There are two elements to a typical conversation, which are described as ‘phatic’ and ‘ideational’. Put simply, ideational conversation is informative, whilst phatic conversation serves a social function.
When you meet up with someone for the first time and mention how the weather has been great recently, that’s phatic. When you start to discuss the best bus to catch to get home again, that’s ideational (For a basic definition, see http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/think/knowledge-wiki/phatic-communication and for more detail, http://www.inf.ed.ac.uk/teaching/courses/hc1/slides1011/slides2.pdf)
Not all conversation has both elements, but most do, certainly most socially easy conversations do. If you’re a military commander on the radio to a a fast attack jet, you’re unlikely to include any phatic elements at all. In fact, this type of conversation is extremely ideational; a clipped and parsed form of communication that most certainly does not start ‘hi, how are you doing?’
Phatic conversations serves a social function, allowing us to build commonality based on fairly meaningless conversation (meaningless in an informative way that is!). For example, if you pay a trip to an American friend and they greet you ‘hey, what’s up?’, there is no particular expectation that you’ll answer in detail about your slipped disk.
When we’re writing learning materials, it’s easy to move too far into the ideational realm at the expense of the phatic. Scripting, review and compliance teams all tend to iron the social elements out of conversations, to the point where all you are left with in a video is ‘hello John’, ‘Hello Mary’, ‘Let’s look at the sales figures shall we?’ The problem with these types of conversations is that they are very sterile. Anyone watching a video like this will be able to pick up on the ideational content, the informative nature of the discussion, but the conversation will feel ‘fake’ because… it is!
Phatic elements of conversation take time though, something which is often at a premium in terms of duration of the learning and the expense of filming or writing it. Nobody wants to pay good money to hear a conversation about the weather, although it’s entirely possible that the only way you can actually write a ‘good’ conversation is to include conversation about the weather.
There is certainly challenge in getting the balance right, but it’s certainly something that we need to actively consider. Realistic conversations are more likely to be engaging. Engaging learning materials are more likely to lead to actual learning. Therefore, talking about the weather may be essential.
On the downside, it doesn’t come without it’s risks. Phatic conversation is often highly culturally sensitive. Talking about the weather is essentially English, but may not come across well in translation. A German listener or reader is likely to be left wondering why on earth we are having a conversation about the weather, when we are supposed to be talking about sales figures. Metaphor and analogy, two mainstays of conversation, are, again, often highly culturally unique. For example, hardly any Dutch metaphors relate to animals, so being ‘strong as an ox’ may come across in a decidedly odd way (see http://www.amazon.com/Metaphor-Practical-Introduction-Zoltán-Kövecses/dp/0195145119)
So here lies the dilemma. Ideational content is universal, but dull. Phatic content is highly engaging, but pretty culturally sensitive, and, whilst it improves the quality and effectiveness of the learning, also increases duration. Well, as with all things, balance is the answer, but considered balance. My personal feeling is that ‘corporate’ training pieces tend to neglect the social and conversational aspect too often, and that, at the very least, we should put some effort into trying to address the balance.
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