Brian Edwards Media

Unaccustomed As I Am – Why Most Kiwi Blokes Can’t String Two Words Together


New Zealand. 1988. A television current-affairs show. Members of the public are given the opportunity to question people in the public eye. The host introduces the programme and that week’s guest, a Cabinet Minister. He invites the first question from Mr X, a 50-year-old public servant.

Mr X begins by doing his impression of a possum caught in the headlights of a Mack truck. There is a terrible silence. The programme host is about to come to X’s aid when he finally produces a sound from his throat.

‘Eh… if eh… the eh… basic [he pronounces this bass sick, as in fish unwell] problem with the eh… country is eh… [he consults his notes] eh… inflation, why doesn’t the eh… Minister take a eh… tougher line with the eh… [consults his notes again] eh… trade eh… trade unions?

The nation breathes out. A Kiwi male has managed to complete a a 21-word sentence in under two minutes without panicking, throwing up or having a heart attack. It may not have been elegant, it may not have been pretty, but most of the words could be heard and some  could be understood. It’s a start.

It’s pathetic actually. I want to leap through my TV screen, grab them by the throat and throttle them till their brains engage and their thoughts tumble out of their mouths. I want to yell, ‘For god’s sake, man, spit it out! Can’t you string 21words together without falling apart at the seams?’

He can’t. Most Kiwi men can’t. The Kiwi male is the most inarticulate, the most incoherent, the most mumbling, stumbling, yammering, stammering, muttering, stuttering creature on earth. He is, as I say, pathetic. 

How did he get that way? He learnt it at State secondary school. He learnt that it isn’t on for boys to be too keen, to seem too smart. He learnt that volunteering, putting your hand up, knowing the answer, responding, defines you as a wanker, a poofter, a teacher’s pet. Boys can be clever, but must not display their cleverness in words. Girls, on the other hand, can be enthusiastic, forward, verbal, articulate. Girls talk, boys do.

He learnt it in the workplace and on the sportsfield.  To be manly is to be reticent, withdrawing, self-effacing, humble, taciturn, laconic, still. A man may draw attention to himself by deed, but not by word. Women talk, men do.

He learnt it at the movies. The cowboy is the archetypal ‘real man’, the original ‘strong silent type’. If he talks at all, he talks slow and indistinct. Not that he has an option, for, like most Kiwi men, the Western hero speaks without opening his mouth. His tight lower jaw and clenched teeth act like heavy curtains in front of a loudspeaker, muffling the sound, driving the air through the nose. Hence the Kiwi (and Aussie) nasal twang.

He learnt it in the home. Women talk, men do. That’s one of the reasons why so many women get knocked about. Being inarticulate is a severe handicap in an argument. Drunken and verbally frustrated men tend to look to their one area of dialectical superiority – their fists.

What he learnt was that the most admirable quality in a man is modesty. Confident, articulate men lack modestly. Therefore it is unmanly to be confident and articulate.

It’s absolute nonsense. You can be confident, articulate and [if you think it’s absolutely necessary] modest as well. And there’s no connection between modesty and manliness [whatever ‘manliness’ is]. Indeed, one effect of all this strong/silent posturing is to turn Kiwi men into Kiwi mice.

Check it out on Fair Go. When a married couple have a complaint, the wife does all the talking. The husband stands there, wetting himself, in case Kevin directs a question specifically to him. ‘Er… sorry Kev, Jean normally does the talking. You know what women are like.’ Yes we know: Women talk, men do.

We really have to stop this nonsense. We have to stop admiring Kiwi blokes for being tongue-tied nervous wrecks, just because it proves you’re not up yourself or a big girl’s blouse. Modesty and aphasia don’t have to be synonymous.

I have excluded women from these remarks. I should probably also exclude working-class people and the products of private schools. In my experience [which is considerable, mate] the inability to put a sentence together without hesitation, repetition or deviation is primarily a disease of middle-class Kiwi men. Check it one out by watching local TV programmes for a couple of weeks. Or you could listen to Parliament or maybe interviews with the All Blacks.  

[I actually wrote this column in 1988. What interested me was that, more than 20 years later, not much has changed. Of course, I could be wrong.] 


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  1. It’s sad comment on the kiwi male – but so very true!

    As a woman it drives me batty that a lot of men are incapable of speaking up or holding their own in an argument or in life.
    It is manly to have a wide vocabulary and to use it.

