Talking the talk

21:54, Jan 22 2014

Poll: Chit-chat matters. Small talk isn't so small if you are inept at it. Not only does life have far more awkward moments, but it can be a barrier reaching more comfortable, useful conversations. Even relationships.

So it figures that Victoria University research into what might seem life's more inane conversations is at least potentially significant.

Even the most spectacularly educated among us can flail at the inability to establish ice-breaking rapport with people. Nasa astronaut Shannon Lucid, on a brief visit to Invercargill in 1997, described a human glitch in her training for an epic journey on the Russian space station Mir.

She had assiduously studied Russian, but with take-off looming she realised that it was all highly technical stuff. She had next to no vocabulary for the little stuff and unless they were all going to spend their spare time talking about ways to produce oxygen things were going to get tense up there. So late in the piece came a crash course in good old trite conversational stuff.

As part of a project devoted to language in the workplace the Victoria investigators have been looking into the challenges new migrants face with daily communications.

These newcomers have our sympathy. English can be fiendishly hard to get your head around.


Ever tried to explain to a language student that first you chop a tree down and then you chop it up?

And that's without those giddying, and resolutely Kiwi, idiomatic variations which, not that we're skiting, so enrich our lingo.

The Southern Institute of Technology, we'd have you know, offers a list of Kiwi idioms to help international students along.

Then, of course, many of those students can head back out to jobs in English speaking communities worldwide, stoked that the bright sparks at SIT have schooled them up in the hard-case lingo that means they can chew the fat without jokers going crook at them for being slow as a wet week on the uptake.

Even better, they might be saying it with a good old Kiwi accent for added communicational clarity.

Clearly there are times when New Zealanders, as much as possible, need to cut immigrants a break during moments of hesitancy. Or, for that matter, misplaced yappiness.

The Victoria research shows that, for instance, new arrivals in New Zealand take a passing "how are you?" as a question most politely answered with some thought and detail.

Which, as the rest of us know, it usually isn't. What we expect is to hear a "fine"and a reciprocated inquiry into our own wellbeing.

For a while there, one of this paper's staffers, when asked how he was, wilfully took to answering "rotten" and found that people were already primed to reply with a nod and a "good", only then realising retrospectively that it was inappropriate. Turns out people don't like it when you do that to them.


The Southland Times