Sometimes it is necessary to put aside economic and political issues and reflect on more fundamental aspects of our culture. The barbecue season is upon us.

Middle New Zealanders are intuitively aware of the etiquette and procedures of this peculiar national institution. Yet we seldom reflect on them.

We should never arrive empty handed. (Nor should a family of four arrive with a six-pack of precooked sausages and a watermelon for dessert.)

Upon arrival it is essential to comment favourably on the renovations the hosts have conducted since the last barbecue season. There is a strong correlation between those who initiate the barbecue season and those who have successfully renovated over the winter. It is important to compliment the granite-topped serving island in the kitchen for providing space and functionality. Comment must also be made about the new fridge that resembles a stainless steel Tardis. If a new deck has been added, check if this was a DIY job before venturing on to it.


After the initial greetings, the sexes often segregate. The women may stay indoors to consume wine and gossip. The men adjourn to the barbecue area to discuss weighty issues such as the recent game or cars.

The host has first rights to tending the barbecue. He may offer this role to an alpha male, usually hovering nearby. The men then stand around, elbows at right angles and beer in hand, making polite conversation. Emotive or controversial topics are avoided until sufficient beverages have been consumed.

Real meat such as steaks, chops and sausages are cooked first. More problematic foodstuffs such as chicken or fish are incinerated afterwards.

Exotic foods such as African or Mediterranean stuff are done last. This is usually accompanied by a derisory query such as, "How do I cook this shit?" A cardinal sin at this stage is to track the progress of your contribution too closely. What you bring and what you actually eat is part of the serendipity of the event.

At some stage in the evening the subject of house prices will arise, particularly in Auckland. This is never addressed directly. It is always done with reference to the house down the road, with fewer bedrooms and a smaller section, that sold for a figure approaching the GDP of a small African nation. This implies that the weatherboard bungalow of the speaker is well on the way to making him a millionaire. Everyone eventually solemnly agrees that the Auckland housing market is ridiculous.

Any direct boasting about material or career success is strictly frowned upon. Overt boasting is for Aussies and other socially inept types. Kiwi interaction is strict about this rule. Laconic understatement is essential when singing one's own praises. Stellar achievements are referred to as "doing alright". Catastrophic occurrences such as redundancy or major illness are referred to as a "rough patch".

After food is served the event can branch in several directions. If it "goes off'" this probably means more animated conversations about emotive topics such as politics or rugby selections. The music may get turned up in a darkened living room. Sober dancing is normally the preserve of children, women and gay people. Men join if they have consumed sufficient dance lubricant.

The departures at the end of the evening are a lengthy ritual. Children need to be reattached to their toys. A sober driver usually initiates the first departure, which generally sparks a wave of them.


Those who have imbibed to excess swear lengthy eternal friendship to all and sundry. This may involve hugs and other physical contact that would be regarded as excessive in less inebriated circumstances. They tearily lament how infrequently they catch up. There is existential angst over the rapid passing of time. The sober driver eventually shepherds them and the rest of the family into the car.

During the trip home the hosts' renovations are evaluated. If approved of, this could lead to further employment for builders, plumbers and sparkies. Economists call this the multiplier effect. I love the barbecue season.

Peter Lyons teaches economics at St Peter's College in Epsom.