Customs and etiquette in Hawaii

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Below is a partial list of some of the customs that are widely observed in the Islands. In most cases, these will be observed by long-time residents of all ethnicities. Some customs that are known to most residents, but usually practiced by members of a particular ethnic group, are noted as such.

Visits and gifts[edit]

When visiting a home, it is considered good manners to bring a small gift (for example, a dessert) for one's host. Thus, parties are usually in the form of potlucks. Most locals take their shoes off before entering a home. A shoe rack on the porch or footwear left outside a doorway of a residence indicate that shoes should be removed.

The offering of food is related to the gift-giving culture. The pidgin phrases "Make plate" or "Take plate" are common in gatherings of friends or family that follow a potluck format. It is considered good manners to "make plate", literally making a plate of food from the available spread to take home, or "take plate", literally taking a plate the host of the party (or the aunties running the kitchen) has made of the available spread for easy left-overs.

It is gracious to take the plate, or make a small plate, even if you don't intend to eat it. In part, this tradition is related to clean-up, being a good guest by not leaving the mass of left-overs at the party-throwers house and making them alone responsible for clean up. In more recent times, this has also evolved into donating your left-overs to the homeless population, especially if you're having a get-together at a public park or similar location, as it is likely there is a homeless population living nearby as well.

It is considered thoughtful to bring back gifts from a trip for friends and family. Some people use the Japanese name for such gifts, omiyage. Others use the Hawaiian word, "makana" or the Samoan term "oso." Gifts of special foods unavailable outside the region visited are particularly appropriate. For example, Krispy Kreme is not available on the island of Oahu (a location on Maui opened recently), and many people, when going to Maui or, very commonly, Las Vegas, bring back a box or two for their family members to show respect. Conversely, locals traveling abroad will take foods from Hawai'i to friends/relatives where local foods are unavailable.

If someone has given you gift items or has done a service for you (helping with a lu'au, family gatherings) without asking for repayment, it is always wise and of good upbringing to at least give them something in return or offer them money. When it comes to money in particular, people play "hot potato" and refuse to accept the money. However, the main idea is that you at least offer.

Many locals don't always like to feel as if they're taking and will always return the favor of giving with giving. When someone outright refuses to accept your donation, some locals will make it a personal challenge to make sure this person is repaid by slyly hiding the money in the other person's belongings and making sure they are out of sight as to not be given anything back. In that case, it is best just to keep the form of repayment and be sure to do something special for the person the next time you see them.


  • The indigenous Hawaiian form of luʻau is something seen most frequently as a tourist event, as opposed to a regular occurrence in local culture. Some exceptions apply, such as the birthday luau or weddings. The local lu'au has evolved more into a potluck. A lu'au is always set up as a buffet. Some aspects of the lu'au, such as traditional Hawaiian foods, or roast pig cooked in an imu remain, but for local get-together are most often provided through catering services rather than individual family activities. More traditional rural families on the neighbor islands, especially Kauai, Molokai, and Hawaii, will prepare the food themselves using help from their extended families. The extended family, family friends (usually family friendships that are multi-generational) and neighbors will provide pupu or appetizers for a separate "pupu line." In most cases, pupu is actually a euphemism for local delicacies that are provided in such abundance as to rival the actual main buffet line, the only difference being the absence of rice or poi (starches) on the "pupu line."

The birthday luau[edit]

It is customary for Hawai‘i families, regardless of ethnicity, to hold a luau to celebrate a child's first birthday. In Polynesian cultures (and also in Korean culture), the first birthday is considered a major milestone. (See entry under "for visitors from the mainland" for fuller description).

Although these celebrations are called lū’au, they could have an overarching theme. For example, the baby lū’au could be adorned with sports, superhero, cartoon, etc. decorations and games. Guests usually come with a birthday card and monetary gift for the money box.

These gatherings often comprise of extended family, friends, neighbours and can reach up to hundreds of attendees.

Polynesian families, especially Samoans, Tongans and Maorrs, also commemorate 21st birthdays with lavish parties and feasts.

Wedding customs[edit]

It is a tradition for a Japanese-American bride to fold a thousand origami cranes prior to her wedding for good luck and long life. (people in Hawaii add one more for good luck.)

At Japanese weddings, it is customary for friends and relatives to offer "banzai" toasts to the bride and groom, wishing them long life.

It is customary at Hawaii weddings, especially at Filipino weddings for the bride and groom to do a '[Money dance]' (also called the pandango). A similar custom is observed by Samoan and Tongan newlyweds who perform a solo dance called the "taualuga" or "tau'olunga," respectively. In all of these cases, as the bride and/or groom dance, the guests express their best wishes to the newlyweds with a monetary gift.

