The secrets of workplace conversation

Meredith Marra’s research helps people, from chief executives to migrant workers, improve the way they communicate in the workplace.

Meredith Marra sits at a desk with books open in front of her. The room is lined with bookshelves

What should you say if you find yourself in a lift with your boss? And what about if you are the boss: how do you handle making small talk with your employee?

Whether in a lift, an office kitchen or—perhaps most agonising of all—a workplace gym, we’ve all had the unenviable task of having awkward conversations with someone on a different rung of the corporate ladder.

Professor Meredith Marra and her colleagues in the School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies at Victoria University of Wellington have spent 20 years unpicking the unspoken rules behind the way Kiwi workers talk to each other.

Using innovative methodologies since adopted by researchers around the world, the team behind the Language in the Workplace Project has identified the tactics that enable our most skilled workplace communicators to handle the lift scenario, and similar quandaries, with comparative ease.

The team’s findings have been used to help migrants, their employers and many others to understand the New Zealand way of communicating in workplaces ranging from building sites to hospitals.

Understanding the language of the workplace has been a life’s work for Professor Marra, yet when she came to the University as an undergraduate it was to study for a degree in commerce rather than linguistics.

“My plan was to be an accountant who could speak another language. My father was an accountant and that seemed like a sensible thing to be, even if my friends couldn’t quite see me as an accountant,” she says.

Her plans were scuppered by Janet Holmes, now Emeritus Professor of Linguistics and the former Director of the Language in the Workplace Project, who spotted her talent early and enlisted her as a part-time researcher.

“I knew I wanted to be happy, and I realised working in linguistics would make me much happier than being an accountant,” says Professor Marra, who is Director of the Language in the Workplace Project.

The accountancy plan wasn’t entirely abandoned: her primary research interest is the language of business meetings, which has enabled her to combine her love of commerce and of language.

When the Language in the Workplace project was launched in 1996, researchers decided to take an ‘appreciative inquiry’ approach by focusing on workplaces and workers who were communicating well and examining how their communication styles could be replicated.

Researchers had previously used surveys to gather data on how workers spoke to each other, but the university team took the ground-breaking step of recording real-life interactions instead.

In the project’s early years, the researchers recorded conversations with huge VHS cameras mounted on tripods. Now they use digital voice recorders small enough to be strapped to an arm. Importantly, they also check their findings with the workplace volunteers they collaborate with.

As a result of collaborating with hundreds of people in more than 30 different workplaces over the past 20 years, the team’s research has repeatedly showed there is no one-size-fits-all approach to communicating well at work. The best communicators vary their strategies depending on who they’re talking to and what they’re talking about.

Professor Marra and her colleagues have found the most direct way to get a message across is not necessarily the most effective way: repetition, small talk and humour are also important.

In 2006, the team received a $506,000 Marsden Fund grant from Government funding managed by the Royal Society of New Zealand. The funding enabled the team to explore the language of leadership in organisations, particularly the differences in Māori and Pakehā leadership styles.

“We found the Māori tradition of opening meetings with a karakia was often misinterpreted. Pakehā sometimes saw it as an unnecessary formality, but for Māori it was a way of creating an appropriate space in a meeting—a way of saying who we all are and why we are all here,” says Professor Marra.

“That project challenged my own way of thinking and changed my perspective on life.”

Data from throughout the life of the project has been used to develop materials for a course for skilled migrants, who are now a major focus of the team’s work. Professor Marra says skilled migrants often miss out on getting work befitting their education and experience because they lack the social language skills used in Kiwi workplaces.

Kiwis don’t like disagreeing overtly with workmates because it challenges our view of ourselves as egalitarian: we fear being seen to build ourselves up or tear someone else down. Instead, we show our dissent implicitly, which makes it difficult for migrants to know what the rules are.

“So much of what we mean goes unsaid. If you’re an outsider, how do you know who the boss is if everyone speaks the same and is on first-name terms?” says Professor Marra.

She and her team have developed resources to help skilled migrants get to grips with small talk at work, which is culturally unacceptable in many parts of the world.

For example, most questions starting with ‘how’ (“How are you?” “How are you feeling?”) can be answered with ‘fine’, while questions starting with ‘what’ (“What did you do at the weekend?” “What do you think of this terrible weather?”) can be answered with ‘not much’.

Professor Marra has been encouraged by the increasing number of policymakers asking to see research from the Language in the Workplace project. It’s exciting to be working in a field that empowers people to improve the way they communicate, she says.

“We have a very collaborative team here at Victoria University of Wellington. We have strong international connections, and because we’re in Wellington we are fortunate to be able to work closely with government as well as industry. There is deep investment in our research community.”