Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Christianity

The Moral and Psychological Landscape of Chit Chat: Toward a Theological Hermeneutic of Everyday Conversation

Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Christianity

The Moral and Psychological Landscape of Chit Chat: Toward a Theological Hermeneutic of Everyday Conversation

Article excerpt

The article integrates psychological and theological perspectives to illuminate the moral issues confronted in normal, workaday conversation. Specifically, the agency/communion circumplex, a dominant model in personality theory, is used to create a psychologically and theologically informed hermeneutic to analyze the moral issues latent in simple everyday discourse. After creating the agency/communion hermeneutical apparatus the model is applied to three morally complex features of everyday conversation: Truth-telling, gossip, and humor usage. The value of the agency/communion hermeneutical model is demonstrated by its ability to make salient many of the moral issues hidden in everyday conversations as well as in its ability to pose important moral discernment questions.

As social creatures most of our waking lives is spent talking with other people. These wideranging moments of communication span the trivial to the vital. At work or at play, at home or at church, human life is full of conversation. And yet, many of us fail to realize how morally treacherous and complicated simple conversation can be. The biblical witness suggests that we be "slow to speak" and be wary of the "tongue." But this advice only goes so far. What is needed is a practical tool of discernment devoted to assessing the moral complications that arise in simple everyday conversation. With such a hermeneutic in hand we would be better equipped to manage the moral pitfalls that await us, particularly those we encounter around the Monday morning water cooler.

Toward that end, this article will present a hermeneutic of everyday conversation based upon the dominant agency/communion circumplex in psychology. That is, in everyday conversation there arise opportunities to enhance and further the prospects of the Self versus the prospects of the Other. In order to show the hermeneutic in action the article will use the model to analyze the agentic and communal dynamics across three ubiquitous features of everyday conversation: Humor usage, gossip, and lying.

Agency, Communion, and the Kenosis Hymn

One of the most parsimonious models in psychology for describing human motivation and personality is the agency and communion circumplex (Wiggins, 1991). Informally, the agency and communion motives are often framed, respectively, as "getting ahead" versus "getting along." Specifically, agentic motives involve needs for status, achievement, control, and dominance. By contrast, communal motives involve motives toward affiliation, connection, intimacy, and cooperation. The personality dimensions of agency and communion, as introduced by Bakan (1966), have a long theoretical and empirical history going back to ancient Greece (see McAdams, Hoffman, Mansfield, & Day, 1996, for a good historical overview) and they continue to influence psychological research today.

Of particular concern from a spiritual perspective is that agency motives are focused on profitability of the self while communion is focused on the profitability of other persons (Abele & Wojciszke, 2007). Consequently, Christians should be concerned with agentic motives when needs for control and status begin to trump relationship and community. Perhaps the clearest theological critique of agentic self-interest is the Kenosis Hymn of Philippians 2. Specifically, Christ does not cling to a high status position but rather empties (kenosis) himself to take on the form of an obethent servant. Christ does this for our benefit. In short, the Christian ethic claims that communal, servant-oriented motives are to trump our agentic strivings. Getting along is more important than getting ahead. Or, in the language of Paul (Philippians 2.3-4), "Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others."

Toward a Hermeneutic qfChit-Chat

In life our motives are often mixed. …

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