Phatic Expression

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In linguistics, a phatic expression [fat-ik] is one whose only function is to perform a social task, as opposed to conveying information. The term was coined by anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski in the early 1900s from Greek ‘phanein’ (‘to show oneself,’ ‘appear’).

In Russian linguist Roman Jakobson’s work, ‘Phatic’ communication is that which concerns the channel of communication, for instance when one says ‘I can’t hear you, you’re breaking up’ in the middle of a cell phone conversation. In the modern context, this usage appears in online communities and more specifically on micro-blogging.

In speech communication the term means ‘small talk’ (conversation for its own sake) and has also been called ‘grooming talking.’ In Japanese, phatic expressions play a significant role in communication, where they are referred to as ‘aizuchi.’ An example of a phatic expression is: ‘You’re welcome’ because it is not actually intended to convey the message that the hearer is welcome; it is merely a phatic response to being thanked, which in turn is a phatic whose function is to acknowledge the receipt of a benefit.

Similarly, the question ‘how are you?’ is usually an automatic component of a social encounter. Although there are times when ‘how are you?’ is asked in a sincere, concerned manner and does in fact anticipate a detailed response regarding the respondent’s present state, this needs to be pragmatically inferred from context and intonation.

The following is a specific example of the former; a simple, basic exchange, between two acquaintances in a non-formal environment: Speaker one: ‘What’s up?’ / Speaker two: ‘Hey, man, how’s it going?’ Neither expects an answer to his/her question. Much like a shared nod, it’s an indication that each has recognized the other’s presence and has therefore performed sufficiently that particular social duty.

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