How To Be Like A Local In Hawaii

Napali Coastline

Napali Coastline

Imagine a tropical paradise isolated from everywhere in the middle of a vast ocean.  A place of magnificent beauty that remains at a constant 80° F (27° C) all year long.  A distant land where the briny smell of the ocean blends with the sweet aroma of tropical flowers and all carried on the trade winds.  This place is not a dream . . . it is Hawaii!

About 8 million people visit the Hawaiian Islands every year bringing their tourist dollars and acting as if they never left home.  (TIP:  For more on Hawaiian tourism, see: – more detailed information:  Hawaii may be part of the United States of America, but it previously was a sovereign nation and still holds fast to many local customs and traditions.  Once you step out of the tourist areas you will stand out as an outsider.  So, how does one act like a Kama’aina (pronounced ka-ma-EYE-na) or a non-native local?  (’aina)

“Why should I act like a Kama’aina?” you may ask.  Because the Hawaiian Islands are so isolated from any other landmass, people living there tend to rely on each other on a daily basis.  Outsiders generally are indifferent to the locals and only bring tourist dollars or want something.  Once you step outside of that cycle, a whole new world opens up to you.  You get to see and do things that the average tourist only dreams about.

Hawaiian Fruit Stand

Hawaiian Fruit Stand

Let’s start out with how to dress like a local.  Both men and women dress pretty much the same . . . board shorts, T-shirt and flip-flop sandals.  While anything is generally accepted, you should steer away from your local shirts such as sport teams, schools, etc.  This is because you open yourself up to negative preconceptions before you even say hello.

OK, now that you look like a local, get out there and meet some people!  Start with “Aloha”.  To outsiders this may seem cheesy or cliché, but it is used everyday by Hawaiians to say “hello”, “good bye” or “I love you” (based on context).  If the person you are saying Aloha to says it back and seems interested in talking to you, ask them something that is relevant to the situation you are presently in together.  For example, if you are at a roadside food truck, ask what they recommend there.  Or, if you are at a beach, ask when the best time of day is to catch awesome waves.  Basically, asking them for their local expertise shows that you respect their opinion and culture and is sure to lead to some good conversations.

Hawaiians, by nature, are very curious about life outside of the islands and like to “talk story” with people.  So, if you get the opportunity, share your experiences or listen to theirs with them.  On one occasion, I was talking with a local about a state park that had closed.  I had asked him about the reasons for the closing and he had shared something deeply personal with me about it.  It is a story I will treasure the rest of my life and also the bond and trust that was formed.  On another occasion, I was talking with a person and he discovered that I liked hiking.  He offered to take me on a hike on private property that he and his family had access to.  These are experiences I would have never had if I had not taken the time to get to know and share with a new acquaintance.

When talking to a Hawaiian local, it is acceptable to use Hawaiian words like Aloha and Mahalo (thank you) peppered in with your normal conversation.  (TIP:  More on basic Hawaiian phrases:  But do not try to speak the local pidgin as you will appear foolish or condescending.  It is a common bond between locals that should only be entered into if you have a long standing relationship with someone from the islands.

If you are invited over to a local’s home, make sure to remove your shoes before entering.  This is a tradition that arrived with the Japanese immigrant population and has become part of everyday Hawaiian life.  It is rude to enter a Hawaiian home with your dirty shoes or sandals on.

The “Shaka Sign” ( is used frequently on the Hawaiian Islands.  It means, “hi”, “how are you” and “thank you”.  It also denotes the Hawaiian spirit so you will see a lot of people, local and visitors alike, using it when taking a photo.  You may also see it being used by drivers.

Ray's Kiawe Broiled Chicken

Ray’s Kiawe Broiled Chicken

Driving in the islands is much different from the mainland.  The pace of life is slower and gentler.  Aggressive driving is not acceptable behavior, so please leave that at home (this includes the use of the horn).  It is the norm for people to drive at the actual posted speed limits or slower . . . and that is OK.  If you have to be somewhere at a specific time, make sure to leave extra early to account for this slower pace or unexpected traffic.  Another anomaly on the Hawaiian Islands is courtesy.  People actually will stop to let pedestrians cross the roadway or another car enter into the line of cars.  As a matter of fact, this is the expected behavior.  The driver you let into traffic will often give you the Shaka Sign to say thank you . . . make sure to Shaka back.

If you have noticed throughout this article, I have referred to the Hawaiian people as locals NOT “natives”.  They are citizens of the United States of America and are proud to be both American and Hawaiian.  If you live in the USA, then refer to it as “the mainland” and NOT “back in the USA”.  If you remember this distinction, you are well on your way to being accepted.

Now that you know the basics, get out there and meet some people!!!

The Cheat Sheet:

  • Dress Locally: board shorts, T-shirt & sandals
  • Use basic Hawaiian words: aloha, mahalo, A hui hou (until we meet again)
  •  “Talk story” with the locals
  • Remove shoes/sandals before entering a home
  • Use the Shaka Sign often
  • Drive slower and more courteous
  • Hawaiians are “locals”, people from the lower 48 states are “mainlanders”, Alaskans are “Alaskans” or “mainlanders” too

 Author:                  Robert J. Gorman, Jr.
Date:                      7/25/2013

Categories: Behavin’ | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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