How we talk, laugh and lead at work

People are creatures of habit, in the workplace as elsewhere.

As Victoria University of Wellington’s pioneering Language in the Workplace Project (LWP) celebrates its 21st birthday, its director, Associate Professor Meredith Marra, notes how participants are surprised by the patterns revealed when she and her colleagues play back to them the recordings they have made of their spoken communication.

“We had one workplace where we’d recorded them over 10 weeks in their meetings and we played them back the first utterances in the meetings and they thought it was the same meeting every time because they said exactly the same thing and had no idea they’d been doing it,” says Marra, who is also Head of Victoria’s School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies.

As well as being creatures of habit, people are often alike.

“We expected everything to be very local; we expected there to be big differences,” says Marra. “But the comparison work we’re doing internationally is finding there are things that are really similar. Things you wouldn’t expect to be similar. Like meeting talk. Wherever you are in the world, meetings kind of look the same. There’s local variation—the amount of humour, for instance—but there are certain generic things you find regardless of the country. Such as the way you open a meeting. It’s often just, ‘Okay …’”

As recorded by Marra and LWP research fellow Dr Bernadette Vine in Linguist at Work, a newly published festschrift tribute to the 45-year career at the cutting edge of sociolinguistics of Victoria’s Emeritus Professor Janet Holmes, the internationally pioneering project was co-founded in 1996 by Holmes and Dr Maria Stubbe (now at the University of Otago) “in response to the paucity of sociolinguistic research on communication between colleagues, despite the fact that we spend so much of our lives at work”.

In its 21 years, the project has grown in both scope — from focusing on government departments and corporate organisations to including hospital and elder care settings, IT companies, factories and building sites—and content—including several internationally published books, the latest being The Routledge Handbook of Language in the Workplace edited by Vine with contributions from colleagues across the world.

But with Holmes director until 2015 and now associate director, and Marra her successor, two founding principles have remained constant: that research is conducted collaboratively with participants rather than on them; and that research seeks to understand best practice, not uncover bad practice.

The team has collected around 2000 interactions involving more than 700 people in more than 30 different workplaces — some interactions as short as 20 seconds, others several hours long.

The exchanges were recorded when and where they took place—using a succession of technologies, from cassette to digital — rather than relying on less accurate after-the-fact interviews or surveys.

“New Zealanders tend to downplay power and stress egalitarian ways of doing things. It’s one of the things people coming to New Zealand often find difficult — that New Zealanders hedge and attenuate a lot and therefore they don’t really know where they stand .."

The methods developed by Holmes and the LWP team were ground-breaking and are now used by socio- and applied linguists around the world, setting what Marra and Victoria Professor in Linguistics Paul Warren call in Linguist at Work “a benchmark for ethically sound and culturally sensitive methods of researching with workplace participants”.

The team’s research and analysis has provided valuable insights into a range of aspects of workplace talk such as leadership style (including differences between Māori and Pākehā leaders), workplace culture, meetings and decision-making, the role of humour and small talk, and miscommunication.

In turn, these have been used in training and organisational development.

One of their most successful uses has been, since 2004, contributing to a skilled migrant programme run by Victoria’s English Language Institute with support from the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment.

The 12-week programme as well as associated tools and guides (including resources for unskilled migrants) are designed to help newcomers adjust to New Zealand workplaces and raise employer awareness.

Cultural differences in communication style can be considerable and as programme teachers Dr Angela Joe and Nicky Riddiford say in their chapter in Linguist at Work: “Instructional materials based on authentic spoken discourse in the form of recordings or transcripts can help raise learners’ awareness of how degrees of politeness are expressed, how different language devices and strategies can hedge, boost or soften an utterance, and how the form and function of language can take on different meanings when situated within particular contexts.”

For example, says Holmes, “New Zealanders tend to downplay power and stress egalitarian ways of doing things. It’s one of the things people coming to New Zealand often find difficult — that New Zealanders hedge and attenuate a lot and therefore they don’t really know where they stand, because they can’t quite read it. The boss says to them, ‘Could you possibly just …’ where somewhere else it would be, ‘Do it!’”

Employment is not simply an economic question for migrants, says Marra.

“It’s also about identity. Whether you feel like you belong and are doing something worthwhile. That you’re respected.

“Workplaces are central to settlement, absolutely central. We are in the middle of applying for research funding along with other Commonwealth countries—Australia, the United Kingdom and Canada—to look at Syrian refugees coming in and the role of employment in resettlement. It’s such an important factor in the success of that.”

“One of the ways we know we’re such a tight 'community of practice' is when other people come and talk to us and say things like, ‘You don’t finish your sentences’ and ‘You have all these shortcuts for how you talk to each other’."

The skilled migrant programme has an approximately 80 percent success rate, with success measured as the migrant finding a job in their chosen industry that is more commensurate with their qualifications and experience within six months of completing the course.

The programme is only available to migrants from a non-English-speaking background.

“But what we’re hearing anecdotally,” says Marra, “is those from an English-speaking background also want it. They come from the UK or South Africa expecting New Zealand to be just the same and find out it’s not.”

One New Zealand norm they will encounter is a good deal of humour in all workplace contexts.

“One of our chief executives said to me, ‘I walk in and if there’s not any laughter around I think, ‘What’s gone wrong?’” says Holmes. “Laughter is a sign that things are going well.”

Marra says that in 2000 she and Holmes did some counting of humour and in some workplaces it was occurring every couple of minutes.

“Even in meetings. It was really common and really frequent. It did lots of things. It helped with bonding but it also helped with power and challenging power.”

“And releasing tension,” adds Holmes, “if a stressful decision had been made”.

A lot of participants are surprised when they see a transcript of their recordings, says Holmes.

“They’d never realised how much they talked or how little they talked during the day so it raised their awareness of their communication styles. And we’ve also had examples where people have been horrified. They’ve taken one look and said, ‘Really?’ Because it looks such a mess with so many ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ and fillers and so on. So often people get a shock. But that’s perfectly normal in natural speech contexts.”

Another source of surprise might be how fragmented and incomplete conversations are, but that can be a good sign, says Marra — one the LWP team would be guilty of itself.

“One of the ways we know we’re such a tight ‘community of practice’ is when other people come and talk to us and say things like, ‘You don’t finish your sentences’ and ‘You have all these shortcuts for how you talk to each other’.

“I have to say that as analysts if we don’t understand what’s going on that’s not the real issue; as long as the people inside the workplace understand what’s going on.”

Linguist at Work: A Festschrift for Janet Holmes edited by Meredith Marra and Paul Warren (Victoria University Press); The Routledge Handbook of Language in the Workplace edited by Bernadette Vine (Routledge).

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