Today, many people know Hawaii as the 50th state. However, if you know your history, you’d also recognize the fact that the Hawaiian Kingdom was formerly an independent monarchy. It was overthrown by a coup d’etat in 1893, annexed by the United States in 1898, and administered as a U.S. territory until it became a state in 1959.
Looking even further back into Hawaii’s history, the islands were settled as early as 400 CE, when initial voyagers from the Marquesas Islands arrived to the island chain.
By the time Europeans arrived in Hawaii in the late 18th century, the native Hawaiians they encountered had spent generations building their own unique culture. Further arrivals from Europe, including missionaries, as well as waves of immigration to support Hawaii’s agricultural industry, exerted their own influences.
Today, Hawaii retains a distinct culture with its own customs, values, and traditions. Some of these cultural traditions were passed down directly from native Hawaiians. Others have evolved during Hawaii’s history, either through the influence of immigrants or simply through adaptation.
Whether you’re a visitor to Hawaii or a new resident, there are a few cultural touchpoints that are important to understand. Below, we’ll run you through the most important ones so you can offer Hawaii’s culture the respect it’s due. We’ll also help you avoid embarrassing mistakes, and, if you’re making the move, start to settle in to your new home.
We’ll start with a few key words that make a big difference.
Do: Understand the Difference Between Hawaiians and Hawaii Residents
Since people born in California are often referred to as “Californians,” it might be easy to assume that people born in Hawaii would be called “Hawaiians.”
“Hawaiian” refers to those who can trace their ancestry to back to the native Hawaiians who originally settled these islands. In other words, being born in Hawaii doesn’t make you Hawaiian. Instead, those who live in Hawaii—but are not of native Hawaiian descent—are referred to as “Hawaii residents” or kamaaina, (literally “child of the land”). Even kamaaina can be a complex term. Some believe you’re not truly kamaaina unless you were born in Hawaii—or unless you’ve lived here for a long time.
You might also hear the term haole, which generally refers to a white person in Hawaii. This term is not generally meant as an insult, but rather a statement of fact or an identifier.
A Quick Vocabulary Lesson
Hawaiian: A person of native Hawaiian ancestry.
Hawaii resident: A person who lives in Hawaii
Kamaaina (ka-ma-AYE-nah): Commonly refers to Hawaii residents; may also refer to those born in Hawaii who are not of native Hawaiian descent
Haole (HOW-lee): A white person
It might take you a few days to get the hang of these new terms. Approaching them with thought and care will go a long way in Hawaii.
Do: Get a Solid Understanding of Hawaii’s History (and Stay Curious!)
While we’re on this topic, a great way to respect the culture in Hawaii is to truly understand its history, including how Hawaii became a state. There are a number of excellent books and resources on the topic. We’ve listed a few below to get you started:
- Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen, written by the kingdom’s last monarch, Queen Liliuokalani
- Lost Kingdom: Hawaii’s Last Queen, the Sugar Kings, and America’s First Imperial Adventure by Julia Flynn Siler
- Captive Paradise: A History of Hawaii by James L. Haley
If you want to go deeper, we’ve also got a list of our favorite books written in, around, and about Hawaii.
Books like these will offer you a window into the many perspectives held by the people you’ll encounter in Hawaii today. They’ll also give you a strong sense of how the events of history have impacted the many different groups of people who have made Hawaii their home.
And speaking of these different groups of people, let’s talk about the languages they speak and where they intersect.
Don’t: Try to Speak Pidgin
When you’re in Hawaii, you’ll hear plenty of new words and different languages. First and foremost, you’ll hear Hawaiian words, like aloha and mahalo (thank you). The majority of place names and street names in Hawaii are also in Hawaiian.
You’ll also hear Pidgin, officially recognized as Hawaiian Pidgin English. Pidgin originated as a way for waves of immigrants from China, Japan, Korea, Portugal, the Philippines, and Europe (and more!) to communicate with the Native Hawaiians and each other once they arrived in Hawaii.
For example, if you run into a friend, they might say, “Howzit?” That’s a Pidgin greeting equivalent to aloha or What’s up?
