Problematic Chinese-Australian social interactions at work
AffiliationMelbourne Graduate School of Education
Document TypePhD thesis
CitationsCui, X. (2012). Problematic Chinese-Australian social interactions at work. PhD thesis, Melbourne Graduate School of Education, The University of Melbourne.
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© 2012 Dr. Cui Xia
There is growing evidence that social interactions at work with locally born and educated colleagues in English speaking countries present a real challenge to those from a distinctly different sociocultural background, including many Chinese immigrants working in Australia (e.g. Hou, 2010; Tomazin, 2009; Zhou, Windsor, Coyer & Theobald, 2010). This challenge has a negative impact on immigrants’ career achievement and social well-being, and also prevents the host society from fully utilizing its workplace diversity. While the challenge has been the subject of extensive research which shows a pattern to it and suggests sociocultural differences as the underlying causes, studies conducted to date have predominantly focused on describing the problem from the immigrants’ perspective. Not many exist that investigate the dynamics of workplace social interactions from a dual perspective and at the depth of their sociocultural roots, and little is known about the situation of Chinese immigrants working in Australia, in particular. As the number of Chinese arriving in Australia to work and live increases, understanding the challenges they face in making social adjustment to the workplace is urgently needed. This study takes a sociolinguistic perspective on language use in social interactions. It considers linguistic expression needs to be seen in relation to its situational and sociocultural context, and conceives of problems arising in exchanges primarily to be grounded in gaps in participants’ common ground (e.g. Clark, 1996; Halliday, 1991). A mixed method approach was employed in the research design. Data collection consisted of an initial quantitative survey procedure, followed by a qualitative case investigation. Survey results from 80 recent Chinese immigrants revealed the most significant problems in their social interactions with Australian colleagues, indicated by their frequency and severity. Using ethnographic interviews and Argyris and Schön’s (1974) left-right case protocol, case studies of problematic interactions experienced by 15 Chinese volunteers from among the survey respondents were documented. Australian views on participants’ accounts of, and explanations for, their problematic experience, were then gathered in focus group discussions. Data were analyzed in light of the nature of language in use in social interactions to reveal the culturally shaped beliefs, values, and action strategies which underpin the conduct reported and the interlocutors’ responses to it. Results of the cases show the type of situations in which Chinese participants’ intercultural difficulties are most evidently experienced, the differences between Chinese and Australians in their understanding of the situations, and mismatches in beliefs and values which form the basis of their action strategies. Study findings suggest that engaging in workplace small talk presents the most challenge to Chinese professionals, and this is because the nature and dynamics of small talk is new to their social experience. Often unexpected and ambiguous, encounters requiring small talk show the Chinese involved lack the sociolinguistic competence to accurately interpret the situation they are being placed in, as well as the linguistic repertoire needed to appropriately express an efficient and acceptable response. This situation is exacerbated by gaps in their local knowledge in a range of dimensions. Underlying these more explicit gaps and differences are evident mismatches in the deeply held beliefs and values of the two groups about the nature of personal identify and interpersonal relationships, and hence differences in their belief about how relationships beyond the intimate circle of family and close friends should be best managed. It is these mismatches which account at base for the Chinese lack of sociopragmatic competence to engage in small talk, and are the fundamental cause of dilemmas they experience when dealing with challenging situations. The new knowledge developed contributes to an understanding of the dynamics of social interactions at work between Chinese immigrants and Australians and provides the basis for improving them. The study contributes to intercultural training practice by identifying knowledge and skills that can be taught to both sides so as to increase their communicative proficiency, and by showing the necessity of making Chinese-Australian differences recognizable and discussable so as to raise their discourse to the level of the intercultural. Understanding that cultures are broadly systemic and that there is a logic to the way other people behave will allow both sides to see beyond the surface differences and provide a starting point from which to negotiate a broader common ground.
Keywordssmall talk; workplace social interaction; common ground; sociopragmatic competence; Chinese culture; Anglo-Australian culture; Chinese immigrants
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