How to write for New Zealand audiences

Photo: Andrea Lai on Flickr

Since I moved back to New Zealand in 2017 after 14 years in London, former colleagues have asked if writing for New Zealand audiences is different to writing for British audiences. (I’ve also often written for US and global audiences.)

Is there a difference? I think the answer is yes. And it’s also no.

First: You don’t always need a copywriter from that country

When I started working in the UK around 2004, a senior colleague in the communications department laughed at me when I suggested I write copy for her pamphlet. “Well, maybe if we’re ever writing for a New Zealand audience.”

This assumption that only writers born-and-bred Brits can write for British audiences seemed a little harsh, so I thought I’d test it. Instead of commissioning the freelance writer she suggested, I wrote the copy myself, then sent it to the editor, knowing she’d assume it was by the freelancer. She replied fast: “Wow! This doesn’t happen often – I don’t have any changes. [Freelance writer’s name] has improved!”

Although it helps, you needn’t have been born and raised in a country to write well for its people. But you do need sensitivity to international language use differences.

Keep in mind these differences when writing for New Zealand audiences.

1. New Zealanders tend to think global by default

We’re a small country, and largely speaking, we know we’re easily left off the world map. That’s why New Zealand businesses tend to think global by default, or at least as far as Australia.

For writing, this means being more aware of whether the business context means you should avoid local word usage.

On the other hand, if your audience is mainly in New Zealand, local vocabulary can help build trust and score SEO points. There’s a right time to wear gumboots rather than wellies or rain boots.

2. We use British spelling, but our English is US-influenced

When I was growing up in the 1980s, adults would berate children for saying pants rather than trousers or zucchini instead of courgette. Many believed language shouldn’t change, particularly if those changes were from – shock horror – the US.

Trying to prevent language change is futile. It has always happened and always will.

However, New Zealanders have only adopted a few American English words. You probably don’t want to ask for directions to a drug store to buy Kleenex or Q-tips… but bobby pins are more common than hair pins.

3. New Zealand is ahead in plain language

In 2022, the New Zealand government passed the Plain English Act. But even when I worked in the public sector in the early 2000s, most government departments had committed to plain language, even if they weren’t doing it well.

While the new Act has no consequences for those organisations that don’t make an effort, it may raise plain language up their agenda.

The New Zealand and Australia Plain Language Awards may have raised the profile of plain language in New Zealand too, especially beyond the public sector.

4. Gender is different in New Zealand

First generation immigrants sometimes say New Zealand is an easier place to be a woman than their home country, but a harder place to be a man. Social scientists agree.

Returning to New Zealand from the UK, even as a New Zealander, I noticed how many women work in trades, for example. It’s common to have your windscreen fixed by a woman, or be sold power tools by a woman.

What does this mean for writing? It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, it’s important to use gender-inclusive language and avoid gendered assumptions.

Avoiding gender-coded language when writing job ads is especially important. Studies show using language associated with male stereotypes (like leader, competitive, dominant) or female stereotypes (like support, understand, interpersonal) can restrict applicants by gender.

5. Te Reo Māori is fast changing New Zealand English

Words like mana (prestige, respect, dignity), whānau (extended family) and taihoa (wait) have long been part of New Zealand English.

Nowadays, as Te Reo Māori is being more widely taught and spoken, we also use more Māori words in English sentences, without translation, like:

mahi – work

hapū – pregnant

ngā mihi – greetings

kaupapa – way of thinking, a foundation for action

kaumatua – respected elder (plural: kaumātua)

Perhaps most famously (and controversially) many now call New Zealand Aotearoa or Aotearoa New Zealand.

Using Māori words within English sentences can be a great way to help a New Zealand audience see where you’re coming from, fast. For full translations, always use a Maori Language Commission-certified translator.

Remember, macrons (horizontal lines above some vowels) in Māori words are not optional. You must use them when appropriate because without them, meaning can change. I always check macron placement using a Māori language dictionary.

Need some help with New Zealand English? Get in touch.

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