I’m not a communications expert, but it’s a subject I’ve given some thought over the years. I used to preach every week, blog, tweet, meet with students, and do all the regular sorts of communicating most humans do.
One dimension of communication I’ve wrestled with more than others is how to talk to people you don’t agree with, perhaps dislike, or even consider an ideological enemy. It’s also something we seem to be particularly bad at in our internet age. I don’t need to describe this in detail. We’ve all seen one too many Facebook updates blow up into a rehash of the schisms and Crusades to doubt this is a problem. It is election season, after all.
And while there are a number of reasons this should not be so, one of the most important is Jesus’s command to love our enemies, bless those who curse us, and pray for those to whom we’re opposed. If we can’t do that with others within household of God, how are we supposed to do it with those outside?
So how can we love, honor, and treat with Christian dignity those with whom we disagree? How can you love otheres when they’re forcibly set against you, while still contending for a truth of significant moral and personal interest?
Sometimes I wonder if we hear this overwhelming challenge to love in its most difficult, highest form, causing us to slump over in defeat since it seems all too impossible. But what if there were an easier first step? What if we could begin with something as simple as small talk?
For instance, when was the last time you chatted baseball with your atheist cousin? Or Christopher Nolan films with your friend who watches Fox News (or MSNBC)? Or how about favorite Mexican foods with that blogger who seems to pick the wrong side on every theological issue?
Phatic vs. Emphatic Speech
This isn’t simply a bit of silly advice. I’m serious. One of the most interesting tidbits I picked up from Timothy Muehlhoff’s book I Beg to Differ: Navigating Difficult Conversations with Truth and Love was the distinction between “phatic” and “emphatic” speech.
Muehlhoff draws on the work of anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, who discovered the importance of “phatic” communication for healthy relationships. Most of the conversations we have about difficult issues are “emphatic.” But that’s not most of the conversations we have with friends and family. Phatic speech is all those small interactions on daily routines and shared interests. Basically, it’s small talk. Healthy relationships need a significant amount of conversations dealing with the weather, sports, the price of tires, favorite sandwiches, and TV shows.
Think of it this way: every relationship has an emotional temperature to it. If you only ever talk to someone in order to argue—emphatic speech—the emotional temperature is always cranked up. Each conversation only gets more heated. Too many like that in a row, and things are likely to blow up. But phatic speech about shared interests or innocuous cultural items lowers the temperature so it’s less likely to reach those boiling points where you finally throw up your hands and say, “That’s it! I can’t talk to this person anymore!”
I’ve seen this in my own life. I’ve found myself in a number of conversations and even friendships with persons on different sides of the theological spectrum. I’ve noticed that I always make more headway—or at least less damage—when I’ve managed to find common interests, make jokes, and so on. I’ve also noticed that when one of these relationships gets strained, I can usually look back at the last few weeks and realize that all of our interactions have been in the “emphatic” mode. The temperature’s been high. In that sense, something as little as trading a joke or two on Twitter can help advance communication between opposed camps.
More than Their Ideas
Why is this sort of small talk so important? On top of the emotional temperature, the mix of phatic and emphatic speech reminds us of our common humanity in concrete ways. It’s not just that your “enemy” is a Democrat, or a Fox News watcher, or a progressive, or a Calvinist, or whatever. This is also a person wise enough to agree Batman could definitely use his brilliance to beat Superman. What’s more, both of you have kids who, for some reason, can’t manage to eat anything that’s not a peanut butter sandwich. Or, again, this isn’t just a “marriage revisionist” I’m talking to, but someone who was also suffering last Tuesday when the dry weather was killing your sinuses.
When you’re aware of these “phatic” realities, it changes the character of the big, real issues that stand between you. It’s not that they go away or become any less important. It just becomes harder to reduce the person to the issue on which you’re divided. It’s harder to put others in an entire different category of humanity (or non-humanity), beyond the realm of possible persuasion and hope. This may be a communication theory spin on applying the basic theological realities of common grace, as well as the image of God. It’s one of the reasons G. K. Chesterton was so good at staying in healthy relationships with his foes. He knew they were more than their ideas.
So, do I think talking baseball with my ideological opponents will heal all the wounds of the church in an internet age? No. That sort of thing can only be accomplished by the Spirit, supernaturally working his Word into our souls. Still, it might be one small step toward embracing Paul’s admonition: “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Rom. 12:18). Or even that of our Savior: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31).
Sometimes the attempt to live peaceably—the attempt to love—means chatting with your opponent about Opening Week.
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