Small Talk and Phatic Communication
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Small Talk and Phatic Communication
A final important component in the conversation process is the act of small talk (also know n as phatic communication). Small talk is defined as “the phase of conversation that follows t he exchange of greetings but precedes
the discussion of more serious topics” (Knutson & A yers, 1986, p. 5). Examples of small talk topics include the weather, current events, and com ments about the event or environment where the individuals are talking (for
example, “Thi s restaurant is really nice. I hear they have a great shrimp cocktail”). Many people dislike s mall talk or view it only as a necessary (and sometimes even an unnecessary) evil in their c onversations with others.
However, one research study analyzed the conversations of 17 fri endship pairs and determined that small talk has a number of important functions (Knutso n & Ayers, 1986). Namely, small talk serves as a conduit for
- information exchange, • discussions about more intimate and serious topics, • relationship validation, • self-presentation in interactions with others, and • nonthreatening behaviors that help in killing time (Knutson & Ayers, 1986).
These functions of small talk show that it is not only an important way to transition to othe r parts of the conversation, but it is also a key form of communication in and of itself (Knuts on & Ayers, 1986).
Small talk can also serve a purpose beyond its immediate functions in a two- person conversation. For example, small talk is an important method for building rapport, s olidarity, and trust between work colleagues and is thus an
essential gateway to effective b usiness and professional interactions (Pullin, 2010). Specifically, in our culture, small talk i n organizational contexts can create a relaxing atmosphere, diffuse tensions and power diff erentials,
and provide insight into the different views and backgrounds of employees. Patri cia Pullin (2010) thus recommends that companies value and create a space for small talk. I n addition, in initially identifying the importance of
small talk in our communication with o thers, communication scholar Mark Knapp (1978) argued that small talk helps us maintain a sense of community and fellowship with one another and thus helps build acceptance and
social cohesion. In this way, if a culture approves of small talk, its members know that it is an acceptable way to initiate a conversation with a stranger. Overall, despite its bad reputat ion, small talk does possess many benefits at
the interpersonal, professional, and even socie tal level. (See the Web Field Trip feature for a perspective on the impact of technology on co nnecting with others.)
7.3 Relationship Development
Researchers in social psychology and communication have long been interested in underst anding how we develop relationships with others. What factors contribute to wanting to m eet and spend time with one individual but
not another? As you can imagine, there is no sin gle explanation of our relationship initiation messages; rather, a variety of related compone nts come into play. In this section, we describe three perspectives that explain how we
com e to know other people and why we decide to form (or not form) relationships with them. E ach perspective takes a unique position on how interpersonal communication is relevant to relationship development—together,
they paint a detailed picture of these often- complicated communication processes.
Relationship Dialectics Theory
Communication scholars Leslie Baxter and Barbara Montgomery viewed relationship initia tion and continuation as an interpersonal communication process. Specifically, in their rela tionship dialectics theory, they propose that
building a close relationship through communi cation is a contradiction- ridden dialogue where relationship partners continuously face and struggle with opposing tensions (Baxter, 2004; Baxter & Montgomery, 1996). These
dialectical tensions represent t he push and pull of divergent ends of a continuum between the self and the relationship. Di alectical tensions are present in romantic, friend, and family relationships, as well as in lon g- distance
relationships (Sahlstein, 2004). Namely, there are three primary pairs of relations hip dialectics that should be consistently attended to and managed in relationships, often vi a interpersonal communication: autonomy and
connection, novelty and predictability, and openness and closedness.
Autonomy and Connection
A relationship where the partners are constantly together or in contact or always apart is n ot healthy and cannot be sustained. Instead, it is best for relationships to involve both partn ers negotiating time together and time on
their own. The autonomy and connection dialecti c acknowledges the push and pull between seeking to be independent and focusing on the s elf versus wanting to feel connected to a partner. The struggle between autonomy
and conn ection is typically the primary dialectic in romantic relationships and can even be a reason f or romantic dissolution (Sahlstein & Dun, 2008). This dialectical tension is characterized in today’s interpersonal
communication by mobile phone usage, such that romantic partners, and even parents and their college- age children, struggle with how much to be available to communicate with one another ver sus others (Kelly, Duran, &
Miller-Ott, 2017; Miller- Ott & Kelly, 2016). The constant availability afforded by a mobile phone essentially forces cl ose relational partners to confront this tension by having them communicatively negotiate how much or how
little to call and text one another.
