The Language of Conversation

C. Phatic Communion

The fact that human beings tend to talk when they meet, often leads to a sense of discomfort, even hostility, when silence occurs in such a meeting. Because talk is often a first step in establishing a relationship it is characterised by a stock of conventional utterances which break such silences and help to establish the participants in a mutual situation in which awkwardness and tension gradually disappear. Social contact is, in turn, liable to generate speech between participants who have nothing to say. The ability to produce such speech is, potentially, a social asset.

This kind of utterance was given the name phatic communion by Malinowski, the anthropologist who studied the speech and customs of the Trobriand Islanders. He described such talk as a means by which 'ties of union are created by the mere exchange of words.' Typically, in New Zealand, such phatic communion centres on comments about the weather, on personal appearance, enquiries about health, or affirmations about everyday things. It serves in an atmosphere-setting capacity.

Phatic communion is the initial linguistic attempt to relate to another individual. If this relationship develops, then small talk will take over, and that in turn may lead to serious conversation. In any real situation all three types of talk may be intermingled according to the circumstances.

Back to Language of Conversation Contents