The Polynesian Temper

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Every culture has it’s ups and downs, but one of my least favorite things about the Polynesian culture is the temper and the idea that abuse is ok and acceptable. We tease the way our parents used to spank us, or use physical force as a means of discipline, but reflecting on it lately makes me more and more uncomfortable. Because, as any person should know, abuse, in any form, is never ok.

I know that every culture has hotheaded, impatient, and snappy people, but there’s one thing I noticed about Polynesians that make our culture a little different from other cultures. While the Polynesian hotheadedness may stem from efforts at appearing more masculine (which is a topic I will cover in a later post), they may also stem from other things, especially culture, fear, and attitude—which, as a side note, even if a culture is very good, every culture has its flaws, and that’s the reason I believe in a Christ-centered culture.

From many of my experiences and exposure to Polynesian men (and women) and my observations of times that tempers flares, I wanted to explore this topic and hopefully reach some conclusions as to why the Polynesian hotheadeness, or temper, comes up, and how it affects and is affected by the culture. Honestly, some of these things are present in any culture, but I do believe there are deeper cultural roots stemming tempers and anger. 


I’ve noticed Polynesian women get impatient when they offer a suggestion, emphasizing, and sometimes even dramatizing, how something is a good idea (even when sometimes it’s not). They could go on for hours about an idea, even when there are obvious flaws in it, or it isn’t logical. And when their idea is a no go, they get pretty salty. I’ve had plenty of Polynesian women snap at me when I interject early on into their monologues. For example, I think I’m a pretty good and logical cook, but one time a woman was telling me how to make haupia (and let’s be honest, I can make one super amazing haupia) and she had some abstract, primitive method of doing it. Because it was taking way too long for her to explain, I politely interrupted and told her the simplest way to do it, but after that she was incredibly salty. And she gave me the silent treatment and the evil eye for quite a while after that.

When I interject and correct people (as gently as I can), there’s usually a flash of annoyance in their eyes. The worst part is this: when they’re mad they’re still smiling at you. It’s the worst feeling, because you know that you’ve offended them, and even if you try to assuage them, it doesn’t really matter. Some Polynesian women are so quick to be offended, and once you offend (even if it’s unintentional), it gets worse from there.

It all seems very petty to me, that something in my actions or my words could offend someone, as though I offended everything about them from their ancient ancestors to their home and even their dog. 😛 But I’ve observed that saltiness is also a trait of the temper, and it’s a quiet temper, the kind that manifests itself in the silent treatment or snappiness that comes out of nowhere.

Domestic Abuse

When I lived at my grandma’s house in Laie for about 6 months (I was 12 at the time), it was the first time I experienced domestic abuse. I wasn’t abused, but there was a lot of it around me. I remember the late hours of the night and the houses being so close together that even a whisper couldn’t pass by unheard.

“SAIA!” the neighbor would yell, her voice piercing the night air. “GET OVER HERE!” There would be some ignoring, although there was no reason Saia wouldn’t hear her because her voice was loud enough to wake up the whole neighborhood.

“SAIA! Get your butt over here!” she yelled over and over again, sometimes letting loose some swear words. I shivered, despite being hot and cramped next to my siblings in my grandma’s small craft room. When Saia would not respond to these demands, there was always one final yell.

“SAIA!” There were footsteps towards another room in the neighbor’s house, and you could hear Saia’s murmured apologies. But the apologies were too late, his ignoring too aggravating, and then you could hear the slaps, sounding like hard laps of water on the side of a boat. They were so loud, and Saia would cry out in pain.

“I’m sorry! I’m sorry!!!” But all of it was too late, the flame was ignited, and the temper bomb of a merciless mother had gone off. There would be hand slaps, paddle slaps, and fist blows. I’d cover my ears and flinch in the dead of the night at every hit. And the worst of the matter was that nobody did anything—I didn’t even do anything. And to this day, it still makes me sick.

And the same went for my cousins. In Samoan culture, the word for spanking is sasa, and my cousins received many of them. They seemed to be for the littlest things: if they didn’t want to finish a plate of food, if they said one word back, if they seemed to give off an attitude, if they raised their voice, if they didn’t finish chores in time, or if they were just being kids who were too tired to do anything. Sometimes it seemed to stem from the parent: if the parent was tired, if the parent was impatient, if the parent felt the need to impose control.

