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For most of my life, I hated small-talk. It was forced language, spoken with complete awareness that you didn’t care about the discourse, that the words were as close to meaningless as they could be, that you should save your breath.
Small-talk as Phatic Communion
As I’ve taught English as a Second Language for several years, my perspective has shifted. In the context of teaching English, they call small-talk phatic communion. It’s language that we use, as one writer put it, “to express or create an atmosphere of shared feelings, goodwill, or sociability, rather than to impart information” (Brown, 2014, p. 143). “Nice weather, huh?” “Where are you headed today?” “Do you live around here?” That’s phatic communion.
But in the context of learning a language, phatic communion is a means of addressing communicative anxiety, of breaking through the walls between persons and forming a bond that settles the soul (even if only for a moment). Small-talk is the blind man searching for a door handle. And when he finds it, he enters into communion with another.
God and Interpersonal Communion
But communion is a big deal. In fact, it’s the biggest deal. Interpersonal communion is divine. God communes with himself in three persons, in a language of love and glory. Entering into communion with another human, then, isn’t the result of talk that’s small; it’s the result of talk that’s great.
Small talk is great talk. And if you have any lingering doubts, remember that God himself doesn’t just speak; he is speech. The Son of the Father is the Word (John 1:1), ever uttered in the breath of the Holy Spirit. God is speech; he is talk. And there’s nothing small about that.
As creatures made in God’s image, whenever we speak, even about the weather, we’re imaging the God who speaks. And our search for the door-handle of communion is nothing short of beautiful, even with all of our stuttering and word-searching. We tumble through small talk without much grace, but in doing so, we’re imaging the greatest grace the world has ever known: the person of Christ, God’s great talk for small-talking creatures.
Like what you read? You might be interested in my latest book:
Not sure if you’re ready for a book? Here’s a short article from Modern Reformation that lays out the content for you: Why Language Is Everything.