    Intelligence is sexy. :)

  2. Nice article. Very recognisable scenario and explanation. My half-baked reaction (after a minute of reflection)is that there has been some change since the 80s. Between rap and the marketing comms culture of the 90s and 00s, young men have been exposed to increased communication expectations. Even front row props have to front after the game and reel off a few platitudes to the cameras. I am often surprised by how articulate young men are these days.

  3. Ha ha, a very enjoyable read with more than a grain of truth in it.

    It immediately put me in mind of similar observations from John Dybvig’s excellent 1993 media memoir, Microphones Up My Nose, in which he relates a frustrating radio interview he had with Lance Cairns, then at the peak of his sporting fame.


    [Dybvig relates the big, enthusiastic intro he gives Cairns, to kick the interview off. What follows is silence.]

    “Hello, Lance…Lance?”

    I guess I was expecting Lance to be as exciting on the phone as he was with a cricket bat in his hand. I was expecting him to be as excited about himself as I was. Wrong. This tiny little voice eventually came on the line:


    Lance spent the rest of the interview denying he’d done anything special. He gave every indication of being embarrassed by it.

    “Oh, you know,” he said. “Give it a bit of a heave, eh?”

    That sort of self-effacement is much admired by New Zealanders, but it makes lousy radio.


    Oh, and I hate that weird pronunciation of “basic” as “bassick”, too. What’s with that?!

  4. Good to know I am not alone.

    Oh yeah, Brian, I have neglected to tell you – its good to have a doyen of New Zealand media (particularly in current affairs), make his presence known in the blogosphere…

  5. The Fair Go thing – I always thought it was a preservation effect – The hubby not wanting to get a later bollocking/freeze out for saying the wrong thing on the telly.

  6. The art of conversation at dinner parties, Kiwis are terrible at it. People do not listen, do not ask questions, do not come equipped with some news to share and we languish in embarrassing long silences as a result.

    I have found women guilty as well. Or, if they can talk but they are dull, dull, DULL.

    It’s just plain ole emotional stinginess.

    Or maybe its just the company I keep. :)

  7. I can see where “Angelique’s” coming from. The art of conversation is to involve the other(s) by saying things that invoke responses: To involve and engage. If there are three in the group you should be speaking a third of the time and listening two-thirds. But for some reason so many like to speak and dominate the conversation and leave you having to do all the listening. The person doing the talking is not in the least interested in your having a say other than be there as his/her sounding board. And it’s so true the more someone yabbers on the more dull he/she is.

    Your article is a real slap in the face of the NZ male Brian. On Wednesday I came across the programme Heartland New Zealand (Sky-17) fronted by Marc Ellis. It’s about six girls/ladies who make their way to Midldlemarch just out of Dunedin. It was really interesting. These six were out to ensnare themselves a husband. That Marc Ellis is really good he’s not only the narrator but part of the actual narrative too. He really impresses me by his breezy and fluent dialogue.

    All the guys were farmers but they certainly weren’t agrestic when it came to the “meet ‘n’ greet”. One of them had a degree in chemical engineering.

    Marc Ellis is really articulate and he doesn’t use fancy words. Hell even ‘Trevor’ and ‘Annie’ could understand what he’s saying. Those two are still domiciled on the previous site. They just don’t know how to make their way over because they’re confused as how to best enter into the automated slow revolving door that would bring them here. (I’d be interested to see how these two express themselves).

    But I digress. The archetype NZ male is the South Island-farmer short on words but speaks with that deep-voiced-Alex Wylie-type brogue. Gruff but not menacing.

    To those guys being interviewed before a TV camera and saying something fluent and articulate and more importantly impromptu is along the lines of “Good on ya, mate” without the cameraman’s assistant having to effect the prompt by waving a prop before them such as an unopened can of Speights.

    And maybe we should just accept that’s how it is and how it always will be. With the NZ male.

  8. Our present Pm I would prefer to adhere to this.”Better to keep your mouth closed and be thought a fool than open your mouth and remove any doubt”

  9. I have not forgotten the Close up item on Hug a Ginga Day. There it was the guy frothing at the mouth while his wife stayed firmly in the background (cringing with embarrassment I should imagine).

    It is interesting when one watches US TV because the american man in the street always seems far more articulate than his Anglo Saxon counterpart. Its the same with clild actors – American kids seem to act instinctively; UK / NZ child actors resembe blocks of wood.

    I think it is all to do with the British stiff upper lip. Cannot imagine though Merv being lost for words if asked for his opinion on the street.

