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Workplace ‘talk’ defines relationships

Public Affairs

Workplace ‘talk’ defines relationships

The way people talk and communicate with each other at work underlies an interestingly complex relationship of workplace power and politeness, a soon-to-be launched book reveals.

Power and Politeness in the Workplace is the latest outcome of Victoria University’s Language in the Workplace Project, headed by Professor Janet Holmes of the School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies.

Professor Holmes co-authors the book with Maria Stubbe, a Research Fellow in Linguistics at Victoria.

Professor Holmes says the book, to be launched on 11 June, provides insights into the way we all talk at work.

“There is a wealth of material illustrating the way people communicate with each other in their ordinary, everyday workplace encounters,” she says. “Of particular interest is the way people balance the demands of meeting workplace objectives and getting things done on time with maintaining collegial workplace relationships.”

Professor Holmes says data has been obtained from a wide-range of New Zealand workplaces spanning government and corporate agencies. The research explores specific types of workplace talk such as giving advice and instructions, solving problems, running meetings and making decisions.

Other less obvious types of workplace interaction, including small talk and humour, also make an important contribution to effective workplace relationships.

“Humour is an effective strategy in managing working relations,” says Professor Holmes. “Managers use it to get a message across while maintaining an open informal team environment. It can also be used by team members to let the manager know something needs sorting out.”

Professor Holmes says the research would not have been possible without the generous co-operation of the participating workplaces. “From government departments like the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, Ministry of Forestry, and Te Puni Kokiri, through to small businesses, and large organisations like Telecom and Mobil, we consistently found people helpful and supportive. Their trust in us was crucial to the success of our work.”

Professor Holmes says the research findings will be of interest to a wide range of individuals and professional organisations including those involved in HR training and communications skill development.

The book will be launched at the Law Faculty Annex, Government Buildings Historic Reserve, Lambton Quay at 5pm on 11 June, 2003. The Language in the Workplace Project began at Victoria University in January 1997. Further information about the project can be found at


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