A Few Key Pidgin Phrases You’ll Hear in Hawaii
Chicken skin: Goosebumps
Da kine: Anything you can’t remember the name of, equivalent to “whatchamacallit”
Howzit: “Aloha!” or “What’s up?”
Slippahs: Flip flops
Stink eye: A dirty look
Talk story: Catching up, gossiping, chatting
If you didn’t grow up speaking Pidgin, we wouldn’t recommend attempting it. However, it is useful to understand Pidgin since you’ll certainly hear it in Hawaii. As a primer, we highly recommend the entertaining Pidgin to the Max.
Actor and comedian Andy Bumatai also offers a great explanation of pidgin usage and grammar in his Daily Pidgin videos:
Do: Embrace the Spirit of Aloha
If you’re new to the Hawaiian Islands, you might think that “aloha” is a greeting. It is—but it’s also so much more. In fact, the people of Hawaii take the concept of aloha so seriously that it’s actually written into law.
You’ll see the law below, so you can come to your own conclusion as to what the spirit of aloha means. To us, it resonates most in the ideal of caring for each other—of the sense of community between the people who live in Hawaii, as well as their responsibility and good will toward each other.
The aloha spirit is embedded deeply into the culture in Hawaii. The more you embrace the aloha spirit, the more you’ll enjoy your time in Hawaii.
[§5-7.5] “Aloha Spirit.”
(a) “Aloha Spirit” is the coordination of mind and heart within each person. It brings each person to the self. Each person must think and emote good feelings to others. In the contemplation and presence of the life force, “Aloha,” the following unuhi laula loa may be used:
“Akahai,” meaning kindness, to be expressed with tenderness;
“Lokahi,” meaning unity, to be expressed with harmony;
“Oluolu,” meaning agreeable, to be expressed with pleasantness;
“Haahaa,” meaning humility, to be expressed with modesty;
“Ahonui,” meaning patience, to be expressed with perseverance.
These are traits of character that express the charm, warmth and sincerity of Hawaii’s people. It was the working philosophy of Native Hawaiians and was presented as a gift to the people of Hawaii.
“Aloha” is more than a word of greeting or farewell or a salutation.
“Aloha” means mutual regard and affection and extends warmth in caring with no obligation in return.
“Aloha” is the essence of relationships in which each person is important to every other person for collective existence.
“Aloha” means to hear what is not said, to see what cannot be seen and to know the unknowable.
(b) In exercising their power on behalf of the people and in fulfillment of their responsibilities, obligations and service to the people, the legislature, governor, lieutenant governor, executive officers of each department, the chief justice, associate justices, and judges of the appellate, circuit, and district courts may contemplate and reside with the life force and give consideration to the “Aloha Spirit.” [L 1986, c 202, §1]
Do: Tip Those Who Serve You
Tourism makes up a huge part of Hawaii’s economy, and many of the people who live here rely on tips to make ends meet. 15-20% is common for good service from servers, bartenders, taxi and rideshare drivers, and tour guides.
And, remember, if you’re making Hawaii your home, you’ll soon be living on an island. You’re likely to encounter the same people over and over again—so act accordingly.
Do: Pull Over to Let People Pass
You’ll find some pretty twisty two-lane roads in Hawaii—some of which go down to a single lane in spots. As you drive smaller roads, keep an eye on your rearview mirror. If there’s someone behind who has no trouble keeping pace with you—and, in fact, might be following a little closely—consider pulling over when you can.
Those who know the roads in Hawaii like the back of their hands will appreciate it! Then you can continue along your way at the pace that you find comfortable, while letting residents go about their business at their own pace.
While we’re talking about driving habits in Hawaii, go easy on the horn. The exception: in the case of an emergency or an imminent collision.
You’ll hear horns used with much less frequency in Hawaii, and many consider honking rude. Laying off the horn is a great way to exercise the patience you’ll need in spades if you move to Hawaii.
So if you find yourself sitting at a light that’s turned green—and the person in front of you hasn’t moved—wait a few more beats, rather than going right for your horn.
