Why small talk is so important in chronic illness (& why I neglect it!)

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A while ago I read a fascinating article about phatic communication, or ‘small talk’. Phatic communication is speech which serves a purpose other than that implied by the words used. An example would be the question, “how are you?”

What this question is actually asking is, “how are you physically/mentally?” Yet how many of us actually answer this? And why don’t we?

It’s not because we’re being rude or ignoring the question. In fact, often askers are surprised when someone lists their current physical health in response! It’s because we understand that in our social context the question is often merely a greeting, a social nicety which has to be used before the ‘proper’ conversation can begin.

An example of phatic communication (small talk!)

Often when I run I call out a (breathless) ‘hi!’ or ‘good evening/morning!’ as I pass someone by. About 3 times out of ten, someone will reply. Out of that 30%, at least half reply with ‘good thanks’ or ‘I’m well thanks’ – despite the fact that I never asked if they were!

This is because they are so used to ‘how are you’ being part of ‘hello’ and other social niceties (or nonenties!) that they assume I’ve asked and thus reply automatically.

Try beginning a conversation with someone without saying ‘hello’ or ‘how are you?’ It’s actually rather odd and comes across as quite rude or awkward.

Not only do I find this interesting, but I think it’s very important for us Watchers and caregivers. Why? Because if you’re anything like me, you often don’t bother with asking ‘how are you?’ or other phatic speech – and this can be dangerous.

Why I don’t ask ‘how are you?’ or indulge in small talk with my Loved One:

One: I’m impatient and I assume everyone else is

I often find phatic communication frustrating.

Call me a cynic, but I often suspect people don’t mean it, and thus don’t want to waste my time or theirs exchanging pointless niceties (ie. On work-phone calls when the caller’s sole purpose is to complain and they begin by asking how I am. Do they really care? Maybe, but I suspect not. Or when someone’s trying to sell you something – that’s even worse!)

Or perhaps they do mean it, but the topic we need to talk about is not “how is my/your health” nor has any bearing on it, so the preliminary exchange feels like a waste of time.

Or, I’m in a relationship where I will tell someone if I’m not feeling well, so again it can feel like a waste of time to be asked.

I often do not ask my loved ones how they are because I assume that like me, they find the question frustrating, and will simply tell me if something is troubling them.

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Two: I think I know already

When it comes to chronic illness, it’s easy to assume I already know the answer and thus do not need to ask. Sometimes this is because chronic illness is chronic, and so the answer will never be, ‘I’m well!’ Often it’s because I’ve become adept at reading my loved ones’ body language and so know (or think I know) the general answer already.

Three: It will be a dead-end conversation

No one likes the sort of conversations which end in awkward silence and both parties saying, ‘cool’ or ‘nice’ or ‘good’ repeatedly while desperately hunting for something else to say.

Sometimes asking someone with a chronic illness how they are can feel like this. After all, the answer nine times out of ten is going to be, ‘not very good’. It can be difficult to know how to respond, it can be depressing, and to my shame, I often find myself shying away from it.

why small talk is necessary www.calledtowatch.com #chronicillness #suffering #loneliness #caregiver #pain #caregiving #spoonie #faith #God #Hope - Copy

3 reasons I should use small talk and ask ‘how are you?’

After reading about phatic speech I began to realise that just because I find the question ‘how are you?’ frustrating, it doesn’t mean I shouldn’t ask it. It’s simply not kind of me to assume everyone else thinks the same way. In fact, there are some very good reasons for asking the question, even if it no longer really means How are you?

ONE: Asking how are you shows that you care

It’s simply a social nicety, and it is nice, when you think about it, that the way we begin conversations is to ask how the other person is. Just because it can feel superfluous doesn’t mean it is. If nothing else, it’s a good, kind place to begin.

TWO: asking how are you gives the other an opportunity to answer

The fact is that even though the question has become phatic communication, it doesn’t have to be taken that way. It doesn’t even have to be asked that way. If you change your tone, if you look the other person in the eyes, how are you can become a genuine, thoughtful question.

If we don’t ask someone because we feel like they might not want to answer, it will rob them of the opportunity to share their life.  For all of us, but especially those with a chronic illness, health is important. How are you is the perfect segue way to a deep, encouraging and enriching conversation.

THREE: Asking how are you demonstrates humility

Assuming is easy. It’s simple to assume the other person is tired of talking about their health, assume the conversation will be awkward, assume it isn’t necessary.

What’s much harder is humility. It takes humility to accept that you don’t know what the other person is feeling, that you don’t understand their situation, and that it is not your right to deny them the politeness you grant others.

Sometimes it’s pride which stops us from asking How are you?

//Do you ‘indulge’ in small talk? Is it harder to ask a sick person the question ‘how are you?’ than a well person?

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Author: Emily J. M.

Hi, I'm Emily. Two of my closest family members struggle with chronic illness, and I watch them. That's hard, and so I write about life as a 'Watcher', what it looks like to support them and find Hope.

Thoughts? I'd love to hear from you, friend.