Becoming who we are

01 Sep 2020 by Steven Giannoulis

With a name like Giannoulis, I’m clearly not your traditional Kiwi of British colonial lineage. But I don’t think I am any less Kiwi than the decendants of Tasman or Cook. Like them, I come from immigrants and it’s taken me a while to fully appreciate that my identity is shaped by both my past and my ideas of what it means to be Kiwi. Like me, New Zealand has taken time to fully embrace our identity and the many aspects that have, and continue to, shape it. We finally are and that is a journey I’m pleased to be part of. 

My parents are from Greece, moving from a small fishing village to the Wellington suburbs a few years before I was born. When I started school I could speak Greek but limited English. We didn’t have a TV then, so English was very much the foreign language in our house.

It therefore still sometimes confuses me when, filling in forms, I must identify as the European Pakeha majority. After all I’ve spent most of my life feeling I was a minority. As a kid I just wanted to be ‘normal’ like my Kiwi friends. From where I stood, we looked different, we spoke another language, we ate different foods and we had weird traditions. It’s no wonder, I spent many years rebelling against my Greekness, wanting to embrace those symbols that would make me seem more Kiwi.

It’s only been in the last 20 years that I have really accepted my Greek heritage. My Greek background has given me so much, like a passion for life, a deep sense of family and an appreciation for art and culture. Being Greek isn’t the curse I thought it was – something to hide and only bring out when it suited me. (Like when I wanted mum and dad to pay for me to go party in Santorini!) Being Greek is part of who I am and it allows me to bring a different perspective to work, to home and to life. My identity isn’t either/or – Kiwi or Greek – it’s a combination of both.

In many ways, my story is a metaphor for New Zealand’s identity story. For many years we’ve known that many cultures, and in particular Māori, make up our identity but we’ve left it there in the background, bringing it out only when it suited us to. We’ve always pushed forward the identity we thought we wanted to be, rather than the one we really were.

But this is changing

But this is changing as we realise that being British isn’t necessarily a true reflection of who we are. And it’s certainly not unique – 50 plus Commonwealth countries attest to that. Where British is a key ingredient in our identity, it’s our Māori and Pasifika stories that make it our own. And then there’s the hundreds of other flavours – Greek, Italian, South African, Chinese, Croatian, Syrian, Indian, Dutch and many more – that really make our recipe special.

As a nation we’re embracing diversity and our unique identity, especially the Māori element of it, and we are seeing more and more of it on our screens, in our schools, sports, arts and way of thinking. I love that it’s part of who I am as a Kiwi. In fact, I feel more cultural connection to this than any British culture, rooted in a land I’ve only visited a couple of times. I enjoy being greeted with kia ora and seeing tikanga principles embraced in our everyday society. My personal favourite is manaakitanga, probably because it aligns so closely with the Greek philosophy of philoxenia that I grew up with. 

Through our brand and communications work, we are seeing more clients, especially Government departments, embrace this more inclusive Kiwi identity. It’s an identity that reflects their customers, their communities and their workforce. The fact they are recognising that Kiwi culture is changing, and they need to change with it, is a good thing. What I’m finding difficult, however, is the attempt to be something they are not.

As in my own journey, you must understand how culture is part of how you think and act before you can publicly embrace it. Adding a Māori name, or adding some Te Reo words to your website, doesn’t change who you are, how you think or how you act. I’ve worked with a number of clients recently who tried to do just this. Our philosophy is that brands work best from the inside out, expressing who you really are rather than how you want others to see you.

My advice to clients

My advice to these clients is to grow into their identity, finding ways to make a diverse culture part of who they are first, before starting to express it externally. There are many ways to do this and each organisation’s journey is different. Find ways to identify, acknowledge and celebrate the many cultures that make up your identity. Actively ask staff about the cultural barriers they see and find ways to address them. Review staff benefits, like leave entitlements, accommodating different religions and cultures. Offer cultural training, appreciation and support to those who most want it. Make iwi connections and use specialist partners to help you on your journey.

At Insight Creative, we share our many cultures through regular team stories and food. But only one of our 25 staff has a Māori connection so we’re on a journey to better appreciate the Māori way of seeing things. We share a daily Māori word; we bring people in to help us understand and apply key Māori world concepts; and we make a point of celebrating Matariki and Māori Language Week in ways that grow our understanding. As a result, we are seeing more Te Reo in our everyday communications and Kotahitanga as a core idea in how our team culture develops. Already our growing knowledge and appreciation, together with our specialist mana whenua partner support, is coming through in the quality of thinking and design we are delivering to clients.

Personally, I’m enjoying this identity journey and the increased confidence to explore and learn. The next step in my journey is to study Pasifika and Asian cultures further. They’ve made a significant contribution to who we are and they’ll play an even bigger role as our place in the Asia-Pacific region evolves. And maybe then I’ll also go back to my own Greek origins, seeking to find new insights and inspiration. After all, we’re always on the journey of becoming who we are.

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