by Martha Petty


In November 1981 my husband and I accepted an assignment to Pitcairn Island in the south Pacific. I was the Medical Officer and my husband the Pastor. We arrived in March 1982 after spending four months waiting for a ship to transport us to the island.

Pitcairn is the most isolated inhabited spot on the earth because it has no air strip, and no regularly scheduled shipping. Contact with the outside world is maintained through infrequent ships and daily communication via government & ham radio. Once during our two-year term of service an eight-month interval passed between supply ships.

The island's area measures less than two square milesa hunk of land jutting from the Pacific about half-way between New Zealand and the Panama Canal. Ships usually require six to eight days to reach Pitcairn from New Zealand, 10 days from Panama.

The people of Pitcairn are descended from the men who perpetrated the mutiny on the HMAS Bounty in 1789and their Tahitian wives. The culture and language today are unique blends of 18th-century English and Tahitian, as altered by the circumstances of survival on their remote rock in the Pacific.

High-context Communication

We experienced cultural shock within hours of our arrival on the island, and we felt confused and isolated. One of the major causes for these feelings arose as a result of the Pitcairners' high-context communication system. (We Americans have a low-context system.) "A high-context culture communicates less directly than a low-context culture because its people assume, accurately when they are among themselves, that much of what they think and mean can go without saying. `People who have extensive information networks among family, friends, colleagues, and clients and who are involved in close relationships . . . . do not require much contexting (in-depth background information) because they keep themselves informed about everything.'"[1]

The Pitcairners often act as a body without any apparent planning or assignment of tasks. Every minute detail of island life is so well known to them that when any given event occurs they all know what is going to happen and when. When we asked how they knew, they answered "We just know."

We, on the other hand, are used to being informed about when and where an event is to take place. When we arrived on the island the former pastor and nurse had already left on a ship several hours before we came, so we had no orientation from our own culture. We were new to the situation and expected to be briefed on local customs, and what the islanders expected of us. But it never occurred to the Pitcairner's that we didn't know what was going on. They simply deposited our goods at the mission house and disappeared. Throughout our stay, both we and the New Zealand teacher's family were continually confused by this lack of cross-cultural communication.

For instance: When the bell at the square rings five times it signals the islanders that a ship has been sighted and will probably stop, so everyone should go to the landing. We would go immediately to the landing, and often find no one there. We would wait and wait, and finally, almost en-masse, the islanders would come. On other occasions, however, we went to the landing in about the same amount of time as before, only to miss the boat entirely.

When we asked the islanders for some rule of thumb that would help us to know how much time we should allow between the ringing of the bell and going out to ship, no one could help us, other than to suggest that we listen for the speed with which the bell was rung. (That didn't work any better.) They had a high-context, informal out-of-awareness communication within their group, and they were unable to share it with us. This happened repeatedly in many aspects of life.

On one occasion a yacht arrived early Saturday morningSabbath on the island. When church time arrived several hours later, we went to the church. The teacher's family was there―a special program involving their children was to occur―but we found no Pitcairners at all. We stood there for a long time, talking about how we wished they would inform us about these changes in plans. Eventually they came. But they probably wondered why WE had been standing there for so long.

The Concept of Time

This brings us to the second major conflict: Time. "People of the western world, particularly Americans, tend to think of time as something fixed in nature, something around us and from which we cannot escape; an ever present part of the environment just like the air we breathe."[2] We segment time and schedule it very rigidly at times, but we are oriented mostly toward the future.[3] We don't dwell too much in the past. We think in terms of plans for one or two years, or at most five or ten. Deadlines and appointments are a serious business with penalties for being late. We consider it natural to qualify time, and failure to do so would be unthinkable. We tend to think in terms of how much time it will take to do a given job.[4] "Time with us is handled much like a material; we earn it, spend it, save it, waste it.[5]