Novelty and Predictability
Always being unsure about what is going to happen in the relationship is uncomfortable an d tiring, and being able to predict your partner’s every move can become tedious and borin g. The novelty and predictability dialectic
reflects the tension between wanting to experien ce newness versus wanting to be able to predict routine patterns in a relationship. Relation al partners tend to prefer that novelty be in the form of small gestures, such as
receiving su rprise gifts, and predictability occur in relation to larger relational patterns, such as keepin g dates and communicating about plans. Research has also found that this tension can be pr ominent in the experiences of
the cultural adjustment of immigrants (Erbert, Perez, & Garei s, 2003). Specifically, immigrants were particularly attuned to the differences between thei r old and new cultures and found that adjusting to their new culture involved
learning abou t and adapting to these unfamiliar and surprising experiences (Erbert et al., 2003).
Openness and Closedness
The final major dialectical tension is openness and closedness, a continuum between sharin g and concealing information. We may choose particular times or situations in which to be open or closed, or, instead, we may
alternate between specific topics that we want to discus s versus keep private. For example, divorced and stepfamily members often struggle with t his tension, and they manage it by segmenting information into safe and unsafe
topics (Brai thwaite & Baxter, 2006). This was a particular issue for children communicating with a par ent with whom they did not live (i.e., the nonresidential parent). More specifically, these chi ldren sought open communication
with their nonresidential parent, but these children had difficulty achieving this openness because the parent was not privy to the children’s everyd ay life and because they did not want to hurt the nonresidential parent’s feelings,
particular ly when it came to the relationship the child had with the stepparent (Braithwaite & Baxter, 2006).
Uncertainty Reduction Theory and Management
When you first meet someone, when you begin to talk, what is your goal? What do you hop e to get out of the interaction? These questions are at the heart of uncertainty reduction the ory (URT), which was introduced by
communication theorists Charles Berger and Richard Calabrese in 1975. Berger and Calabrese’s theory predicted that the primary motivation in an initial interaction is to reduce uncertainty about the other person and the
relationship y ou may develop. You experience uncertainty when “details of situations are ambiguous, co mplex, unpredictable, or probabilistic; when information is unavailable or inconsistent; and when people feel insecure in
their own state of knowledge or the state of knowledge in gen eral” (Brashers, 2001, p. 478).
Thomas Barwick/Stone/Getty Images
Scholars now focus on learning more about how we manage uncertainty during our interac tions in both new and established relationships.
Uncertainty reduction theory is laid out via a series of specific predictions, called axioms, w hich state that uncertainty will decrease during first meetings as messages such as verbal c ommunication, information- seeking, and
nonverbal expressiveness increase (Berger & Calabrese, 1975). Initially, URT was significant because it was intuitive and was also the first authentic interpersonal comm unication theory, but subsequent research failed to
consistently support URT’s predictions. Indeed, research studies found that certain communication situations such as romantic infi delity and forming new friendships with others could actually increase your uncertainty ab out
your partner (Planalp & Honeycutt, 1985; Planalp, Rutherford, & Honeycutt, 1988). Such findings led to a fundamental shift in uncertainty research. Instead of focusing exclusi vely on the reduction of uncertainty in relation to how
we interact with others, scholars no
w concentrate their efforts on understanding how we manage our uncertainty. The notion of uncertainty management acknowledges that interpersonal communication can increase, decrease, or maintain our uncertainty about
the other person, our relationship with that pe rson, and even how we view ourselves. For example, one study determined that young adul t siblings experienced uncertainty about their relationships with each other, even though si
blings tend to know one another most of their lives (Bevan, Stetzenbach, Batson, & Bullo, 2 006). This relationship uncertainty increased when the siblings also engaged in topic avoid ance, or avoiding the discussion of certain
topics such as money and household rules (Beva n et al., 2006). Thus, uncertainty management is a broad concept that allows us to study ho w uncertainty waxes and wanes in relation to interpersonal communication in both
new an d established relationships.
Small Talk and Phatic Communication
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Small Talk and Phatic Communication