    • It is interesting when one watches US TV because the american man in the street always seems far more articulate than his Anglo Saxon counterpart

      I agree. American teenagers in particular are much more articulate than Kiwi teenagers. Whether they have anything worthwhile to say is another matter.

  10. Seems the inarticulate Kiwi male certainly lives on. I recall very recently seeing on TV an experienced and intelligent politician running for his life down some back stairs, mumbling something about being picked on.

  11. Sorry Brian, it’s what makes us us.

    Our modesty is the best thing about us…it may be a disadvantage in front of the cameras, but I’d actually call that stage fright.

    I love it when an All Black scores a try…unlike Americans, who fist pump and bare their teeth when they score, our boys look almost embarassed…their friends jump up and down, hugging backslapping while the hero usually walks back to the halfway mark, wondering what all the fuss was about, but quietly knowing inside he done good. Lovely, sweet and refreshing in a world of forced overexuberance.

    And then to suggest this is the reason we’re violent…what, more violent than Americans?

    And then to imply its the State School system…? Brian…I’m…I’m…um…er…lost for words.

    We’re not all blessed with your verbosity…as good as it is to have you around, just imagine a country where we all talked as much as you… :)

    Long live the quiet Kiwi male.

    • Sorry Brian, it’s what makes us us.

      God, I hope not. What a monochrome society you’re proposing. And you seem intent on looking at the extremes. I’m not talking about the way the players behave in American football, though you appear to have forgotten the haka. And I didn’t suggest we were more violent than the Americans, but that inarticulate men take their frustrations in argument out on their partners with their fists. I know a bit about this since I co-authored a book on murder in New Zealand with the late QC, Michael Bungay. It’s a fact. All I’m asking is that we do something about the problem of inarticulateness among Kiwi men. If you think that modesty is our defining value, what would the problem be with being modest and able to string a few coherent sentences together? Yours verbosely…

  12. Listening to a allblack being interviewed, any all black past or present, they all speak exactly the same, the same almost hushed tone of voice, the extreme modesty the lack of actually saying anything of substance, I honestly can’t tell the difference espcially on radio, that almost whiper tone gets on my nerve, how about a bit of arrogance, a bit of confidence, its the assholes of sport that are the most entertaining.

  13. 13

    I wouldn’t give a toss if your average All Black couldn’t string a sentence together. That’s not what they are there for, of course, and noone is going to remember five minutes afterwards what he said anyway.
    I don’t recall one word that Jonah may have said in an interview, but I do remember a host of wonderful tries.
    After a test match in 1956 Peter Jones said he was absolutely buggered. That was a long time ago and is probably the only interview anyone can ever remember by an All Black in all those years. Suits me just fine.

    • I wouldn’t give a toss if your average All Black couldn’t string a sentence together.

      Well, many of our top sportsmen are by definition our embassadors on the world stage. It would be nice if they could a) string a sentence together and b) be understood. It would also go some way to correcting the image of rugby players and others sportspeople as inarticulate morons.

  14. 14

    American people interviewed on TV always give me the impression that they have prepared themselves their whole life for this particular moment when they have a chance at stardom and if all goes well a spot on Oprah is surely on the cards followed by celebrity & wealth. Not a humble lot the Yanks!!

  15. 15

    “embassadors??” What’s that? An embarrassing ambassador?

    • “embassadors??” What’s that? An embarrassing ambassador?

      Oh dear, the curse of the typo strikes again. The gracious thing to do is to ignore them, as I do with the hundreds that turn up in comments.

  16. Brian,
    1: I’m not proposing a monochrome society…it’s just that there’s more to life than talking. Some of us have the gift, some of us don’t. I can write, but stick me in front of an interviewer and I freeze…have done it several times now and doubt I will ever gte better…and I don’t care. My favourite TV moments are when the egos controling the news come up against someone who doesn’t want to say anything…on live TV…pure comedy.

    2: GridIron was just an example and one that is repeated on much of America’s culture…Oprah, Fox, Marines, Tom Cruise movies nauseum

    I wouldn’t just blame the angolsaxons for their quietness either…have you ever watched Fargo…those Skandinavians know how to do a lot with a well placed……pause….Skandys say so little they’re almost psychic.

    Silence can be golden.

    • “embassadors??” What’s that? An embarrassing ambassador?

