Phatic communion (often relabeled phatic communication or phatic speech) refers to a form of relationship communication (as opposed to content communication) which opens the channels of communication. Its purpose is to communicate openness for communication, rather than, about content, say finances, the last movie you saw, or anything external to the relationship between you and the other person. It’s a kind of preface to the main business to be discussed. It’s the small talk that precedes the big talk.
In terms of content, phatic communion is trivial—How are you? What’s new? Where you been?—but in terms of relationships, it’s extremely important; it assures us that the normal social rules for communicating are operating here and that the two individuals want to communicate with each other. It says, the channels of communication are open, let’s talk.
Most often we think of phatic communion as verbal but it may also be communicated with nonverbal gestures (a warm handshake or a wave), facial expressions (a smile or a worrisome expression), and tone of voice.
One of the many skills of interpersonal communication is to recognize the importance of phatic communion, use it appropriately, and recognize the break point between phatic communion and the next stage in the conversation process. Without phatic communion, people would just begin with the “big” talk without even saying “hello” or “good seeing you again” which would clearly communicate that something is wrong, that, for some reason, the normal rules of conversation are not being followed.
People who answer the common phatic message, “How are you?” with an extended explanation of their recent illness rather than a simple “hello” are failing to see that “How are you?” is—usually at least—a phatic message that means hello and not an invitation to talk about your health. On the other hand, if you were in the hospital and a visitor said “How are you?” this message would probably not be phatic but would more likely be a request for information about your health.
Equally important is to recognize when these preliminaries, these phatic messages, have served their purpose and that it’s now time to move on to the business a hand. You see violations of this at company meetings where members continue to exchange phatic messages even though the preliminaries are over and that the meeting proper should begin.
Harry Weinberg, in his Levels of Knowing and Existence: Studies in General Semantics (Harper & Brothers, 1959) gives a good example to illustrate the importance of recognizing when communication is phatic:
If you are fixing a flat tire on a hot day and a passerby asks, “Got a flat?” he [or she] is asking you to be friendly. If you take his [or her] words literally, you are likely to become angry and say, “Any damn fool can see I have.”
Unlike most contemporary Americans who expect phatic communion to preface more extended and purposeful communication, the “plain speech” of early Quakers eliminated much phatic talk such as greetings or expressions of politeness; their aim was to use speech only when it served a specific useful function. For more on this take a look at Richard Bauman’s “Let your words be few: Symbolism of speaking and silence among seventeenth-century Quakers,” in L. Monaghan & J. E. Goodman, eds., A Cultural Approach to Interpersonal Communication: Essential Readings (Blackwell, 2007), pp. 63-76. Of course, your communication instructor (and I) would argue that such phatic messages do communicate a useful function and that is to open the channels of communication, to say that normal communication rules operate here, and that I want to communicate.
The term phatic communion was originally coined by cultural anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski in his article, “The Problem of Meaning in Primitive Languages,” which was published as an appendix to the highly influential Meaning of Meaning by C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards (in which Richards explained his famous “triangle of meaning”) and published in 1923 (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich). The term “communion” was used to convey the meaning of sharing, participating together, and commonality but because the term is also used in a religious context, writers probably felt more comfortable saying “phatic communication” or “phatic speech” and thus avoid the ambiguity that the term “communion” might create. All terms (phatic communion, phatic communication, phatic speech) convey similar meaning; all refer to the same type of communication.