What is Phatic Communication?
For most of us, an average day is filled with phatic communication and we never even notice it. In fact, spending 24 hours without any form of this communication would probably seem very foreign and unnatural. Imagine spending an entire day without making small talk with your family, answering the telephone with the word "hello," telling someone to have a nice day, or discussing the weather with a new client. These cliched phrases and time-worn conversation starters are perfect examples of phatic communication.
Phatic communication can be verbal or non-verbal. A simple wave at a co-worker or a thumbs up signal to a friend are non-verbal examples, in the same way a routine conversation at the bank would qualify as a verbal one. We may call it small talk, but in reality we would all be lost without this form of communication.
Sociologists who study the art of human communication suggest that small talk, such as discussing the weather, opens up a social channel. This, in turn, can lead to more substantial or factual communication. Very few people start and end conversations with straight facts — phatic communication such as a handshake helps set the stage first.
The current Internet chatroom environment is a sterling example of this. The introduction of a new chatroom participant is often perfunctory and ritualized, allowing chatters to ease into social conversations without the pressure to be informative or fact-driven.
Phatic communication is also found every day in the workplace. Receptionists use routine greetings to begin and end phone conversations. Co-workers often have social "water cooler" conversations about common events or issues. Much of our daily work routines revolves around these seemingly trivial moments of social communication.
While it is important to develop effective phatic communication skills, one must also recognize varying degrees of comfort with the process. Some people are simply not comfortable with the idea of making meaningless small talk. Others seem to embrace the social ritual, even to the point of avoiding much factual conversation with others.
Communication experts suggest finding a middle ground, using phatic communication as a means to open up more substantial conversation. Too much emphasis on small talk can make a person seem unfocused or chatty, while too little can make someone appear stern or unapproachable. The trick lies in finding a proper balance between phatic and factual communication.
@Renegade: Thanks for sharing the origin of gestures like waving and shaking hands. It sounds like the kind of things one would learn in a university-level sociology class. Very interesting.
Phatic communication also can be influenced by parents.
There are various levels of communication which build upon each other. When beginning a conversation, it is important to start with the phatic level, but you are usually expected to then move on to the more conversational level. Depending on the length of a conversation, you can then transition back into a phatic goodbye phase, or continue to advance in levels, and truly get to know a person, and what they think about specific details and ideas. This is how the really strong friendships are formed.
Improving communication skills involves the important first step of learning to be good at phatic talk and non-linguistic or paralinguistic phatic communication. Learning to shake hands, smile, and look someone in the eye, are all important ways to make a good impression and begin a good relationship.
High context and low context communication can vary depending on the culture. In a high context culture, you will normally be expected to perform various phatic communication gestures and phrases. This is the case in Japan, where you are expected to bow and shake hands. In the US, we are generally low context, and accept a lot of different forms of communication. There are fewer rigid rules of communication.
Many forms of phatic communication, such as shaking hands or waving, were originally meant to be signs of peace and camaraderie. In the days when they originated, these gestures were used to show that you were empty-handed and did not pose a threat to the person you were coming into contact with. Families wouldn't normally perform these gestures, since they trusted each other more than they trusted friends outside the clan. Even toasting was a part of this, as the drink was supposed to mix, preventing poisoning, and symbolizing the willingness to intermarry clans.
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