• News
  • 6 June, 2018

Navigating Business: learning from Pacific wisdom – Exploring the Va

Musings of a Polynesian in the ‘uncharted’ waters of commerce.

Pacific cultures have been in existence for 1,000s, of years.  According to our friends at Google, the Pacific islands were settled by Polynesians around 700AD, and there developed a culture and systems of societal interactions for the next 1500 years before European contact and colonisation.

Let’s take a moment to appreciate this.

Pacific people existed, lived, died, fought wars, conquered each other, for a very long time before Europeans arrived.  What this tells us is the cultures are sophisticated, have been refined over a long time and have been proven by their continued existence to be robust.  Pacific ways of being have evolved over time and produced some of the most beautiful communities in the world (even if I do say so myself).

As I work at Pacific Business Trust, helping young business entrepreneurs explore business, there is a veritable feast of wisdom that is part of our heritage.  Although these structures may have been developed in the a somewhat different setting, perhaps the concepts that help guide Pacific people might be applied in modern day business.

One of those concepts that can be found in many south Pacific nations is that of the Va.

Caveat time – I am by no stretch of the imagination an academic, scholar or expert in Pacific history.  Please don’t come for me if I do not correctly cite – with APA referencing, the appropriate scholars.  What I am is Pacific, and what I can do with absolute authority, is share my experience, share the lessons that have been passed down to me by my elders.  I am the absolute authority on my life, as you are of yours.

I’ve heard a few different meanings of the Va but the one I’d like to explore is that of relationship.

As a Samoan I am taught to treasure my relationships.  I was taught that the literal translation of the Va is “the sacred space between” and in most cases, that is about my relationships.

My relationship with people is sacred.  Not just important, not just something to be mindful of, but truly precious.

This often manifests in very different ways, and during my time in more corporate settings, this different world view often led to me being really pissed off with my colleagues.

Here’s a few things to consider if you haven’t been blessed to hail from the isles of paradise.

Feedback is never just feedback.  If you’re interacting with Pacific people and they ask for feedback, or perhaps if you’re managing them, please take care.  Pacific people are not trained to engage with a discussion without bringing their relationship with you to the table.  We’re just not built that way.  What I can suggest is before you have these conversations, think first about the nature of your relationship with the person.

What is the power dynamic between you?  Pacific people have very sophisticated and complex power structures in our society and will automatically put you somewhere in that framework as their default setting.

How long have you known them?  Over time you can develop a relationship and are able to have varied conversations, but those relationships take time to build.

Also, if you acknowledge the relationship you have with someone, then you must acknowledge them.  Namely you must acknowledge that they are different from you and that will lead to them reacting to things differently to you.

Finally, I’ve found when using the Va as a framework for navigating relationships, you often must acknowledge the setting.  Where are you?  People will react differently in different settings.  You’re different in a church, in a pub, than in a board room.  There are very different rules that govern conduct in these different settings but that’s a whole damn thesis.

I must put another huge disclaimer on this.  I’ve made some broad assumptions here.  People are different and unique so this by no means a blanket guide to anyone blessed with more melanin and good looks than the average kiwi.  One thing I can emphasise is that relationships are important so when engaging with Pacific please build that first.

Now some of you might be wondering why I’m only talking to non-Pacific.  Why are these tips of how you engage with Pacific people and not the other way around?

Basically, it comes down to a question of privilege.

As a Pacific person in New Zealand, I’ve had to navigate mainstream spaces my whole damn life so I know this stuff.  With a bit of honest self-reflection and critical observation, any Pacific person can start to unpick the difference between them and everyone else in the room.  With over 60% of the Pacific population in New Zealand having been born here, we’re adept at putting on our cultures as armour and moving in spaces not designed with us in mind.  But I’m also corporate enough to not get upset about it anymore.  Age has made me quite pragmatic and being upset without action is just a waste of energy.  I’m keen to see this change, but cultural change is a long game.

My immediate concern here is to start getting people – regardless of background, to start being a bit more reflective, a bit more emotionally aware, and hopefully give you all a few different things to consider.