How are your people in Christchurch?

There's a new protocol evolving for when friends, colleagues and neighbours meet. It is now polite to ask about 'your people in Christchurch." This might refer to their relatives, their friends, their work mates, anyone they know that might have been in Christchurch on the dreaded day - February 22.

It's a useful opening gambit, because it shows empathy with the people in Christchurch, suggesting that their plight in high in the mind of the one asking the question. It also flushes out any tragedy by giving the respondent the opportunity to unburden themselves.

A neighbour asked me the question last week. I replied that all my connections were unhurt although it looked like two of their houses were going to be demolished. He told me his connections were ok too, although many had property damage of various kinds.

It was a positive exchange. I think we both felt better. From a communications perspective, we were then both back on comfortable ground. Neither of us had to tiptoe around tragedy. We could safely converse about this and other matters without 'an elephant of gloom' being in the room.

Another encounter produced a quite different effect. I asked the question 'how are your people in Christchurch' of a friend whom I hadn't seen for a week or so. He told me of a relative who was listed as missing. She'd been working in one of the buildings that collapsed. All the people on the floor above her location had got out. Her floor had not. I commiserated with him, but nothing I could say or do would change anything. We were both disempowered by the exchange.

The process of opening dialogue is called phatic communion - to use the correct linguistic term. Phatic communion is the ritualised things we say when we meet someone, "to share feelings or establish a mood of sociability rather than to communicate information or ideas". 

It used to be the practice to inquire after someone's health, to express pleasure (or displeasure) about the weather, to ask about family, or other non threatening topics.

The ancient Greeks used to ask, what is the news? In those days well before Twitter or even newspapers, the news was spread by one traveller telling another of the events and happenings of the town that he or she had just passed through.

(Twitter can bring about its own problems - notably over communication of the unimportant. The US late night talk show host Jimmy Fallon recently joked, "Twitter was down for two hours on Saturday. It was terrible. I had to call random people in the phone book and tell them what I had for lunch.")

Now everyone in Christchurch has a story to tell, and everyone in New Zealand knows someone in Christchurch. Their experiences are all worth hearing about. After the California earthquakes of a few years ago, everyone affected had an opportunity to record their story 'for the record." It is cathartic and a very democratic way to capture history. Christchurch people should have that opportunity too.