Time for a Pitcairner, however, is something altogether different. Roy Clark was an American who emigrated to Pitcairn during his teenage years. Later in life he wrote a great deal about the Pitcairn he knew. He wrote: "Mostly, time has no reckoning in a woman's life other than of necessity for going to the passenger ships, doing what is required of them by law, and attending religious services. As a whole, island life is not run by clocks, for time is rarely considered, and when it is so, is of secondary importance only."[6]

We soon came to realize that time is always conditional on Pitcairnsubject to what is happening at any given moment. In other words, an event which is not connected to time may be more important than time itself. I quote from the first letter I wrote home: "There is one thing you can plan on here and that is that you can't make plans. They are sure to be interrupted. They have been trying to have an island council meeting for weeks, but it keeps getting put off because of ships, etc."

Top priority is always given to the arrival of a ship, for ships bring the outside world to Pitcairn. No matter what appointments have been made or what activities are happening when a ship arrives, the ship takes precedenceeven over worship services in the church.

Perhaps a good example of the difference between Pitcairn and American views about time would be to compare two statements about meals: We would say, "It's time to eat", while the islander would say, "I'm hungry, let's eat."

Suppose that a day dawns beautiful and calm, and there hasn't been a nice day like this for a long time. Someone says, "This is a good day for a picnic (or fishing)." If the others agree, then an announcement will be made, and in an hour or so everyone is ready and off we go. This may be the day for the electricity to be on for washing, etc. That's O.K. The electricity can be put on tomorrow just as well.

Even during times when islanders are working for hourly wages, it is not uncommon for someone to stop work for a while in order to sleep or eat.

In short a Pitcairner will do whatever he/she feels is the most important thing to do at any given moment. How long it will take to accomplish the task remains immaterial, because at any moment something else of greater importance may come along, and the task at hand will be dropped in favor of that which has a higher priority.

This way of life required that we make a little adjustment. But we found it both interesting and relaxing to adopt this perspective of time. We received a terrible shock, however, when we returned to America and had to re-adjust to the western concept of time again.


The Act of Learning

One of our functions as Medical Officer and Pastor involved teaching. In retrospect I can now see why we were at times successful, while at other times we failed.

There are three basic modes of learning. 1. Formal: learning by precept and admonition. This is a two way process, where the learner tries, makes a mistake, and then is corrected. 2. The Informal learning process: Learning by observing a model and imitating it. There is no teacher other than the model. 3. The technical learning process: A teacher imparts knowledge to the student.[8]

Every culture uses all three of these modes for learning, but each culture has a dominant mode. As an American, I do most of my learning via instruction that I receive, either from a teacher or a book. Pitcairners, on the other hand, do most of their learning by the informal mode: children learn to do things by watching their parents, and then doing what they see. Such skills as wood-carving and gardening are all learned informally.

When my husband asked an islander how he carved a wooden shark, all he got in response was: "Come and watch." When I asked someone to teach me to weave baskets, all she was able to do was show me how she did it.

This mode of learning also explains the changes in culture that take place from time to time. For example: Most of the transportation on Pitcairn when we arrived was either by foot or by 2-wheeled motorbike. I became unwilling to ride 2-wheelers before long because of several painful spills. I had no real knowledge of all terrain cycles (3-wheelers), but the literature sounded good. Pitcairners, however, had a negative opinion of these "trikes," and yet I decided that there must be a good reason for calling them "all terrain." So we ordered one.

Two months later, when our ATC arrived, several Pitcairners wanted to ride it. After just a couple of minutes they got off, shook their heads, and indicated that they weren't interested.

But they later changed their minds. We had a long rainy season during which everyone else had to slosh barefoot through ankle-deep mudtheir bikes were unable to function in that mediumwhile I breezed around on my ATC. Before many months went by several of them had taken second thought, and ATCs soon became the standard mode of transportation on the island.

If we had merely said to them: "ATCs are the best way to get around here on Pitcairn," and given them all the logical and technical reasons why they should get ATCs, not one would have been ordered. But when they saw the value for themselves, they openly accepted the new mode of transportation.


Names and Places

Pitcairn has a maze of paths and dirt roads, which generally have no names. At first we were confused and needed assistance. "Americans pay attention to direction in a technical sense, but formally and informally they have no preference."

Roads in most countries are usually oriented to north, south, east, or west. This technical patterning allows us to locate places by coordinates.[9]

Roy Clark describes the island method this way: "On the island place names indicate more than a stranger can realize, because not only are they what street names and house numbers are to city dwellers, but to us they are also a sort of living record of past happenings. In a great measure places have been named for untoward eventsdisastrous or painfulwhich happened here; others are named to commemorate happenings of pleasure and happiness . . . . There are many other places on the island with names which remain long after the circumstances of the naming are forgotten, . . ."[10].

We overcame the problem by two methods: 1. We learned the most commonly traveled roads by memory, and, 2. We learned the more common places by their names. Then by putting these together we could usually understand the places and roads the Pitcairners frequently mentioned in their conversations. I often went exploring along paths I had never traveled before, but in the two years we were there I never got to all of them.


An Illustration of Conflict

A very interesting conflict in cultures occurred when another American brought his wife and daughter to the island for an extended periodwith some hope of staying permanently. Stan (not his real name), though born in the United States, had grown up in Italy, and he didn't even know how to greet people without giving them a big bear hug and a kiss (he especially acted this way towards men).

Pitcairners do not show affection publicly, except to their children, so Stan's actions were a big shock to them. They tried not to offend Stan, but they just didn't quite know how to handle him. I told him that his touching embarrassed them. But he rejected my counsel, and felt they needed to learn how to loosen up.

Stan also had ideas about gardening that differed remarkably from accepted local practice. The islanders tried to explain to him that his methods just would not work on Pitcairn. But they shook their heads when he bull-headedly continued to practice gardening his own way. His efforts were all in vain, for the islanders were right.

Stan had other problems also. And even though his rejection by the community was a result of their reaction to an accumulation of his problems, yet the primary reason they spurned him rested in his use of personal space.

Relations deteriorated and several fights ensued. (Pitcairners are patient people who almost never come to blows!) Most of the islanders shunned Stan, and he eventually left. I think he might have had a chance of success if he hadn't consistently violated the personal space of everyone on the island in what seemed to them such an irritating way.


The Purpose of Life

Pitcairners are gentle, friendly, and easy-going with a great sense of humor, but at the same time they remain quiet and reserved about showing their feelings. They have an almost infinite knowledge about their environmentthe sea, the weather, ships and gardening.

But they find it difficultand for some, impossibleto think in abstract concepts and ideas. Their purpose in life seems to be survival and the enjoyment of life. They have enough drive to make money in order to buy the conveniences they want to make their lives easier and more interesting. But they regard money as only a medium of exchange, and not as an end in itself.

I've been asked many times by Americans: "What is the Pitcairners' purpose in life?" It is difficult, if not impossible, for goal and achievement oriented Americans to understand the Pitcairner.

I adjusted to life on Pitcairn quickly, and I came to prefer their orientation to time. In fact my own philosophy of life became so changed while living there that I found it extremely difficult to reorient myself to living again in the United Statesmuch more so than I had experienced in originally adapting to life on Pitcairn.



[1] Gary Blonston, "The Translator," SCIENCE 85, (July/Aug), 84.

[2] Edward T. Hall, THE SILENT LANGUAGE, p. 6.

[3] ibid, p. 7.

[4] ibid, pp. 147, 148.

[5] ibid, p. 7.

[6] Herbert Ford (ed.), THE MISCELLANY OF PITCAIRN'S ISLAND, pp. 204, 205.

[7] Hall, pp. 68, 71, 72.

[8] ibid, p. 72.

[9] ibid, p. 178b

[10] A GUIDE TO PITCAIRN, Fourth Edition, pp. 61-63.