700 words on… small talk about the weather

Interested in why we talk about the weather? Studying linguistics could be for you.

Is there really any need to chit-chat with another person when we could just ignore each other and carry out the important things in our lives?

Sitting at my supermarket till for the 5th hour in a row, I was really hoping not to have the same conversation again for the umpteenth time that day. The conversation went something like this:

Me: That’ll be £20.99 then please
Customer: Ok, I’ll pay by card. Puts in card and waits for payment to go through. It’s horrible out there today.
Me: It looks it, the rain hasn’t stopped all day!
Customer: I bet you’re glad to be inside on a day like this
Me: Yes, I don’t fancy being outside when it’s like that!

I lost track of how many times a day I had this conversation and could anticipate what the customer was going to say and formulate a reply about five customers in advance! I thought this conversation was a sign of politeness and would avoid a silence, but I didn’t realise there was actually a point to it, well, not until I was sat in a discourse analysis lecture during my second year at University.

The term ‘phatic communion’ was first introduced by Malinowski to describe the “case of language used in free, aimless, social intercourse.” This sort of interaction occurs daily and although I always noticed it during speech, I had no idea there was a lot of reasoning and meaning behind it before studying linguistics with French.

So why do we do make small-talk with strangers? This was the point in the lecture I sat up and tuned in. I presumed we used phatic communion to fill awkward silences, and we do, to an extent. But then, the lecturer threw it out there – why do we find the silence awkward, and why should we consider a silence between people to be a negative, uncomfortable interaction?

Phatic communion produces a few interesting thoughts. Typically, we use it to fill silences during a transaction or a situation where both people are mutually involved in a situation. For example, when going through a checkout I feel the need to make small talk with the cashier even though I may never encounter them in my life again. Yet, when I take a train, I have no inclination whatsoever to talk to the person next to me and if they try and instigate a conversation with me I think ‘they’re weird, I’ll put my headphones in and look at the window.’ This goes to show that categorising phatic communion as occurring in all silences would be incorrect.

Although the context of the situation plays a role in whether phatic communion occurs, the topic will always be the same; completely uncontroversial and inoffensive and normally started by stating something completely obvious. The topic of conversation and the conversation itself have no intellectual worth and merely serve as a transition of thought. During the interaction it’s completely normal to feign surprise or be disappointed at something when it shouldn’t come as either. For example, if you live in the UK, it’s a given that rain will grace every wet, dull, January day, so is there any point in sharing your surprise or annoyance that it’s raining in January with someone you’ve never met before? Is there really any need to chit-chat with another person when we could just ignore each other and carry out the important things in our lives?

Up to now, the points raised have presented phatic communion as an unnecessary and silence-filling interaction when it does in fact have many positive, beneficial effects. By initially discussing a joint ‘safe’ subject with someone, the conversation naturally progresses onto finding mutual subjects and common ground leading to personal opinions, judgements and shared sentiments. Essentially, phatic communion kick starts and establishes the bonds with someone who could turn out to be a handy work contact and/or good friend.

There are some platforms for which your small talk skills have been polished for – the parent’s party, boyfriend/girlfriend’s family do, networking event at work, the list goes on! So bearing in mind the wealth of positive effects and opportunities that arise from phatic communion, do we belittle its worth and importance by calling it ‘small talk’ and ‘chit-chat.’ Honestly, I had no idea there was a proper name for it before I went to the discourse analysis lecture!

All in all, the initial phatic communion between you and someone you’ve never met before can feel awkward, stilted, mundane, and even a chore sometimes but in fact the not intellectually stimulating conversation is forming the social platform for establishing a common ground and bond and then progresses to conversations of intellectual worth. After all, as humans we were born to talk and be social so there’s no need for taciturnity.

If you’ve enjoyed reading this piece, you may find the study of sociolinguistics and discourse analysis interesting. This aspect of linguistics particularly focuses on the way we use conversation, words and interactions in social situations.

B. Malinowski, The Discourse Reader, (Routledge: London: 2006 [1923]) p296