Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains images, voices and names of deceased persons.

Respectful Communication: First Nations Do’s and Don’ts

First Nations woman smiles and chats to a blonde woman while sitting in a park.

National Sorry Day serves as a reminder of the mistreatment and injustices faced by the Indigenous peoples of our country. It is a day of reflection, acknowledgment and reconciliation for the wrongs committed against the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Which begs the question, how do we become the change we want to see in the world and move forward – while still recognising the mistakes of the past?

“Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow.”

– Aboriginal Proverb, Anon

We had a yarn with Mercy Community Indigenous team members to discover ways we can all be more respectful to each other. Here’s some advice on how we can all communicate with people of Indigenous heritage more effectively…

93% of communication is body language and tone of voice.

The way you first meet and engage with people of any background, should be the way you want people to approach you – with warm and welcoming body language, tone of voice and facial expressions.

If they are older than you, use words like “Uncle and Aunty” as this is how they’re referred to by family and friends. If you are younger, use words like “Budda or Sissy”.

“We’re all equal. I don’t care what their colour is, or religion. Just as long as they’re human beings they’re my buddies.”

– Mandawuy Yunupingu

Asking for permission to talk about someone’s country and language is a respected practice that everyone needs to be aware of. Feel free to ask about their country or surrounding area as a lot of people like to talk about their roots. Indigenous people have strong connections to where they’re from – that can’t be broken. Try and do your research if you can and be genuine.

“Communicating means sharing and sharing demands listening and acceptance.”

– Pope Francis

Always show respect by not being judgemental or critical and the same will be given back to you in time. Once you have their respect – it will be for life because that’s the culture. Only another black fella can hold a grudge against another black fella.

“Give me the gift of a listening heart.”

– Solomon

It’s important to communicate in a manner that makes people feel comfortable, making them feel like they’re on the same level as you. Not just listening but really hearing what people have to say is an essential part of forming a bond and being able to trust one another.

We all need boundaries, so make sure you’re aware of their personal space and where they are standing or sitting. This is vital, as some people believe it is bad luck to stand or sit behind someone. This could trigger them to become defensive both verbally and physically.

Know that some cultural items and clothing have a spiritual connection with the person and never touch or ask to touch them as they may have been blessed by elders or ancestors. Ask them if there is anything that shouldn’t be worn in their home as it may have been smoked/blessed. You may be wearing something that could break the blessing such as a bird’s feather.

Most importantly – acknowledge them for who they are and don’t judge people based on their appearance or education, as everyone has their own beliefs and stories.

“The more you know, the less you need.”

– Australian Aboriginal saying

We appreciate the knowledge that our Indigenous team members have shared with us, and we reflect on the actions we can and will take towards reconciliation to create a better and fairer future for Australia.

If you would like to know more about Sorry Day, visit the Reconciliation Australia website (reconciliation.org.au).

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