(We start the new year with a guest article from Deena Ingham, Senior Lecturer in Journalism at the University of Bedfordshire: you can read Deena’s Personal Learning Profile in our Guests section.)

Mince-pied out? Over-socialised? Or able to reflect – in the self-improving tradition of early January – that small talk (or phatic communication, my theme here) is more valuable than the other seasonal gestures you’ve both made and endured? Phatic [or fatuous, if you prefer] communication may be particularly prevalent during the Christmas and New Year holiday period but, unlike the end result of the interminable English habit of consuming vast quantities of Brussels Sprouts (which, to be honest, tends to divide rather than unite), phatic communication is more than mere hot air. It’s a universal form of rich social intercourse that has the potential, if employed effectively, to improve working lives and prospects for the coming year. [And in time-honoured seasonal tradition, I’m going to add a joyful “Oh yes it does…”].

An ideal learning environment?The festive season may teach us much, but icy, snowy weather – which many of us are ‘enjoying’ today – ironically teaches us more. Both bring people together, some positively forcing people together in direct human interaction. A black ice crash might be unlikely to engender positive communication, but the less confrontational forms of phatic communication encouraged by severe weather conditions are immensely valuable foundations for future relationships. [And the irony of promoting a physical face-to-face approach over such a singularly virtual technological communication platform as a blog has not escaped me!]

Tiny moments of ‘small talk’ can add as much sparkle to a day as a heavy frost or a sudden snowfall. Trapped by the wrong kind of snow, frozen points, skating rink roads or school holidays, we are forced to spend time in our individual communities; as a result, we are more aware of those we usually notice only from our own cars or glimpse in theirs. Suddenly, often literally overnight, the pace of life changes: the car is forced into abeyance and feet take over. What previous generations acknowledged as an integral, important part of daily life comes into force: when one walks together, one talks together. Interaction over a snow shovel or slithering pavement builds more than a helping hand or a clear path: it develops understanding and – ultimately – trust.

Since Anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski (read his bio at Minnesota State University) coined the expression ‘phatic communion’ in 1923, it has been recognised as a rich component of the intricate tapestry we weave in our relationships with those around us. His ethnographic studies of the Trobriand Islanders of Papua New Guinea in the 1920s led to him to observe that ‘ties of union are created by the mere exchange of words’. Some people may remain dismissive of  ‘How are you?’ style phatic communion as little but throw-away lines that are indicative of time wasting in today’s interminably wasteful society, but those in successful businesses know the real value of this interaction.

The joy of phatic communion is that it follows patterns and established rituals, which have been recognised for centuries as essential behavioural features by ethnologists and anthropologists. The exact content may differ from culture to culture, but these exchanges share defining features that are consistent across societies. Rituals have a formality, a repetitive nature: the traditional phatic Western greeting ‘How are you?’ is a classic example. It is the opening volley in a fixed-action pattern-signalling system.

While conflicting interests interfere with the validity and honesty of such communication, our familiarity with these ritual forms means we are tuned in by experience to avoid being taken in by falsehoods. (In the equivalent of a shampoo-ad’s ‘science bit’, diversions from the formality of the ritual alert brain areas like reticular formation, basal ganglia and amygdala – the first-line responders to novel, unusual or threatening stimuli.)

If you want to check the efficacy of your own protective shield, you can visit a little online game at the BBC’s website exploring your responses to the precursor of physical phatic communion: the smile. Remember that your responses might be very different if you were to see the whole person and read their entire body language.

There are problems with this form of essential communication though: sometimes it is so stereotyped and interminable (here’s an animated example that may be slightly irritating) that it can be considered worthless or derisory. But to dismiss it as worthless or a waste of time is to overlook its full role within the complex jigsaw of human interaction and communication.

As we were all plunged into a deep freeze recently, Barack Obama went to Copenhagen to discuss global warming. He urged world leaders to unite in action rather than rhetoric and to walk the talk, but the phatic communication of their meeting in Copenhagen was in itself the necessary opening interaction – the vital opportunity for face-to-face phatic communion structured to open the way to action and to understanding of each other’s viewpoints. It is often the small gestures that we need to see that tell us more about someone else, and provide the opportunity to see beneath the surface that enable us to form relationships or better understand the individual.

