Understanding whakamā and its implications for speaking te reo Māori.

It is difficult to find an equivalent term in Western societies to the concept of whakamā. On the one hand it can be viewed as a mixture of shame, inadequacy, self-doubt, modesty and withdrawal. On the positive side it can be seen as humility and a more desirable state than being whakahīhī (showing off).

Te Aka Māori Dictionary translates the verb whakamā with this example:

‘Ki te haere au ki te tāone he tarau poto, kāore he tōkena, ka kite tonu au i ngā tāngata e tiro mākutu ana ki te nawe o taku waewae, ka whakamā au.’

‘If I went to town in shorts and no socks, I saw people staring at the scar on my leg and I was embarrassed.’

Learning more about whakamā

In the interviews undertaken by Dr Averil Herbert for her thesis Whānau whakapakari: A Māori centred approach to child rearing and parent-training programmes(external link), she explored the concept of whakamā with participants. Being shy has come to equate with being humble, which was seen as more desirable than being whakahīhī. There was also agreement that the concept had become a barrier to developing self-esteem, and confidence and was seen as a ‘Māori’ problem.

The quotes below come from some of the kaumātua interviews in that study:

  • ‘Whakamā is connected to cultural identity. If they are strong in cultural identity you wouldn’t see whakamā.’
  • ‘Whakamā is a lack of understanding and generates a negative feeling. The more people understand whakamā the better we can deal with it.’
  • ‘Whakamā actually restricts people from developing their full potential.’

In her book Rautahi, Joan Metge suggests that the root meaning of whakamā could be summarised as ‘conscious of being at a disadvantage’.

Understanding whakamā across cultures

Patricia Kinloch and Joan Metge co-wrote a book called 'Talking past each other: Problems of cross-cultural communication'. This excerpt(external link) from that book is particularly helpful, as Metge explains the nuances of whakamā for non-Māori. She talks about whakamā in children and adult responses to it. For example, it has long been a source of misunderstanding for Pākehā teachers who may interpret whakamā as a child being surly, hostile or deliberately negative. She cautions Pākehā adults against trying to talk them out of it by scolding or jollying.

Metge also mentions the whakataukī that advises that the feeling of whakamā itself is punishment enough to one who is suffering:


Waiho mā tō whakamā e patu!

Leave him alone, he is punished by whakamā!

Implications for speaking te reo

This article from RNZ(external link) touches on a related topic of people learning te reo Māori but feeling reticent to speak in front of others.

Māori language teacher Natalia Wi made a short film entitled Patua te whakamā!(external link) in which she asks Māori of different ages and backgrounds why they felt embarrassed to kōrero Māori. The participants share their personal reasons about their feelings of whakamā, and in doing so highlight what could be a bigger more complex issue for the ongoing growth of te reo Māori.


  • Metge, J. (1976). Rautahi: The Māori of New Zealand. London, UK: Routledge.
  • Metge, J. (1986). In and out of touch: Whakamā in cross cultural context. Wellington: Victoria University Press.
  • Herbert, A. M. L. (2001). Whanau Whakapakari: a Māori-centred approach to child rearing and parent-training programmes (Thesis, Doctor of Philosophy (PhD). The University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand.