Traditional village life is organized hierarchically. The older one is and the more senior one’s position within the family, the more one is respected and obeyed; likewise, membership in the chiefly lineage and being male brigs greater respect. This structure is neither arbitrary nor one-sided, however; it emphasizes reciprocity, responsibility, and earned respect.
The chief, for example, is supposed to give as much, or more, than what he receives from his people, and he must continually earn their respect. Those in higher ranks are expected to respect those below him, and perform his duties by supporting, organizing and leading.
Respect is shown in many ways, especially in ceremony, which is an integral part of village life. Where one is seated in the house or at a ceremony has great importance. Offering someone a position in a private part of a house or at the front of a ceremony is a sign of great respect. The head is the most sacred part of the body, and it is considered disrespectful to rise above the heads of others. When one must reach up, one must excuse oneself by saying tulou, a word of apology. Sitting cross-legged on the floor is a sign of modesty and respectful behavior. Pointing one’s feet at others is a sign of disrespect. Sitting cross-legged is no easy task for foreigners, so we should excuse ourselves when sitting becomes uncomfortable. Sitting on a chair if it is available is not always a good solution, since you are placing yourself on a higher position
Acts of disrespect are often caused by the visitors innocence, and sometimes exacerbated by the visitor’s swaggering behavior, and always muted by the Fijian host’s acceptance of the behavior, since they do not want to embarrass their guests.
In the village both men and women wear a piece of cloth wrapped around their bodies at the waist. This garnet is called the Sulu. At mealtime there are further displays of respect, as everyone takes their place around a mat that is placed on the floor. Older men sit at the head of the mat, and they are given the best choices of food. Down the mat are the younger men, then children, and at the end the women that serve the food. As crucial as showing respect to those ranked higher than oneself is offering special treatment to those of lesser status. Likewise, it is proper to graciously refuse an offer of special treatment, as a sign of humility.
The understanding of gender differences prevails in Fiji. There is a division of labor, with men engaged in gardening, clearing the land, building houses and spearing fish, while women cook, weave mats, tend to the children and fish with nets. This division is felt appropriate by both genders, as both get much pleasure in the camaraderie with the same sex. Time for interaction is plenty, and is always laced with jokes and innuendos. Women have their say in the home and have considerable influence in society. The gender roles may to foreigners appear to show disrespect towards women, but that is not the case. In urban areas there is a more public sharing of power, and more women than men attend higher education. Respect knows no gender.