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Small Talk Theory: And Questions Never To Ask

Small Talk Theory: And Questions Never To Ask

The best way to become good at small talk is not to talk small at all. ― Keith Ferrazzi

The dictionary defines "small talk" as, "polite conversation about unimportant or uncontroversial matters, especially as engaged in on social occasions."

Polish anthropologist, Bronisław Malinowski (1884 – 1942,)  has a better one. He coined the term phatic communication (from Greek phatos, 'spoken') to describe the phenomenon of small talk, describing it as:

Purposeless expressions of preference or aversion, accounts of irrelevant happenings, comments on what is perfectly obvious.

In his second book in 1935, Coral gardens and their magic, Malinowski presents his Ethnographic theory of language, in connection with his attempts to translate the Trobriand Islanders' magical formulae. He characterized his pragmatic theory of meaning as a theory that insists on the "linking up of ethnographic descriptions with linguistic analysis which provides language with its cultural context and culture with its linguistic reinterpretation. He attempted to link up grammar with the context of situation and with the context of culture.

For him, speech is part of the context of situation in which it is produced, language — in its primitive function — has an essentially pragmatic character, and "meaning resides in the pragmatic function of an utterance" (Bauman 1992:147).

Malinowski refers to the conception of "context of situation," which is so important for his theory of language. He emphasized that language — at least in its primitive function — has to be regarded as a mode of action rather than as a countersign of thought; and that to understand the use of a complex speech situation requires the understanding of the situation in which it occurred and the action it accomplished. Malinowski then introduced the concept of “phatic communion” — which touches on the language used in what he calls "free, aimless social intercourse", mentioning "inquiries about health, comments on weather" (Malinowski 1936: 313), and greeting formulae.

Malinowski points out that to a natural man another man's silence is not a reassuring factor, but on the contrary, something alarming and dangerous. The breaking of silence, the communion of words is the first act to establish links of fellowship, which is consummated only by the breaking of bread and the communion of food. The modern English expression, 'Nice day today' or the Melanesian phrase 'Whence comest thou?' are needed to get over the strange unpleasant tension which men feel when facing each other in silence. And thus came the description of small talk, or as he called it, “phatic communication” –– purposeless expressions of preference or aversion, accounts of irrelevant happenings, comments on what is perfectly obvious. The term is generally used to refer to utterances that are said to have exclusively social, bonding functions like establishing and maintaining a friendly and harmonious atmosphere in interpersonal relations, especially during the opening and closing stages of social — verbal — encounters.

That’s that for the theory. We know what to say when we engage in small talk with friends or colleagues. Here are a few questions not to ask:

“Did you go there for fun?”

When someone tells you they had gone somewhere, don’t jump into it with “did you go there for fun?” It could be that he had gone there because of a sad reason.

Better to ask, “What made you go there?”

“When are you guys going to have kids?”

When you meet a deeply-in-love couple, resist the urge to ask, “so, when are you having kids?”

It could be that they have been trying to do so without success. Your question then becomes the seed of an awkward moment. Just don’t ask anything. Ask about the weather, if you must.

“Is this your mother/sister/daughter/father/boyfriend?”

If you see a guy with a lady, don’t assume and ask if the lady is his sister, daughter, mother, step-mother etc., regardless of your logical conclusion based on their age difference. She may not be his mother in case it is a “sugarmother” type romantic relationship, like that of Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore.

Same with if this is your father question. It could be a young girl with a liking for men twice her age.

If you must, ask,  “Who is this person with you?”

“How long have you two been dating?”

Now if they are of the same generation, still, don’t ask, “How long have you been dating?”

For all you know, they have a “complicated” relationship and they are struggling with this question themselves.

Better to ask,  “how did you guys meet?”

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