Hawaii is a veritable paradise. With its pristine beaches, amazing volcanic mountains, incredible forests, and perfect weather all year long, it’s no wonder it’s one of the hottest tourist spots in the world. And we didn’t even mention the best part—the amazing locals.
Of course, having a bunch of tourists around can get on the nerves of the locals. Like other places, putting a little effort into trying to understand them instead of buying into all the touristy riff-raff can take you a long way. Getting to know the Hawaiian way of life will not only enrich your life with a little bit more culture, but the locals will appreciate you immensely. Here are a few tips to help do just that.
Really… relax, you are on vacation! Isn’t relaxation what you came to Hawaii to experience? Forget about trying to see everything in one trip; it is impossible, so slow down. It helps if you plan an itinerary that allows you plenty of spaciousness to be spontaneous and “be in the flow”, which is local lingo for 'relax'. Many visitors try to fit in so many activities that they are constantly rushing from place to place on their vacation and they miss their precious opportunity to slow down and be present with the place and the people who live here.
2. TREAT PEOPLE WELL – ESPECIALLY THOSE WORKING JOBS YOU WOULD NOT WANT TO BE WORKING YOURSELF:
This should go without saying about treating people well, but it is easy to get frustrated if you have expectations based on mainland values. The pace of life is different in Hawaii (especially on the outer islands) and you will be constantly disappointed (even in fancy restaurants) if you expect service equivalent to what a similar establishment on the mainland would require of its employees. People are more laid back here and although they have jobs that do not require a lot of education; they are an integral part of the community so please treat them as such.
3. UNDERSTAND THAT EVERYONE IS INTERCONNECTED:
We call it ‘ohana which means extended family. Except in Honolulu (which is still surprisingly communal given its size), there is usually no more than 1 degree of separation between any 2 given local people; so there is a familiarity about life in Hawaii that leads to mutual respect amongst strangers. In Hawaii, families are large and extended; and it would not be uncommon for a member of the county council to have brothers or sisters working serving visitors in a hotel. As a local resident, you never know if the person you are speaking with is the distant cousin of your boss so it is best practice to assume that he or she is.
4. BE EXTREMELY POLITE WHEN ASKING FOR DIRECTIONS:
On the smaller islands, visitors can comprise up to 20% of the population on any given day. Because of limited signage, many visitors have trouble finding the places they are looking for and want help with directions. It is rather distressing, as a local person, to be walking down the street and to experience someone beep their horn, roll down their window and ask curtly “how do I get to the Kilauea Lighthouse?!” Most local people are happy to help out and will go out of our way to make sure that you find what you are looking for… but most people really appreciate being asked politely.
5. BE RESPECTFUL:
Despite the often slow restaurant service and laid-back lifestyle, many people work extremely hard in Hawaii, often doing strenuous manual labor. Be aware that economic conditions are challenging for many local people. Most people would much rather be relaxing on the beach than at their jobs and it can be challenging for a person in the midst of a strenuous workday to witness visitors who are out having a great time being completely unaware of the condition of their fellow human beings who are working full time in paradise in order to survive. The tensions and resentments are real but they are not personal to you; try to maintain empathy for the living and working conditions of the local population. Many of them trace their direct family lineages to plantation workers who were brought over as indentured servants and worked in poor conditions for little pay where there was a significant inequality. Others can trace proud lineages back dozens of generations to pre-contact Hawaii and now live in very modest economic conditions. Hawaii is not like the rest of America; the generational beliefs which were created in the slave-like conditions of the plantation days still create certain prejudices within the population towards outsiders as does the deep sadness of a culture that has lost most of its land and authority to self-govern. The positive side of this dynamic is that many people are willing to openly share their cultural history with you in a friendly and informative way so you may be fortunate to learn some very interesting historical facts that are not widely known.
— article continued below —
6. TIP WELL:
This rule, like many others, should apply everywhere; but it is especially true in Hawaii where most jobs are near minimum wage and people rely on tips to survive. It is especially important for people who are visiting Hawaii from parts of the world where tipping is not generally practiced to understand that tips are expected in Hawaii (and in America in general). Despite what the name implies, it is not a bonus. Of course, if you are dissatisfied, do not feel obligated; but if everything was to your liking, please consider tipping in accordance with the local custom of 20% for meals, activities, and massages in Hawaii.
7. LISTEN ATTENTIVELY WHEN SOMEONE IS SHARING THEIR CULTURAL HERITAGE WITH YOU:
Hawaii has a unique mix of cultures and when people share their history with you, they are offering you a window into living history. Things are done differently in Hawaii, when you ask questions, please be open-minded to receiving an answer which is different from the one you expected. Hawaii is also a melting pot of different cultures and perspectives; so expect answers to cultural questions to be different amongst the various groups.
8. RESPECT KAPU:
Kapu (or taboo) means off-limits. These places are off-limits for a reason. It may look like a place you want to explore, but there is a good reason which you may not be aware of for the place or activity to be Kapu.
