Immigrants struggle with small talk

Last updated 14:45 22/01/2014

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Understanding the proper response to "how are you?" is one of the challenges new migrants struggle with when settling in New Zealand.

Not realising the social-sanctioned answer is typically "fine thanks, how are you?", new arrivals often respond with a long and detailed reply.

With such chit-chat crucial for building and maintaining workplace relationships, Victoria University researchers have studied these social interactions, and examples of real-life small talk have been included in new English teaching materials for recent migrants and refugees.

Project director Janet Holmes said small talk was often puzzling to people from other cultures.

"It's important that refugees and migrants understand the function of small talk to help them relate appropriately to their colleagues," she said.

Professor Holmes said the ability to make chit-chat was especially important if new migrants were employed in fields where it was common, including construction and caregiving.

"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," she said.

"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 work is part of the university's 18-month Language in the Workplace project. A four-person linguistics team have analysed thousands of interactions between colleagues in a number of industries, to look at how and why we communicate at work.

Other topics studied included meeting communication styles, the role of email and miscommunication between colleagues.

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