Cultural differences when living or working in Papua New Guinea

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As globalisation continues to phase out borders and build mutually beneficial relationships among countries, an increasing number of people are choosing to work and live abroad. Since the mid-2000s, Papua New Guinea has experienced strong economic performance, and while more recently this growth has slowed, PNG continues to be one of the strongest growth economies in the Pacific region. Government projects and investment are a significant facilitator of growth and are being implemented to further strengthen development of the economy and infrastructure. As a consequence of ongoing investment and growth, more and more foreign firms are seeing PNG as a good place to set up business. This focus has brought with it a need for businesses to ensure their workers and visitors are culturally familiar and aware of what it will be like to live and work in Papua New Guinea.

Why is it important to educate yourself?

Expats sometimes assume that their new home country’s culture is only about heritage, social etiquette, religion or community life. In reality, what you can see, touch and hear is only the surface. Cultural differences are often subtle enough to go unnoticed but can cause miscommunication and confusion if come at from a point of assumption or lack of understanding. By understanding and nurturing cultural differences, you or your employees can avoid inadvertent confrontation and offence when interacting with local people.

What is the lifestyle like?

Papua New Guinea is home to tight-knit communities. The people are generally warm, friendly and willing to lend a hand. This is all part of PNG’s ‘wantok’ system, where the locals prioritise a strong sense of community.

When you live and work in PNG, you will build genuine relationships and connections in the workplace and within the neighbourhood. Many expats live in housing complexes or company-provided apartments complete with amenities. These arrangements allow you or your people to find friends or families with similar backgrounds. But this does often isolate you from the local people and as such can create an us and them perspective on things. It’s important to find ways to interact safely and meaningfully outside of the work environment. 

Papua New Guinea: Did you know?

  • Greetings: As a sign of respect, sometimes people will greet by taking each other’s hands and holding them against their chests. There can also be different greeting protocols for each society, for ordinary villagers and senior elders and for males/females.
  • Communication style: At PNG, it’s not rude to stare! They are also more relaxed with personal space so it’s acceptable to stand close to one another. Clear communication is also important. When replying to questions, be firm with your answer. ‘Maybe’ will automatically mean ‘yes’ to most locals.
  • Body language: Pointing at someone, especially during conversations, can be perceived as gossiping. Never step over food as it is considered extremely rude.
  • Time: Locals have a more relaxed approach when it comes to punctuality as traditionally keeping time with the sun was part of the cultural norm. This reflects in catching public transport and arriving to work on time.

Know before you go

Culture shock isn’t a myth; it’s a predictable phenomenon that many expats experience when they arrive in Papua New Guinea.

The information above is just some of the knowledge you and your employees will find useful before immersing in Papua New Guinea’s society. Undertaking an online module about Papua New Guinea can help those working there to learn more about the intricacies of the culture and unspoken rules that influence daily life.