Phatic Communion and Missions

According to Bronislav Malinowski, “Phatic communion serves to establish bonds of personal union between people brought together by the mere need of companionship and does not serve any purpose of communicating ideas.” This is sometimes call “small talk”, chit-chat, and terms and expressions of courtesy and social convention. In some ways phatic communion (or phatic communication) is the most important part of communication since it deals with belongingness and relationship.

In the West, some have decried “small talk” as a hindrance to communication… a failure to deal with the proper transfer of facts. In the Philippines, small talk (a form of phatic communication) is a necessary part of any business meeting. In fact, it may take up the larger part of the meeting.  If we accept that relationships are more important than information, than one should value phatic communication. Clearly, there are some people who use small talk as a way to avoid communication of facts and feelings, but any extreme has its problems. Ideally, it should open doors to further communication/communion.

An interesting thing I have found is in the communication (by email or texts) fromphatic missionaries working in countries where religious freedom and religious communication is restricted. One would expect these people to follow the advice of others to communicate in ways that do not put them at risk. So they would not talk missions… would not use Christian terminology, or “Christianese.” Yet, almost without exception, this is not followed. Pretty much all of them put in little catch-phrases that Christians are supposed to recognize and that non-Christians should not. I doubt if anyone is fooled. Some go further and go into a full sort of “church-speak” or the slinging together of Christian-ish jargon. (It is true that most of these missionaries I communicate with are newer on the mission field. I do not know as much about those who have been on the field longer.)

Being one who is not fond of “church-speak”, I tend to see this tendency of missionaries as problematic… sometimes (“shhhhhhh”) even annoying. Of course, I serve in a country where religious freedom and freedom of thought is actively permitted and practiced. Part of my concern is that I fear that the person trying to communicate with me is putting him or herself at risk (making me a passive part of the problem).

But I am sympathetic because I have a theory. These missionaries are in somewhat hostile (religiously) and alien environments. When they communicate with people of like faith back home they feel the need to say, “I am one of you. I may be in a far off, exotic, and difficult place, but we are still of one faith and one people.” This desire overcomes their desire to protect their work.

At least that is my theory. If phatic language is so important for missionaries… it must be also so important for respondents. We often focus on contextualizing the message of the Gospel. But we need to go further. To communicate with people of a different culture (or sub-culture or micro-culture)… we must go beyond finding the right word for “God” and “faith”. We must communicate in such a way as to show that we belong there, and Christ is just as at home among them as among us.

How can we help establish phatic communion between people and Christ?

See also:

The humanity of social networking technologies: phatic communication



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