For visitors from the Contiguous United States[edit]

Semantic considerations[edit]

  • Depending on the audience, it may be deemed impolite to refer to the U.S. mainland as "the States" or to otherwise imply that Hawaiʻi is not part of the U.S. Asking, "Do you accept American money?" or "How do you like the United States?" would be considered rude and ignorant.
  • It is rude to refer to the locals as "natives" or "Hawaiians". Only native Hawaiians should be called "Hawaiians." Native Hawaiians, especially those involved in the sovereignty movement, often refer to themselves as "kanaka maoli" or "poʻe ʻōiwi." Non-Hawaiians who were born on the islands are generally referred to as "locals" to distinguish them from the native Hawaiians (or simply the Hawaiians). Print media and local residents recommend that one refer to non-Hawaiians as "locals of Hawaii" or "people of Hawaii". In daily speech, few people use these words; generally they refer to themselves in passing as "from Hawaii." The term kama'aina is also used for locals of all ethnicities, particularly by businesses that offer local resident discounts. Never will someone who was born and raised in Hawaii but is not of full or part-native Hawaiian ethnicity ever refer to themselves as native Hawaiian or even Hawaiian. They will simply name their actual ethnicities (e.g. Japanese, Chinese, Caucasian, etc.). Most people in Hawaii are of mixed ethnicities.
  • Unless fluent, one should not attempt to speak pidgin English. The pidgin used varies greatly by location with true forms following the grammatical rules of Hawaiian. Vocabulary will include heavy Hawaiian, Japanese and Filipino influences, amongst others. Some locals believe that if a non-local attempts to speak pidgin, it is equivalent to trying to speak with any other regional U.S. accent (such as a Southern accent), thus mocking their way of speaking. Also it is offensive to assume that a Hawaii resident can only speak/comprehend pidgin and cannot speak/comprehend Standard English.
  • If you are living or visiting on Oʻahu, do not refer to the other Hawaiian islands as "outer" islands. Locals typically refer to them as the "neighbor" islands.
  • If you are "white", do not be upset if someone calls you a haole. Hāʻole, literally means "no breath," and is used because Europeans don't share the custom of "kissing" when they greet.[1] Polynesian people greet by touching nose-to-nose and inhaling or essentially sharing each other's breaths, and so the foreigners were described as breathless.[2] The implication is not only that foreigners are aloof and ignorant of local ways, but also literally have no spirit or life within. Today, however, many locals greet each other with a kiss to the cheek. [3] The term usually used for "mainlanders" in general. As with other languages, you can make general distinctions by the tone of voice used. Thus, "howzit, haole boy?" has a different connotation than "eh, stupid haole."
  • People of Portuguese descent may be offended if you refer to them as "haole", even though they themselves are Caucasian. The Portuguese have a long history in Hawaiʻi and share a common labor history with Chinese, Filipino, and people from other non-Caucasian backgrounds. Also, many Portuguese people in Hawaii behave in the local custom and embody local values than those of other Caucasian descent; Portuguese influence is prominent in the fusion cuisine and pidgin communication of Hawai'i. At the same time, however, one should not assume that every white person who "acts local" (speaking pidgin, wearing "rubbah slippahs," etc.) is Portuguese.

Getting around[edit]

  • If you are a visitor using public buses expect to wait for all of the local residents to board before you do. Many locals typically use public transportation to get to work, so tourists with daily bus fares are required to wait for the next available open bus.
  • Visitors driving vehicles on the islands are expected to honor signs which designate certain public roads as "local traffic only". These rules are enforced in order to protect local residents from dealing with extra traffic in their neighborhoods. Business areas would always be the exception to this.


  • There are many public beaches on the islands, but parking spaces may be limited in the "beach access lots". Since these "beach access" areas were initiated by state and local laws so that locals could regain access to beaches where they were denied access to in areas of heavy hotel/tourist development; it is appreciated when visitors leave these free limited parking spaces for the locals to use. Most hotels will allow day use parking for a fee.

Environmental responsibility[edit]

  • Always malama ka ʻaina or in other words, take care of the land. Respect the local beaches and land by cleaning up your opala (trash) and take care to not upset any native species such as the Hawaiian green sea turtles, monk seals and coral reefs. It is best to leave items such as rocks shells, sea creatures etc., where you found them to make sure all who visit can enjoy the natural resources. When visiting the Big Island, it is important to not take any black sand or lava rock, as it is said to anger Pele, a Hawaiian goddess.


  • Massey, Brent (2007). Cultureshock! Hawai'i: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette. Jetlag Press. ISBN 0-7614-2498-9. 

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