At least one person got sasas in the day—no child was exempt. I was afraid for my cousins’ lives, because my aunt or uncle would literally drag them to the back of the house, pulling either an arm, an ear, their hair, or their shirt, and my cousins would go, kicking and screaming, crying and pleading their apologies. Their begging for mercy killed me inside—because what kind of child would have to beg for mercy from their parents? And they would receive sasas with any available item nearby, including a slipper, a hanger, a shoe, or a rice paddle. While many Polynesians mock the use of nearby items for spankings, especially long after they’re all grown up, it’s not funny in the moment when you’re being spanked. My dad used to spank us, but he would use his hand. Only once he used a wooden paddle, and it hurt so bad, leaving my hand so red, that we never did anything to provoke our father again—at least to the extent that he wouldn’t hit us with a paddle again.

But with my cousins, it was different. They never seemed to learn from the spankings. In fact, if anything, they rebelled even more, sometimes knowing full well that they might receive more sasas for certain actions. I knew that physical discipline was ineffective, but seeing it with my very eyes taught me even more deeply that physically discipline is COMPLETELY ineffective (in fact, it’s totally unnecessary), and that there are always better, more humane ways to discipline children, such as talking and communicating. How can a child trust a parent who physically hurts them at every turn?

And, again, with my cousins getting hit everyday, nobody did anything. My siblings and I would wait awkwardly for my cousins to return and they’d come back with red eyes, tear-streaked cheeks, and holding specific parts of their body that hurt the most. My parents did nothing, and, more importantly, grandma did nothing. She allowed that to happen, and the relief that flooded me when we moved was immense, but not cleansing. It would take years for me to recover from the experiences. Even though I wasn’t the one getting hit physically, I was getting hit mentally and emotionally, learning that adults and people couldn’t be trusted, especially if they wouldn’t protect younger people (this is probably another reason that I have so much respect for children—they need and deserve our protection, and when people talk in even the slightest about treating them poorly, it really makes me angry).

Parking Lot Abuse

In Hilo, it’s not really a shocker to see people fighting in the parking lot. I’ve seen men yelling at their wives, swearing and throwing things. I’ve seen women yelling at their husbands (or boyfriends), angry about the money they wasted or not providing for their baby. I had a coworker in Hilo who got into an argument with his girlfriend in the parking lot, and she gave him a purple eye which he bore for days.

But I don’t think this is unique to Hilo—I’ve seen this on the mainland, and I’m sure it happens all over the world. Most of these problems stem from poverty, and from lack of education. They stem from teen pregnancies and infidelity. When I see these types of things, I always get ready to call the cops, especially if someone throws a hit. Mostly people just swear and throw things on the ground, but the real hazard is when they storm away in their vehicle. It’s a hazard for all those standing around or driving on the roads.

I remember one time my dad was so angry, he jumped into his car and sped off, and I feared for every living creature on the road around him. Perhaps abuse in the parking lot isn’t as common as I imagine it to be, but it’s still a temper—a public temper. I’m incredibly shy, and just the fact that someone is fighting, abusing, and yelling in a public place opens another facet to the hotheaded temper I’m trying to understand. Is there no shame in manifesting anger in the public? But then again, whether it’s done in private or in public, it’s still a shame.


Fast forward a few years and I’m living on the mainland… When my fiancé played on a community basketball team here in Utah, he and his teammates were put up against a Polynesian team. They arrived early, taking the time to pull back their long hair, socialize with one another, listen to music, and watch. Their wives and girlfriends came too, and they filled the stands. When they played basketball against our team, the women would cheer loudly, some standing on their feet. There was a feeling of camaraderie on their side, and I secretly envied their enthusiasm to cheer their team on and boost their morale. What I didn’t envy, however, was the steam-flared nostrils coming from the Polynesian players, and how they smack-talked and pushed the opposing team members around. And what I hated was that they seemed to think that was ok, that that was expected.

As the game commenced, tempers flared. My fiancé, Jordan, just wanted to play basketball, but a few of his teammates grew impatient, especially of being pushed around so much. Finally, one of the Polynesian players rushed out of the court and pushed Jordan’s teammate down onto the bleachers, swearing at him.