      Oratio est argentum, silentium aurum. I’m familiar with the saying, having had to write it out hundreds of times as a punishment at school. I love silence myself. But the choice isn’t between being articulate and being silent. The choice is between being articulate and inarticulate. I possibly shouldn’t have mentioned media interviews. It’s just that that’s where the Kiwi bloke’s inability to string two sentences together is most obvious. And you’re right – nerves are a major factor. But the phenomenon of men being considerably less able than women to express themselves goes well beyond interviews and into everyday life and can and does lead to domestic violence. All in all, I’m not sure what the debate here is about. Can anyone really object to the idea that it would be a good thing if men were able to express themselves better?

  17. It’s men who have created the myth of the “strong silent type”.

    Women prefer a man who can make them laugh (and not with slapstick, either)!

    Being tongue-tied, whether from embarrassment or nerves, is one thing, and perhaps forgiveable – but I’ve always viewed the grunting , uncommunicative male stereotype as simply displaying passive-aggression.

    And yes, women do get very fed up with having to carry the whole conversational load when in mixed company. It’s as bad as when blokes talk over women, and essentially stems from the same contempt and hostility that holds women as not being worth communicating with.

  18. Brian,
    one other thing…sorry…

    Violence has many reasons…people who can’t shut their mouths probably account for more of it than the quiet ones amongst us.

    You could write just as good a blog on that…it could be a very short blog…3 or 4 sentences on the values of staying silent…

    Do you get what I’m saying?…you talk lots…people who don’t seem to annoy you. Those quiet people are part of the colourful tapestry of our lives…you’re picking on them and you’re always going to win, because they’re not going to tell you you’re wrong. Which is possibly one of the problems the media in general has (not usually you)…they talk on everyones behalf and it goes to their heads.

    PS. I love that you do all this communicating, keep up the good work.

    • Do you get what I’m saying?…you talk lots…people who don’t seem to annoy you.

      No, that’s not it at all. It’s not people not talking that’s the issue and it isn’t really a case of annoyance at anybody. What annoys me are the factors in New Zealand society that produce men who are largely incapable of expressing themselves.

  19. A good start to cut back male violence is to curtail the ugly spectacle that is the haka. It’ll do more to reduce the kiwi male machismo than being able string a few spoken sentences together. Don’t know why the All Blacks keep doing it when it’s nothing more than a celebration of Maori primal aggression, violence and crime. It’s a disgusting cultural artifact that NZ needs to get shot of.

    • A good start to cut back male violence is to curtail the ugly spectacle that is the haka.

      Glad you said that, not me, Tane. But it does raise an interesting question – are New Zealand men more comfortable with aggressive speech than with pacific speech?

  20. Some you can tell, believe sharing themselves is a sign of weakness. I try to avoid these types, we tend to not get on. I am sometimes described as bubbly and I seem to irritate “internalisers” no end.

    But I suppose we need introverts too…

    During the last Americas Cup in NZ, an Italian paparazzi chap came into my business and we got chatting. He said he had tuned into the energy of New Zealand [sorry don’t laugh] and that it was slightly depressed, that we need more passion, more fire. That has always resonated with me.

    My word for many NZ’ers is: reticent. [Though slowly improving, being down the unfashionable end of the planet not helping.]

    • Some you can tell, believe sharing themselves is a sign of weakness. I try to avoid these types, we tend to not get on. I am sometimes described as bubbly and I seem to irritate “internalisers” no end.

      That’s an interesting comment, Angelique. I sometimes think that we’re so preoccupied with people not getting ‘up themselves’, that we stop a lot of people lifting their heads above the parapet at all.

  21. As a person who must enjoy the sanctuary of dyslexia I can only read with (an albeit muted) awe the words of a Merv et al. It would take a week of reference for me to contribute similarly. Another sanctuary I find myself drawn to is of course NatRad’s ‘Afternoons’ and more particularly 4pm to 5pm. I may think of the words but can only admire the utterer when they are strung together as I wish I could write them. My affliction does cross over to speech which makes me something of a rarity. But I can numerically design a beautiful yacht hull. Go the farmer scientist.

  22. “Can anyone really object to the idea that it would be a good thing if men were able to express themselves better?”

    But silence is an expression…and I think that you’re probably wired not to understand that. It’s a bit like someone with eyesight trying to explain the colour of a strawberry, the blind person could never understand the qualities of red. You’ve got a talking brain…lots of us don’t.

    If it’s a problem, fix it…if its not, its an asset. 99% of the nations quiet people are probably quite happy listening.