Is not the whole point about phatic communion that it is not something that is preserved, valued for its content, but is valued instead for the fact that it happened? It’s the fact that you took the time to ask how someone is rather than what you asked that matters. Go into any overloaded doctor’s surgery in the coming weeks and watch. The regulars, polished exponents of phatic communication, sit in their places, welcoming all familiar faces with a ‘How are you then?’ The response – ‘I’m fine thank you, and you?’ – is part of the formal bowing and scraping so familiar from David Attenborough’s exposés of bird behaviour, and exquisitely ironic considering the setting.

Despite the temptation to howl with laughter or scream with despair at the use people are making of the overburdened NHS if they really mean what they say, this is a classic example. It’s not the content that counts, it’s the fact the communication has taken place. In paraphrase Marshall McLuhan’s, it’s the medium which communicates the message: ‘I’m here, in person, looking at you, smiling at you and asking after you – I care, and that’s what I’m really saying to you.’

Business is particularly adept at developing the value in phatic communion: networking is a classic example. The initial phatic communion at networking events, formal or informal, is something David Attenborough might have meticulously detailed in other species (and the BBC provides examples for a variety of species). But the value of this communication has been apparent across the land in recent weeks in moments when people are brought together by communal action, whether it be united participation in festive events or digging cars out of snowbound driveways. This has been a time when we humans have been forced by nature to hone our social skills as effectively as the others in the animal kingdom.

But can we successfully deliver and sustain phatic communication in written format? If we can, is there a difference when it is delivered electronically rather than in the physical, tactile envelope brought to your door or your desk by a no-longer striking postal worker?

Thousands of our written phatic communications will be shredded, pulped or recycled in the coming weeks (most of the Christmas cards that you sent among them – ultimately, it seems, it really was the thought that counted), but does that make them any less valuable? And what of those millions of electronic messages we send each year: our emails, tweets, text messages, facebook entries and blog postings? (This one no doubt included.)

The idea of web communication as phatic communion is not new: it has often been regarded in the pejorative sense. Though similarly sceptical, Kramsch and Thorne (2002) interestingly suggested that as computer-mediated communication (CmC) tends toward the phatic, rather than the instrumental, the nature of CmC may be very different to that assumed in Hymes’ framework of ‘communicative competence’ .

As social networks expand in scope and impact in response to our greater online connectedness, we are afforded the means to maintain sociability without spending too much time on it. With platforms like Facebook, phatic communication happens on the ‘wall’ and ‘status updates’. The recipients of our messages do not necessarily need to be provided with “true” content. Sometimes an interesting link in a person’s status with a short comment can be more desirable than an elaborate update on their daily lives. (This is the era when ‘too much information’ became a stock expression, after all.)

Twitter, with few private exchanges and a limit of 140 characters, was originally thought to be a purely phatic medium but we’ve now seen it used for much more than just small communicative gestures. In the case of breaking news, as the Daily Telegraph reported, Twitter has often become the story.

While millions of emails, tweets and status updates are sent in the electronic sphere every day, fuelled by a desire to keep in touch, they do contain a high element of interaction risk.

The speed of use and ability – on platforms other than Twitter – to write too much is fraught with the potential to turn phatic communion into drivel, or indeed to irritate the other person. Unlike face-to-face communication, we cannot read the recipient’s state of mind at the time our communication is received, and it can then become an irritant rather than a pleasant exchange. (Nice as it may theoretically be to be kept up to date, I don’t necessarily care what you had for breakfast, or which train you’re on.) Although we have a choice as to when we open emails and text messages, the majority are opened as soon as they are received. Perhaps what this says is that we should use 2010 to become masters of our electronic communications rather than slaves.

2010 is UNESCO’s International Year for the Rapprochement of Cultures. As we swing into the familiar season of resolutions, let’s start a rapprochement of our own – resolving to employ effective phatic communication on a daily basis, to use small gestures to build a real sense of community around us both near and far, and in both our business and our personal lives. It should make us all feel better about life.

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