1. Stop obsessing over punctuality.
Get over it, lateness happens in Hawai’i.
Nobody likes the uppity mainland transplant who suffers a cardiac event every time someone shows up 10 minutes late. I should know, I was that obnoxious mainlander.
When a work meeting I arranged started 15 minutes late because of latecomers, my ever-patient boss noticed I was agitated. Pulling me aside after the meeting, she asked me if I was okay.
“WHY CAN’T ANYBODY BE ON TIME?!” I sputtered.
A successful professional, born and raised in Oahu, she smiled. “I know it’s hard, but you can’t fight the culture. The work still got done right? Everybody did their job, and everybody was happy to do it. You’re the only person who seems annoyed. So why do that to yourself? There are different ways to get stuff done, and this is just how people do things here.”
2. Err on the side of “friendly” not “fuming”.
Another time at work, a client was being especially “challenging”.
Anybody who has ever worked in customer service knows the type. Say something like, “We sell bicycles,” and the client responds with, “But what kind of mountain goats do you have in stock?”
Throughout the entire 30 minute exchange, the client stayed upbeat and unfazed. I, on the other hand, was struggling to maintain tight-jawed composure — you could have counted the veins in my neck.
In retrospect, I should have laughed it off and turned the conversation into a friendly exchange about bicycle-riding mountain goats (the best kind). But at the time, I was only two months into living in Hawai’i, and still carrying around all the intensity from my high-stress job in Los Angeles.
When the client made some off-handed remark about how we should lower our prices (probably joking), I snapped back at him, “ARE YOU SERIOUS?”
My boss swooped in and completed the dealings with the client. He left smiling, I sat there fuming.
Again, she pulled me aside and asked me if I was okay. I told her I was fine, and started complaining, when she stopped me.
“Louise, you can’t bark at people like that here. A lot of people want to have a friendly chat while doing business. He was just a local guy ‘talking story’ with who he thought was a local gal. Yeah, he was difficult, but you can’t be so intense, nobody here is going to respond to that positively.”
That may have been the best advice I ever got about Hawai’i life.
3. Realize that those aren’t flip-flops.
Those rubber things you wear on your feet with a strap between your big toe and your second toe? The footwear you can buy at the drugstore for $5? You wear them to the beach?
Those are slippers or “slippahs”. Nobody in Hawai’i calls them flip-flops.
You might have your everyday slippahs, your good slippahs, your house slippahs, even your “work” slippahs — but they’re slippahs. Slippahs have been called the “unofficial state footwear” of Hawai’i. From the beach to the restaurant, everyone wears slippahs.
And make sure you take your slippahs off at the door when you visit someone’s home. It’s considered rude to wear your slippahs or street shoes indoors.
4. Move beyond only speaking English, brah.
My first Christmas in Honolulu, I made plans with my friend to go see the lights display at city hall.
An hour or so before we were supposed to meet up, she texted me, “What time are you pau hana? We’ll be at Honolulu Hale at 7.”
I stared at the message on my phone and tried to decipher what she’d said. What time was I what? Where were we meeting? I immediately texted her back apologetically and said, “I don’t know what those words mean. I thought we were meeting at City Hall? Where do I go?”
My born and raised local friend then called me laughing. “Silly! Pau hana is ‘done with work’ and Honolulu Hale is ‘Honolulu City Hall’! [‘hale’ means house or building] Sorry, I forgot you aren’t kama’aina.” She threw in that last word to gently tease me. Kama’aina means literally “child of the land” or indicates a long time Hawai’i resident.
English and Hawaiian are the official languages of Hawai’i. Most locals mix Hawaiian words into their everyday English, and Hawaiian Pidgin is spoken widely. As a US mainlander, it’s to your detriment to completely ignore or avoid Hawaiian words. It’s just how people talk.
Before moving to Hawai’i, I really thought that all those “alohas” and “mahalos” were just for the benefit of tourists. However, “aloha”, “mahalo”, and many other Hawaiian words are very much a part of local life. Not taking the time to learn and absorb the use and meaning of words like puka (hole), ohana (family), and yes, even haole (a term for a white person than can be either derogatory or descriptive) can be one way to keep yourself on the outside of the Hawai’i community dynamic.
And forget about getting directions if you don’t know the Hawaii’s version of cardinal directions. If you don’t know whether to go makai (toward the ocean) or mauka (toward the mountains), you’re going to need a lot of kokua (help or kindness).
5. Get over your fear of human contact.
After living in Hawai’i, I can officially call myself a “hugger”.
If we part ways and you don’t offer me a hug (kiss on the cheek for bonus points), our parting feels incomplete. Hawai’i did this to me.
The first few times I said goodbye to my local friends and they immediately went in for a goodbye hug and peck on the cheek, I balked. Okay fine, I actually leaned away like they were attempting to lick my eyeball.
But I actually came to like such shows of goodwill and friendship. By the time I left Hawai’i, a hug goodbye and hello did not seem strange at all. I even miss it.
For many Hawai’i locals, a hug is more than a greeting, it’s a physical welcoming or conveyance of acceptance. Dodging a hug can be like refusing a handshake — if not worse.
A lot of mainlanders are uncomfortable with the idea of such physical contact between acquaintances, but I really think that learning to accept hugging in Hawai’i is directly related to embracing Hawai’i life.
Like my boss told me in those early days, you can’t fight the culture, you can’t fight Hawai’i. But the sooner you open yourself up to all the unique experiences Hawai’i holds, the sooner Hawai’i will not just be where you live, but the place you call home.
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