    THERE”S TOO MUCH ARTICULATION is all I’m trying to say…the workd is articulation crazy

  23. 23

    First of all let me apologize to Dr Edwards for gracelessly pointing out the typo, which I did wonder may have been a reference to the far too articulate rugby ambassador Andy Haden who turned out to be an embarrassment.
    Secondly my point with interviews of All Blacks would be that for the most part they are superfluous to the understanding of the game and seem to be a sort of contractual obligation both for the players and the interviewers. Fortunately I live in Bangkok where interviews with rugby players are not a big item on TV and in fact most Thais wouldn’t know the difference between rugby and any other civil violence.

  24. @ Tap and Hum: “As a person who must enjoy the sanctuary of dyslexia I can only read with (an albeit muted) awe the words of….”

    Tapum, let me help you overcome your so-called “dyslexia”. Note: (an albeit muted) should not be enclosed by parenthesis, but by ‘em-dashes’. Dashes are used to isolate an aside to what’s being expressed; whereas, what is enclosed in parenthesis, further clarifies the preceding sentence. It’s subtle, but there is a difference in usage. Learn that simple grammatical tenet, and you will defeat your “dyslexia”, in time. Notwithstanding the fact: your tongue was pressed, firmly, against your cheek, when you penned it. And if I’m wrong, about your condition? Well, your very public admission, of your affliction, goes some way in providing a credible counterpoint to Brian’s little disquisition on his take, of the typical Kiwi male psyche.

    PS: What I wrote, was junk, anyway. Denuded of all commas, it reads like the 5-minute compositional mess, it is.

  25. I think you are writing about a time past, Brian. Maybe Steve Hansen and Graham Henry are not the most scintillating public speakers but they are sometimes a welcome alternative to big-mouth Americans and Australians. We don’t alway have to verbalise our thoughts; indeed, blogging is a very alternative.

  26. @Kate – possibly wouldn’t have helped that Lance Cairns is deaf….

  27. It’s not suprising when you consider that this decade seems to be the decade of feminist superiority. Women are so much better than men in all those fields that men do well in, we dare not dispute this, otherwise we’re labelled as “selfish, insecure, cave man orriented bullies”.
    Women on media are cast as ” intellegent, articulate, socially aware, etc.”
    The reallity of all this pc crap, is that we need each other. One half divided by one half, leaves…one half.
    One half added to one half, equals, one whole.
    Simple mathematics.
    Why don’t we accept the reallity that we each according to our respective genders, balance each other out?
    PC equality is PC bullshit. Why don’t we accept each others unique attributes, and move forward.
    Equality? you already have it. Just open your eyes and look.

  28. No one has mentioned the phenomena of introversion / extroversion involved in processing thoughts internally versus orally … so the extrovert simultaneously talk/thinks while the introvert internally considers their response before speaking, and often gets ‘left behind’ in the presence of extroverts.
    In my experience, more men process via introversion, and this is accentuated when they work long hours alone in rural areas with very limited social opportunities.
    On the bright side, the introvert may often be heard correcting statistics and events when the extrovert goes off the rails: “Umm … that was 450 kg’s, not 350 kg’s “, just to keep us yappers grounded.
    The Real Tony has a good point, and it might be noteworthy that general verbosity is often mistaken for articulation.

  29. Haha, Yeah, pretty much… I know a lot of farming or building blokes who I’ve hardly ever heard more then a sentence from. A lot of people even describe me as the quite type. I would be hesitant to suggest it is a lack of confidence. For me it is the wisdom of knowing when it is important to add your two cents and when it’s time to just listen. I remember going skiing with my dad, it would be silent most of the trip to the mountain, we would ski all day and only speak during lunch. Usually about how sore our legs were or which part of the mountain to ski on next. At the end of the day, we would drive home with the occasional story about the day. It is a good memory, and it was still father and son bonding. Some things are bigger then words. I think us kiwi blokes still know how to say things. I remember those home makeover shows, they would interview the guy and get him to say stuff via video to his partner. I remember that once one guy said, “I’ve never told her that I love her, I assume she knows. I hope she does.” My dad was watching and he said, “that’s interesting.” Which was his way of saying, “I hope you all know that I love you.”

  30. I agree that there are a lot of mono-syllabic, almost non-verbal Kiwi blokes.

    But there’s also a hell of a lot of high voltage burblers, witterers and self-dramatisers, particularly here in Auckland.

    What we seem to have some difficulty in producing is a well-balanced, thoughtful, cogent, articulate and witty male.

    But what do you expect of a country that thought David Lange the wittiest man alive, tolerated Mike Moore’s post-modern meanderings and thinks John Key’s one-liners are clever?