Small talk, rapport, and competence

Pullin, Patricia 2010. Small talk, rapport, and international communicative competence: Lessons to learn from BELF. Journal of Business Communication 47(455-476).

In writing on the collapse of Enron, Wong (2002, p. 2) identified "social-spiritual capital" in terms of "ethics, relationships, meaning and purpose" as a key element in "Healthy corporate cultures" that "...create a positive work climate, which is conducive to productivity and job satisfaction..." (p. 7). He contrasts such cultures to "toxic corporate cultures," which are dysfunctional in terms of relationships and adjustment to changing times. (Pullin 2010: 455)

We're not far off from "phatic capital", which is what Elyachar (2010) came close to in defining channels as a commodity. But whereas Elyachar follows Paul Kockelman, who in turn follows Roman Jakobson, this comes closer to Malinowski - a positive work climate here stands for "a pleasant atmosphere of polite, social intercourse" (PC 9.4), and dysfunctional relationships for "the strange and unpleasant tension which men feel when facing each other in silence" (PC 4.6).

Increasingly, change in workplace cultures is leading to recognition of the importance of building trust and common ground through informal communication and the value of this for companies in sharing knowledge [...] In particular, informal discussions have been cited by newly employed graduates as the most frequnet type of communication and of importance for team work and building and fostering relations [...] (Pullin 2010: 456)

In other words, informal social communication (Festinger 1950) is important for workplace culture and team work. "Informal discussion" is a functional synonym for phatic communion and/or small talk. Building and fostering relations, trust and common ground amounts to "establish[ing] bonds of personal union between people" (PC 9.1)

It is argued that one major force of small talk may be in helping to build solidarity and rapport. Rapport is an essential element in the building and maintenance of strong working relations and has been studied by both linguists and management researchers. (Pullin 2010: 456)

This is very "stipulative" - associations are mapped without explanation. Rapport is essential, but not essential enough to define it in clear terms? As a reader, am I supposed to have an intuitive knowledge of what rapport is? In that case I would go with the archaic definition of someone like Sapir, who said that rapport is a pullulation of behaviour patterns. Likewise, what is solidarity? A feeling of unity or belonging? Ambiguity.

Holden (2002, p. 234) refers to the importance of a "conducive, collaborative atmosphere," which can be achieved through "social adroitness, professional competence, and by applying intelligence and tact to interactions." (Pullin 2010: 457)

The phraseological similarity is astounding. But whereas a pleasant atmosphere of polite, social intercourse is aimed at "convivial gregariousness" (PC 7.6), a collaborative atmosphere is conductive for business and industry. Adroitness is cleverness or skill, which along with tact, meaning skill and sensitivity in dealing with others or with difficult issues, comes across as just a tad bit Machiavellian.

In terms of classification, small talk and social talk have been conceptualized in a number of different ways. For example, McCarthy (2000) defined small talk as "non-obligatory talk in terms of task requirements" (p. 84). In his research, he found that participants, whether consciously or unconsciously, seemed to be aware of the importance of relational talk in ensuring the achievements of goals and cementing a positive ongoing relationship. (Pullin 2010: 458)

This is of course from Coupland ed. Small Talk (2000). I like how McCarthy's quotes here parallel older phraseology: non-obligatory sums up the insight that "there need not or perhaps even there must not be anything to communicate" (PC 9.3) and in terms of task requirements that "the outer situation does not enter directly into the technique of speaking" (PC 7.3), i.e. speech that is "[un]connected with the speaker's or hearer's behaviour, with the purpose of what they are doing" (PC 1.4). The latter bit about cementing a positive ongoing relationship could have been inspired by John Laver's (1975), e.g. announcing a continuing provisional consensus for future interactions.

Holmes (2000, p. 38) situates interactional talk on a continuum: Core business talk → Work-related talk → Social talk → Phatic communication [...] The data analyzed in this study fall within the category of social talk, which covers topics such as cultural activities. Finally, phatic communication tends to have little referential content and includes utterances such as greetings. It is worth noting that small talk is dynamic in nature and shifts along the continuum, reflecting its flexibility and multifunctional nature. (Pullin 2010: 459)

This is a common conundrum for linguists attempting to put the concept of phatic communion to work without really grasping its origin or purpose. By definition, Phatic Communion would subsume both social talk and phatic communication, as defined here. This is the difficulty with linguistic application - phaticity can pertain to a type of discourse and a type of utterance. Any aimless discussion or meaningless utterance could be described as phatic. It's almost funny that "social talk" covers cultural activities; in this light one should ask what "relational talk" (somewhere above) covers? Relationships? Odd.

Small talk is closely related to "rapport" in building and nurturing relations and a sense of community among colleagues. Spencer-Oatey (2000, 2002, 2005) uses the term rapport in referring to "the relative harmony and smoothness of relations between people" and "rapport management" in connection with the management (or mismanagement) of relations between people. (Pullin 2010: 459)

Pretty much Sapir's pullulation of behaviour patterns. Made me finally add one of Spencer-Oatey's papers to my readings list (i.e. download it) because rapport requires a closer examination, and it would be nice to look into it to see if the earliest occurrences of it in phatic studies add up to modern theories of rapport management. Presently I still hold it as somewhat ambiguous or "intuitive" (harmony and smoothness aren't exactly exact terms).

