Small talk no trivial matter

Small talk is puzzling to people from some cultures, but New Zealanders use it to build rapport.

Builders onsite

Over the last 18 months researchers from Victoria’s Language in the Workplace Project (LWP) have been analysing conversations on building sites and in eldercare facilities to help develop teaching materials for refugees and new migrants.

The two workplaces were selected to provide real-life examples of conversations in areas where refugees and new migrants frequently find employment.

“It’s important that refugees and migrants understand the function of small talk to help them relate appropriately to their colleagues,” says Project Director, Professor Janet Holmes.

To capture the conversations, digital recorders were strapped onto armbands to make recording as unobtrusive as possible, with volunteers able to control the devices themselves.

“It was interesting that in eldercare facilities the caregivers used small talk not only to establish rapport, but also to make potentially embarrassing situations such as showering more comfortable for the resident,” says Janet.

“Many of the caregivers knew a lot about their clients’ lives and seemed to genuinely care about them. This contrasted with overseas studies which suggest that caregivers are primarily task oriented, with a tendency towards patronising language.”

The Deputy Director of the project, Dr Meredith Marra, says that humour is an essential part of being accepted in the building community.

“It’s common to be teased and workers are expected to take a certain level of jocular abuse—once they’ve been working there a while they are expected to return the abuse as well.”

She says the team was surprised at the level of awareness of hierarchy evident in talk on the building sites.

“You certainly know who the boss is by the language that is used. Even the teaching of skills is approached differently depending on the status of the person being taught.”

The research was funded by Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages Aotearoa New Zealand (TESOLANZ) and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.