By Eric Johnson
I had just spent five hours in a plane crossing the continental United States, and another 13-plus hours crossing the Pacific Ocean to arrive in Auckland, N.Z., barely having enough time to change clothes before meeting with a local Maori tribal leader. I suddenly realized just how different the culture was that I was operating in as I stood in front of a very imposing gentleman waiting to exchange the standard pleasantries and handshake.
We shook hands and then the leader would not let go of my hand, almost pulling me closer and beginning to stare at me aggressively; I felt my personal space diminishing, wondering what I could have done so wrong, so quickly into this meeting, even under the haze of jet lag.
A Kiwi colleague was, thankfully, standing next to me and mentioned it is a customary greeting in Maori culture to touch the tips of noses and foreheads at the same time as you look deep into the eyes of the business associate you are just meeting. This is called a “hongi,” a sacred greeting among the Maori as they meet an outsider. It signifies the sharing of the breath of life. I had a very important meeting at stake, and did exactly as my colleague instructed and the mood immediately lightened. This tribal leader then considered me part of their community.
That day, I discovered how much I still needed to learn about New Zealand and Maori culture, which is very integral to the cultivation of land and sea to this tiny island nation. To operate in business you must become one of the people of the land through the hongi. Later that afternoon, sitting in a modern U.S.-looking Starbucks recently opened in Auckland’s central business district, I was feeling very comfortable because I knew just what I was going to order, until I was asked if I would like to “try a flat white.” Shocked, I asked what a flat white was. Soon the coffee was served in an actual porcelain coffee mug — a flat white is very similar to a cappuccino.
A level of finesse