Campbell and Davis (2006, p. 43) cite Gremler and Gwinner (2000) who outlined two important facets of rapport, that is, enjoyable interactions and personal connection. Campbell and Davis noted in a study on sales that rapport can be of crucial importance in relation to the quality of relationships with customers. (Pullin 2010: 459)

Nice. Enjoyable = pleasant (polite social intercourse), and personal connection is a functional amalgamation of Jakobson's "psychological connection" and Malinowski's "bonds of personal union between people". The quality of relationships could be elaborated with the aid of Alaina Lemon's (2013) social or phatic qualia.

In what ways does small talk function within the context of meetings to build, maintain and reinforce rapport and solidarity. (Pullin 2010: 460)

At this point I need a designation for these... umm... operational terms (from "channel operations"). Perhaps I could call these kinds of lists of activities operation sets? Build = establish, maintain = prolong, and reinforcing does away with discontinuation or termination or closing, so "rapport and solidarity" are an example of an open-ended operation set. An act of communication is limited (discrete), rapport and solidarity are continuous.

Politeness is considered to be a universal phenomenon involved in the creation and maintenance of good interactional relations, although politeness norms may vary from one community or individual to another. (Pullin 2010: 460)

Another operation set on the very same page? This one even lacks a third term, which is usually - if it's not termination - an enhancer term (growing, developing, reinforcing, nurturing, etc.).

Koester (2001, p. 99) argues that: "...expressions of solidarity [...] go beyond politeness, and are indicative of an affective dimension of relational goals..." She identifies two main types of relational orientation, first, politeness itself as exemplified in Brown and Levinson's model and second, solidarity, which "...refers to the affective dimension of interpersonal relations, and involves the expression of mutuality and common ground." (Pullin 2010: 461)

Finally a definition of solidarity, though not very precise. Is rapport (harmony and smoothness) not indicative of an affective dimension? What dimensions are there? It could be that rapport pertains to the practical dimension (though "affective" usually goes along with "cognitive" and "conative" - the latter doesn't apply because rapport has very little to do with intentions). Actually, my new set of terminology can do wonders here: solidarity pertains to communization (sharing emotions) and rapport to consummation (engaging in a mode of action).

First, it is in and around meetings that there is an "...ongoing process of constructing, developing and maintaining workplace power and rapport..." (Holmes, 2000, p. 64). (Pullin 2010: 462)

No wonder I feel the need to construct a new meta-term when this paper presents a new operation set on nearly every succeeding page. The problem with operation sets is that they give off the impression of saying something exact while actually hiding a lack of elaboration. There's probably more to operation sets than meets the eye - philosophically, or, ideally, they mark a beginning, middle, and end of something; or, alternatively, the past, present, and future of something. I say "something" because the object is always shifting: often it's relationship, originally (in Jakobson 1960d) it was the communication channel, and here it's... workplace rapport.

Second, it is argued that solidarity built through small talk can help mitigate tensions. (Pullin 2010: 462)

That is, can help "to get over the strange and unpleasant tension which men feel when facing each other in silence" (PC 4.6).

Relevant points mentioned by the senior members of staff I interviewed in relation to effective face-to-face communication included the following:
  • empathy/building rapport
  • including people in conversations both business and social
  • regular opportunities for staff to come together in a social context
  • demonstrating interest in staff as individuals and enquiring about their well-being, personal interests, goals, and so on
  • accepting others' points of view without necessarily agreeing with them
(Pullin 2010: 462)

These are very interesting points. In comparison with Malinowski's phatic communion:

  • No, "It would be even incorrect, I think, to say that such words serve the purpose of establishing a common sentiment" (PC 2.3). Just like accepting someone's point of view does not necessitate agreeing with it, acknowledging someone's emotions does not automatically create empathy or make for harmonious and smooth interaction.
  • Yes, "There is in all human beings the well-known tendency to congregate, to be together, to enjoy each other's company." (PC 3.2) - Phatic communion is about inclusiveness, anyone can engage in small talk.
  • Yes, "As long as there are words to exchange, phatic communion brings [people] into a pleasant atmosphere of polite, social intercourse." (PC 9.4) - That is, creates an opportunity to come together and enjoy each other's company.
  • Yes, "personal accounts of the speaker's views and life history" (PC 5.4) are listened to with some slightly veiled impatience, which here takes on the strategic quality of the employer consciously handing out "social pleasure and self-enhancement" (PC 5.5) to employees.
  • Lastly, yes, again, the others' points of view are listened to "with slightly veiled impatience", implying no agreement, only "affirmation and consent" (PC 5.3) to go on gabbing.

Here, small talk appeared to function in helping to create a relaxed atmosphere before the beginning of the meeting and thus in nurturing rapport. (Pullin 2010: 463)

Relaxed is pleasant. The rest of the paper, the recorded chats, offer little beyond safe conversation topics like music, food, and pets. This paper was sub par.


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