Do: Take Off Your Shoes Before Going Indoors
There’s a reason you’ll see a pile of shoes outside of most people’s doors in Hawaii. It’s customary to remove one’s shoes before going in someone’s house.
This is true whether you’re just going over just to say hi to a neighbor or attending a big party. It’s a simple and easy way to avoid tracking dust, dirt, or sand into someone’s home, and it’s nearly universal in homes in Hawaii.
(And don’t worry; your shoes will be there when you leave—usually!)
Do: Support Local When You Can
One of the things that makes life in Hawaii convenient is our access to many big box stores, including Home Depot, Lowes, Target, Walmart, Costco, and more. These one-stop shops can make a round of errands much shorter. Add to that the fact that free Prime shipping is available from Amazon, and it might feel like you’re all set, shopping-wise.
However, we want to encourage you to remember our local business owners in Hawaii—and support them! Without them, our landscape would be considerably less diverse and interesting. Additionally, many local families rely on their businesses for their livelihoods. It’s worth making the effort to support friends and neighbors who work so hard to make their businesses work in Hawaii.
Additionally, there will come a time when you need something right now, and your only option is buying local. If our local stores don’t get consistent support, they won’t be there when we need them.
When you can buy local, please do. You might also consider seeking out native Hawaiian businesses as well, so that the descendants of Hawaii’s original settlers can thrive on their home land. You’ll find a good directory of native Hawaiian-owned businesses at kuhikuhi.com.
Do: Enjoy Hawaii’s Beauty Responsibly
If we want to preserve Hawaii’s gorgeous—and fragile—ecosystem for generations to come, it’s up to all of us to care for it. That means actions like staying on designated trails, packing your trash out and disposing of it properly, using reef-safe sunscreen, and not touching or stepping on coral.
In other words, tread lightly—and thoughtfully during your time in Hawaii. Respect the land, and you’ll respect the culture.
This recent video from Hawaiian Airlines sums it up well:
Don’t: Approach the Wildlife
When you see a Hawaiian monk seal, a green sea turtle, a dolphin, or a humpback whale, that awe you feel might encourage you to move closer. Instead, please keep your distance to give these threatened and endangered creatures the space they need to go about their normal activities without stress.
In fact, these creatures are protected by state and federal laws. Officials in Hawaii—and residents—take these laws seriously. Enforcement officers regularly monitor social media channels for violations. In fact, some who have filmed videos of their violations have been tracked down and fined.
A little common sense goes a long way in this realm. To give you some more specific guidelines, we posted NOAA’s recommendations below:
Recommended Viewing Distances
Sea Turtles: Keep at least 10 feet away on land and in the ocean
Hawaiian Monk Seals: Keep at least 50 feet away on land and in the ocean; with mother seals and pups, stay at least 150 feet away
Dolphins: Stay 50 yards away from spinner dolphins, and do not attempt to approach or swim with them
Humpback Whales: Stay at least 100 yards away
Do: Recognize the Power of Hawaii’s Natural Forces
Hawaii’s islands are dominated by microclimates. On Maui, for example, it can be pouring rain Upcountry and blazing hot and sunny in Kihei at the same time.
Here’s why this matters: Let’s say you’re in Kihei and planning to drive the Road to Hana—or planning to hike in the Kipahulu District of Haleakala National Park. If you’re not aware that it’s raining on the slopes of Mount Haleakala above you, you might not realize that there could be potential flash floods right where you’re headed. (Linger in Kihei while the rain continues, and you’ll know soon enough!) Several adventurers have been injured or killed by flash floods because they were unaware of this possibility.
In other words, just knowing the weather where you are isn’t enough if you’re going on an outdoors adventure. If you want to prevent yourself from becoming the object of a search and rescue operation, make sure you understand the weather patterns on the island before you go exploring.
By the way, the same is true for your water adventures. The wind, the waves, and the current are all very powerful in Hawaii, and they may be stronger than you’re used to. Understand all the conditions at play before you go snorkeling, diving, paddling, kayaking, etc. to prevent a rescue operation before it starts.