The Polynesian’s face was red, sweat dripping from his forehead, and he lunged at Jordan’s teammate. Jordan, tall and lean, pulled him back and everyone came forward: from my team’s stand, people rushed forward to protect the team. From the Polynesian side, some came forward to fight and some came forward to hold the others back. The refs blew their whistles like crazy, telling the Polynesian team to knock it off.

“He said something to my brother!” yelled the man whom Jordan held back. The man let loose a few more cuss words then kept repeating himself. “He said something to my brother, and you NEVER talk to my brother like that!”

I watched, from the sidelines, and I even got a picture of the fray (honestly, I don’t know why, but I just did). The man continued to yell at the refs, trying to break free from Jordan, and finally one of the Polynesian women, holding a baby, came down from the stands and yelled at him.

“ENOUGH ALREADY!” she yelled. “Let’s go. LET’S GO!” But he ignored her, and the referees called it a game.

“Go home!” they said, and Jordan let the man go. The man walked away, huffing and puffing. His teammates gathered around him. I stood by the exit door, watching, observing. The Polynesians sat angrily down on the stands, patting one another’s backs, for comfort but also for… acceptance? It was as though they were congratulating one another for picking a fight. I pondered on this: in their eyes, the fight was for a “just” cause. One of Jordan’s teammates had said something offensive and the Polynesians wouldn’t take it.

But that’s what annoyed me; I thought, Ok. That’s cool they would defend eachother, but did they have to fight to do so? That wasn’t the best way to come up with a solution and it definitely wasn’t an appropriate way to communicate emotions.

What made matters worse was that they waited along the sidelines after Jordan’s game, just so they could scrap in the parking lot. The police officers were called and, scared as cats, the Polynesians ditched out.

The next time our team played against their team, they won, and they were a lot more friendly, even hugging and positively reenforcing members from my fiancé’s team after the game was over.

i just compared this to every other team, including those who got hotheaded early on. The players who got angry on the court would toss the ball, let loose a swear word, or just walk off the court and leave. One time, a team member pushed someone from Jordan’s team, but both of the teams intervened, saying things like, “Let it go!” or “It’s OK,” or “Come on, let’s just play…” and the fire died. But on the Polynesian team, they just went for an attack, and all of the teammates watched, or prepared to jump in.

Maybe I’m stereotyping Polynesians. I know that there are many kind, soft-hearted Polynesian men who wouldn’t as much as lift a finger against another person. But when it came to brotherhood, was it a justification to fight?

It was something that, deep down inside, actually scared me about Polynesian men. I grew up thinking I’d marry a Hawaiian but sometimes I was afraid of tempers or this acceptance of tempers within the family—or not being able to do anything when tempers flared, as in the case of the woman yelling at her husband, or of my grandma’s neighbors and grandchildren getting abused.


Lastly, nobody likes to be wrong. So many people lose their heads if they’re wrong or proven wrong. Most people can laugh it off and apologize, but I can’t say how many times I’ve offended someone when they’re wrong. Maybe this is a mark of maturity (as explored in my article about kindness), or maybe it’s just that the culture facilitates an air of eliteness, or being better than others, so being wrong gives them an excuse to have a temper.

In conclusion…

I don’t think I’ve gotten to the bottom of this issue. I think this is something I’m going to explore further as I write about Polynesian femininity and masculinity. However, thinking about the Polynesian hotheadedness has rekindled many memories for me, especially times I felt unsafe. Maybe there isn’t such a thing as a Polynesian temper and I’m imagining it in my head, yet at the same time I think of my dad and his temper, and how that temper manifests itself in my brothers. I think of how nobody did anything when my cousins got spankings every single day. So maybe I’m not far off the mark, and it’s time to restore feelings of aloha within the Polynesian culture. Maybe it just starts with kindness, which you can check out here. 🙂

2 thoughts on “The Polynesian Temper

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  1. “Temper, temper, . . . “ my mom and aunties used to tell us when we were little, when we used to get made at each other. It didn’t mean we didn’t get into fights, but I believe we got into less fights because of those reminders to watch our tempers.


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