Dressing modestly and waiting to be invited into a conversation are some of the ways South Pacific cultures show respect.
Kanaks show respect in personal interactions. Certain relationships involve compulsory familiarity. One respects maternal relatives, one’s elders, and aged persons. 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.
When invited to dinner for the first time at a private French home, a bouquet of flowers and/or a bottle of wine is usually presented to the hostess. If you have been invited to a Kanak home, you should also bring a small gift. If you are invited on the fly to join a Melanesian for a cup of tea or coffee, a simple “thank you” is acceptable.
It is best to arrive on time when invited somewhere by both Europeans and Kanaks.
With regard to eating and conversing, French etiquette rules should be followed. These include serving women first, waiting for the hostess/host to take the first bite, using cutlery from the outside in, keeping both hands on the table (in view) and not interrupting others. If you enjoy your food, do say so, thanking both the host and hostess.
Alcohol consumption should be moderate at most.
As most Caledonians rise early, it is also advisable not to overstay your welcome.
See above for how to greet and say goodbye to your hosts.
Dos and don’ts
It is part of tribal life to greet passers-by, even if you’re inside a vehicle going past pedestrians – you’ll soon find you do a lot of waving (especially outside Nouméa).
The ancient Kanak customary law of offering visitors food persists. Arriving in a village, you may be invited to share a cup of tea or coffee or even an entire meal in the house of someone you met only 10 minutes earlier. Nothing more than a “thank you” is expected in return if you are just passing through. However, if you stay a day or so, out of politeness to their custom you should present your host with some food.
Do not enter villages wearing just swimwear or revealing shorts. Women should make sure their skirts or pants are of a decent length and men shouldn’t be bare-chested. Dressing in revealing clothes is okay around the beach suburbs of Nouméa, but everywhere outside the capital it’s frowned upon and on Isle of Pines, by decree of the chief, such clothes are strictly illegal (except at tourist beaches). Going topless is fine on Nouméan beaches but it’s not accepted outside the capital.
Traditional Kanak cemeteries are the abode of the ancestors and, unless you have permission from tribal elders, you should not enter these places.
Visitors are expected to ask permission of local people before exploring forests, swimming in waterholes or wandering around any tribal areas.
We also learned recently that you are not to photograph the huts in Lifou without permission, as these are sacred. As a general rule, it is best to ask permission before photographing Kanak children and adults.
The best ways to build trust with people in New Caledonia, be them Europeans, Melanesians and others are to:
1. Remain respectful at all times.
2. Show humility, as a visitor here.
3. Listen to, and remain open to, what the locals have to share with you.
You will break trust if you:
1. Act disrespectfully.
2. Speak unkindly of the locals (Europeans and Melanesians).
3. Do not follow through on your commitments or do the opposite of what you have said you will do.
A few common phrases that are helpful to know upon arrival
|Hello/Good morning||Bonjour||[bone-JURE] (the “n” in bone is silent and the “j” is pronounced like “s” in “pleasure”)|
|Goodbye||Au revoir||[oh ruh-VWARR]|
|Please||S’il vous plait||[see voo PLAY]|
|You’re welcome||Je vous en prie||[jeuh VOOZ ohn PREE]|
|Excuse me||Excusez-moi||[EX-quoo-zay MWAH]|
|I’m sorry (Forgive me)||Pardon||[PAR-dohn]|
|How are you?||Comment allez-vous?||[KOM-mohn TAH-lay VOO?]|
|I’m fine, thanks.||Je vais bien, merci.||[bee-ehn MAIR-see]|
|I’m from …||Je viens de …||[jeuh VI-ehn deuh …]|
|I understand||Je comprends||[jeuh cawm-PRAWN]|
|I don’t understand||Je ne comprends pas||[jeuh neuh cawm-PRAWN pah]|
|Do you speak English ?||Parlez-vous anglais ?||[PAR-lay VOO ahn-GLAY ?]|
|I’d like …||Je voudrais …||[jeuh VOO-dray]|
|Where is …||Ou est …||[oo way…]|
|I’m looking for …||Je cherche …||[jeuh SHERSH …]|
|Help !||Au secours !||[oh SKOOHR!]|
Sources used for this post:
Gagnon, Jo-Ann (2009), The New Caledonia Newcomer’s Guide.
Logan, Leanne and Geert Cole (2001), New Caledonia, Lonely Planet Publications.