Do: Respect Sacred Sites
While we’re on the topic of exploring, you’ll find sacred sites all over Hawaii, and it’s important to treat them with respect and care. They may be marked with signs that explain their cultural significance. Or they may simply be marked with a sign that says kapu. Kapu means forbidden or sacred in Hawaiian. And it also means keep out/no trespassing.
Respecting these signs is an integral part of respecting the culture in Hawaii.
When you’re in Hawaii, you may hear stories of “Pele’s curse,” which is said to befall people who remove lava rocks from Hawaii.
This curse is more of a superstition than anything. You won’t find this curse anywhere in Hawaiian stories, songs, or chants—although you will find plenty of tales about Pele, the fiery Hawaiian goddess of the volcano.
Curse or no, you’re better off leaving rocks, shells, dead coral—anything natural you find in Hawaii—right where you found it for everyone to enjoy.
Don’t: Trespass on Private Land
Some of Hawaii’s incredible natural resources are just out of reach. We’re talking about hidden waterfalls, thrilling hikes, swimming holes, etc. on private land. It can be tempting to adopt the “better to beg for forgiveness than ask permission” mindset.
Especially when you’re out in what feels like the middle of nowhere, you might wonder who you’re hurting—or who would know.
With millions and millions of visitors to Hawaii every year, you can bet that plenty of people have tried their luck. You can also envision how exhausting it can be for a private landowner to continue to try to keep their land private, while worrying what might happen if someone were to get injured on their property.
Private landowners have their reasons for keeping their land private. Respect their wishes—or get permission. There are not many in Hawaii who look kindly on trespassers.
Don’t: Park Illegally
Imagine that you’re a homeowner in Hawaii, and you come home after a long day at work to find your driveway illegally blocked by a car. Or that your mailbox was blocked all day by a beachgoer so you couldn’t receive your mail. Or, that it took you an extra 30 minutes to get home because cars illegally parked on the side of the road disrupted traffic flow.
Those are the kinds of things that people who live in popular areas in Hawaii have to deal with every day. If you want to respect the people who call these islands their home, respect the parking regulations. Don’t ignore the signs because “everyone’s doing it.”
Instead, be conscious and careful of where you park in Hawaii, and make sure you’re in a legal spot. Those who live in Hawaii will thank you.
Don’t: Expect Things in Hawaii to Be the Same as the Mainland
Daily rainbows. Whale sightings. Sunsets on the beach. You’ll have plenty of “only in Hawaii” moments in the Aloha State.
Of course, not every “only in Hawaii” moment will be a pleasant one. You’ll experience some frustrations, too. For example, you might discover that all of the stores on island are out of the one ingredient you need for the special dinner you’re cooking tomorrow. Or that one of your packages might get lost for weeks at a time, last spotted in California. Or that the credit card machines at the grocery store might all go on the fritz, and lines stretch toward the back of the store while cashiers hand-write transactions.
It’s always good to remember that Hawaii isn’t the mainland—and there’s a reason you chose to live here. The more you leave your mainland expectations behind and simply embrace the whole of Hawaii for what it is, the more you’ll enjoy island life—both its perks and its quirks.
Do: Leave Time to Talk Story
And speaking of island time, sometimes the line at Foodland grinds to a halt because the cashier is talking story with the man who used to coach her son’s baseball team.
When you’re in a hurry, it’s easy to wish that Hawaii were a more of a purely transactional place. But when you exchange a smile and aloha—and maybe even some chatter—with people while you run errands, it can make the whole endeavor more pleasant.
In other words, slow down, take your time to interact with the people around you—and enjoy.
Do: Remember That Hawaii Is “Home”
One of the best ways to respect the culture in Hawaii is to remember that these lands are sacred to its people, the native Hawaiians who birthed generation after generation before European arrival. Hawaii is their home, and if you treat it the way you’d want your home to be treated, that’s the ultimate show of respect.
Considering a move to Hawaii? With teams and warehouses on all four major islands, we’d be happy to help you move your belongings to the Aloha State, whether you’re headed for Oahu, Maui, the Big Island, or Kauai. Just reach out for a free quote to get started.
Tell us about your move!