9. REMEMBER, HAWAII IS NOT AMERICA:
Yes, politically, Hawaii is part of the United States and is subject to her laws; but culturally and in the hearts of many Hawaiians, Hawaii is a sovereign nation that has been conquered by and is still occupied by an outside power. There is a reason that a song was written with the lyrics “Keep Hawaiian lands in Hawaiian hands”. These feelings are strong and widely prevalent even if people are not speaking about it. Being sensitive and aware that any ethnic Hawaiian (and many non-ethnic Hawaiians) you are interacting with probably has strong beliefs about this subject can open you up to learning a lot of history you may not have previously been aware of.
10. APPRECIATE THE BEAUTY AROUND YOU:
The state motto of Hawaii is “Ua mau ke ea o ka ‘aina i kapono”. Although there are multiple translations of the meaning of this phrase, I was taught that it means “The spiritual life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness”. There are some mind-blowing places in Hawaii; appreciate the beauty around you and do what you can to preserve it for future generations.
11. DITCH THE “HAWAIIAN” FLOWER SHIRTS:
The only time you’ll see a true Hawaiian wearing a flower shirt is when required for a tourism or hospitality job. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be caught dead in one. The local uniform, instead, is a pair of comfy shorts and a simple tank top. So do yourself a favor and ditch the tacky garments. Better yet, don’t buy one at all. The locals and your tan will thank you.
12. STOCK UP ON SLIPPERS:
And by slippers, we mean sandals and flip-flops. The locals here call them slippers instead, and like shorts and tank tops, they’re the go-to uniform for anything and everything. Shuffling around the house in the morning? Wear your slippers. Going to the store to pick up some grub? Wear your slippers. Heading out to a party, a date, or a nice meal at a restaurant? Slippers, slippers, slippers. And in case you didn’t catch it—be sure you refer to them as slippers in conversation. It will totally make you blend in.
13. NOBODY ACTUALLY SAYS “ALOHA”:
If you really want to stand out as a tourist, utter this cliched catchphrase as a greeting. On the other hand, if you want to completely blend in, offer up a “how’s it” instead. This is the common greeting in Hawaii, and if you’re there for any amount of time, giving a passerby a nod and offering up a “how’s it” will become second nature. So the next time you’re at the beach or out hiking and pass someone, give it a try. You’ll be surprised at how fast you fit in.
14. NOBODY SAYS “MAHALO” EITHER:
You’ve probably heard it dozens of times in movies, and you might think you’re showing respect by attempting utterances in Hawaiian, but really all you’re doing is making yourself look like a tourist. For the utterly uninitiated, Mahalo means thank you; for the simply uninitiated, all the locals simply say “thank you” like the rest of us. In fact, you probably won’t hear any Hawaiian spoke at all unless you’re at one of the touristy places.
15. ACKNOWLEDGE THE SHAKA:
This is one of the stereotypes that actually flies in Hawaii. For those not in the know, the shaka is the “hang loose” hand gesture with thumb and pinky. Aside from the peace sign, it’s probably one of the most recognizable gestures in the world, but even more so in Hawaii. More importantly, if someone gives you the gesture, it’s incredibly rude to not acknowledge it. So if someone throws it up for you, be cool and throw it back. Or a peace sign or head nod, whatever your thing is.
16. GET USED TO HAWAIIAN TIME:
No, we aren’t talking about the time differences and acclimating to your jet lag when you arrive. Hawaiian time refers to the laid-back attitude toward punctuality on the islands. And it’s definitely a real thing. Hawaiians are incredibly laid back and casual—as such, they have a pretty lax attitude toward appointments and schedules. If you’re going to meet someone at the beach at noon, don’t be surprised if they stroll up at around two without so much as an apology.
17. RESPECT YOUR ELDERS:
For the rest of us non-Hawaiians, we usually call someone older than us by “sir” or “ma’am.” In keeping with the aforementioned casual spirit, the fine folks of Hawaii refer to their elders as aunts and uncles. Need to get around an older gentleman in the grocery store aisle? “Pardon me, uncle,” is he the locals say it.
18. GET YOUR FRUIT FOR FREE:
If you really want to blend in or impress a local that thinks you’re a typical tourist, forego buying a piece of fruit from the market and forage it for yourself. The Hawaiian islands are wondrous bastions of wild fruits. Coconuts, bananas, starfruit, mangos, and papayas all grow wildly in the forests and they’re up for grabs. The same goes for flowers too: If you really want to up your local game, pick your own flowers and have a hand at making your own lei. Just be sure to be respectful of the wildlife when scavenging for snacks and flowers.
19. SOY SAUCE FOR EVERYTHING, EXCEPT RICE:
If you really want to blend in while you’re eating out, get ready to reach for the soy sauce. Hawaiians literally put it on everything. That is, everything except rice. For rice, ketchup is the condiment of choice. A little grossed out? It’s not as bad as you think—give it a shot!
20. EMBRACE ALOHA:
While you won’t typically hear aloha in greetings, it’s an important idea to keep in mind when visiting the islands. Aloha isn’t a word—it’s a way of life, and it’s extremely prevalent in Hawaiian culture. What it boils down to is being courteous, friendly, open, and caring. Greet everyone you see on the street as you’re walking. Let someone who’s in a rush take your spot in line. If you have more and your neighbor has less, share. This is what makes Hawaii tick, and it’s what makes it one of the most positive and relaxed places to visit on the planet. So if you are visiting, embrace the culture and keep some aloha in your heart.