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"Lunch keeps people apart": Social interaction in a multilingual workplace

Conference contribution
Authors Raffaella Negretti
Miguel Garcia-Yeste
Published in English in Europe conference, Prague
Volume March 22-23
Publication year 2014
Published at Department of Languages and Literatures
Language en
Subject categories English language, Ethnography, Social Psychology, Communication Studies


Language practices have been extensively investigated in the context of multinational companies, especially from a language management perspective (e.g. Angouri & Miglbauer, 2013; Tange & Lauring, 2009; Marschan-Piekkarai et. al., 1999). Previous research has explored issues of informal communication and language choices, indicating that social interaction in the workplace is crucial for information sharing and rapport establishment. However, little attention has been paid to workplaces within the knowledge industry (e.g. research centres), even though they are also experiencing a process of internationalization, and despite evidence suggesting that informal knowledge sharing in a university department is key to a favourable social climate (Lauring and Selmer, 2011). Thus, there is a need for research exploring everyday language practices connected to social interaction, sociocultural adjustment, and rapport management in the context of multilingual research-based workplaces. We investigate the role language (mostly English, but not exclusively) plays in everyday socialization between employees with different cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Language practices are tied to issues such as social identity, professional role and access to power, often to the detriment of the less proficient speakers (Canagarajah, 2013). These issues remain unexplored in multinational academic workplaces where English is the “unofficial” lingua franca for social interaction. Adopting exploratory interviewing techniques of grand tour and mini tour (Johnson & Weller, 2002), we aim to elicit an initial understanding of the communicative needs of five researchers within an international science department at a major Swedish university. A bottom-up approach is adopted to identify tacit knowledge about everyday language practices, the value of social interaction, and different experiences of intercultural communication. Lunch emerges as the key activity for social interaction and informal communication. The place where lunch occurs, the people involved, and the language they use seem to have a crucial role in the establishment of phenomena such as language clustering and thin communication (Tange and Lauring, 2009). Language practices during lunch are associated with two social groups in our study, with symbolic power attached to the language adopted by the more prestigious group. This, together with self-perceived low proficiency in communicative uses of English, makes informal communication face threatening for the other participants, who therefore avoid social interaction in English or limit it to strictly necessary occasions.

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