The valorization of silence and condemnation of chatter has a long philosophical tradition. “Wise men speak because they have something to say; fools because they have to say something,” Plato reportedly claimed. But taciturnity, the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski argues, is in many cultures a sign not just of unfriendliness but of bad character. The opposite of small talk isn’t big talk, but no talk; not meaningful conversations about the infinitude of the private man, but the potential hostility of dead air. We find the silence of others alarming rather than reassuring, Malinowski observes, and breaking silence with companionable words is the first act in establishing links of fellowship; empty pleasantries are required “to get over the strange and unpleasant tension which men feel when facing each other in silence.” In this analysis, “beautiful day out” is just the evolved form of “look, I’m putting down my machete.”
Drawing on his ethnographic field studies in Papua New Guinea, Malinowski identifies the type of language used in “free, aimless social intercourse” by the term “phatic communion.” Prevalent in “European drawing-rooms” no less than “savage tribes,” such talk takes place when a number of people sit together over a village fire at the end of a day, “or when they chat, resting from work, or when they accompany some mere manual work by gossip quite unconnected with what they are doing.” We tend to think of linguistic communication as a meaningful transmission of thoughts from a speaker to a hearer, but “inquiries about health, comments on weather, affirmations of some supremely obvious state of things—all such are exchanged, not in order to inform, not in this case to connect people in action, certainly not in order to express any thought.” Instead, Malinowski suggests, the function of phatic communion touches on “one of the bedrock aspects of man’s nature in society”: our fundamental need for the presence of others, “the well-known tendency to congregate, to be together, to enjoy each other’s company.”
Sarcastic Theo is so much more rational. Here’s to hoping society evolves more in his direction.