Hawaii is a beautiful and magical place with tropical forests, white sand beaches, and erupting volcanoes.  Vacationing there is one thing, but doing business or living there is another. Hawaii is a world onto itself and is completely culturally different than the mainland United States. Hawaii is dominated by a mixture of Asian and Hawaiian culture that is in opposition of mainland haole culture.

Culture in Hawaii

What is mainland? What is haole? Mainland is what they call the main United States, and haole is a white person. Because of the brutal colonization of the Hawaiian people, there is still a great deal of antagonism towards mainlanders. For generations and generations the majority of the population has been Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Portuguese, and Hawaiian, with the minority being white. For this reason, customs, etiquette, business, and traditions stem from Asian cultures rather than mainland American culture, with their own island twist.

Hawaiians have their own language called Pidgin, which is conversationally spoken as well as used in advertising campaigns. It combines English with Hawaiian and Asian languages as well as having its own unique words and phrases. To an outsider’s ear it may be hard to understand. My family is from Hawaii and I sometimes still have trouble understanding pidgin. Common phrases include, “da kine” which can mean anything or place. Most similar in English would be ‘whatchamacallit.’ It is used constantly in conversation, for example “you like go da kine?” or “gimme da kine.” “Bodda you?” means ‘does this bother you?’ “Braddah” is commonly used for brah or bro or dude and expect to be called braddah if someone likes you. Kane is man and wahine is woman, if you are trying to figure out which bathroom to use. And of course the two most important words, ‘Aloha’ and ‘Mahalo’. Aloha can mean hello or goodbye. Mahalo means thank you. Both are used commonly in conversation. There is much more to pidgin, which is a fun language to listen to and learn.

 Etiquette in Hawaii

You may have heard that Americans are very punctual, not necessarily true in Hawaii. Instead they have ‘island time’ which is much slower paced and casual. Don’t expect your meeting to start at the exact time or end at the exact time, which might be more similar to the Spanish time table.

Apply Asian etiquette. I have written about Korean and Japanese etiquette. Asian etiquette supersedes American etiquette in Hawaii, also depending on whom you are doing business with. Take your shoes off when entering a house, bring gifts, don’t mix up the Asian countries, etc.

Hawaiian leis are a specifically Hawaiian tradition. You may be given a lei upon arrival, or at an important event, or at the end of a negotiation to signify peace. You must bow your head to allow the person to place the lei around your neck. You should never take the lei off in the presence of the person who gave it to you or put it on your head as a crown or around your wrist as a bracelet.

Flowers behind the ear can signify different things. If you place the flower behind your left ear it means you are married or have a significant other. Behind your right ear means you are single and ready to mingle. Don’t be surprised if this leads to men approaching you.

Hawaii is a wonderful place but isolated and separate from the mainland US. Be sure not to apply the same business logic or negotiation strategies there, but to see Hawaii as a culture onto itself.