Chit-chat is 'social glue' for workplaces

17:23, Jan 22 2014
Scotty’s Construction owner Scott Feasey, right, finds good-natured teasing with workers James Kopu, left, and Michael Handley
BUILDING BONDS: Scotty’s Construction owner Scott Feasey, right, finds good-natured teasing with workers James Kopu, left, and Michael Handley brings them together, and keeps them entertained.

Next time you draw up your CV, remember to include how much you enjoy good-natured ribbing.

That is doubly true if you work in construction, new research from Victoria University shows.

Linguistics lecturer Meredith Marra said Kiwis, much more than Britons or Americans, used teasing, bantering and chit-chat as "social glue" in an egalitarian society. "In New Zealand, there's that two degrees of separation - everybody knows everybody else.

"I think we might use small talk as a way of showing we're all the same . . . we all know a lot about each other's lives," she said.

As part of the university's Language in the Workplace project, thousands of interactions between colleagues in several different industries were recorded and analysed.

The researchers found that, in many fields, small talk was crucial. For example, it softened workplace hierarchies, such as that between a builder and his apprentice, Dr Marra said.


Wellington builder Scott Feasey, of Scotty's Construction, has found the jokes go both ways - he gives his young apprentices "a bit of ribbing" about their weekend antics, while they imitate him in return. "Building's boring, so we're always trying to rev it up a bit," Mr Feasey said.

He experienced the "bullying" tactics common on building sites a few decades ago and thought the culture had developed into something much more good-natured.

Most Kiwis found banter and water cooler talk natural, Dr Marra said. But being less common in other cultures, it frequently puzzled new migrants.

"Something we get reported from employers is that a person's level of English is not good enough and it's very rarely their English.

"It's that they just don't understand the importance of small talk, or understanding that it's something you pass back and forwards between you."

Even a simple "How are you?" could confuse - with new migrants often giving long and detailed responses, not understanding the usual short answer. To help teachers of new migrants, the project team has put together teaching materials that explain how and why small talk is used.

Dr Marra said migrants were also advised to listen carefully to their co-workers' small talk, as it could differ in tone between workplaces.


The Language in the Workplace project, which began in 1996, has uncovered some interesting truths about how we communicate at work:

Women top the humour stakes, more frequently making jokes than men do in the workplace. The more women at a meeting, the more likely the tone will turn humorous.

Email is often seen as a good way to avoid direct confrontation, with workers often preferring to give their bosses unpleasant news electronically. However, email is flagged as risky, with intent often being confused without clues such as a person's tone of voice.

Even migrants well-schooled in English can struggle with the "New Zealand English" spoken in workplaces – a very informal style compared with other countries. Phrases such as "Pretty sweet, eh?" are common, even in meetings.

As well as using humour to break down hierarchies, bosses often use it when asserting their power – think Ricky Gervais' David Brent in television satire The Office. Lower-ranked employees also use humour when in situations where their lack of power is evident.

The Dominion Post