Thursday, August 1, 2013


I know--this word just isn't something that comes up so much in everyday conversation. Because our everyday conversations are more like "Hi, how ya doing?" "Fine, how about you?". "Have a good day, then." "Thanks, you too."

Nevertheless, my friend asked me yesterday what phatic meant, and in the tried and true method of this blog, I did what I always do. I took a wild guess. "Having to do with prophecy?" I wagered.

Luckily I didn't bet any money.

"Phatic" turns out to refer to a form of speech, a form which I have cleverly already illustrated above. Phatic speech is speech that is used primarily in a social sense rather than to convey information. We all know what phatic speech is, but what we usually call it is "small talk". As is often the case, the Urban Dictionary perhaps says it best:

Small Talk: Useless and unnecessary conversation attempted to fill the silence in an awkward situation. Commonly backfires into feelings of loneliness and social discomfort. Usually is initiated by comments regarding the current weather, weather pattern of the past/future few days or major weather disturbances in the recent past.    

Since, until recently, I spent a fair amount of time working a cash register, I have apparently engaged in a lot of phatic speech, though all unwittingly.

Unlike many words, "phatic" came into the lingo at a particular time and via a particular person, Bronislaw Malinowski. If you're like me, you may have some vague recognition of Malinowski as an anthropologist, and even the fact that his work centered on the Trobriand Islanders may ring some very muffled bell. Malinowski  coined it from the Greek phatos, meaning spoken or that may be spoken.

Here's a relevant passage from his "The Problem of Meaning in Primitive Languages". (I say "a" relevant passage because I did not read the whole essay. There may be others more pertinent.):

[Phatic communication] is a flow of language, purpose-less expressions of preference or aversion, accounts of irrelevant happenings, comments on what is perfectly obvious [there is] always the same emphasis of affirmation and consent. Are words in Phatic Communion used primarily to convey meaning, the meaning which is symbolically theirs? Certainly not! They fulfill a social function, and that is their principal aim, but they are neither the result of intellectual reflection, nor do they necessarily arouse reflection in the listener. Once again we may say that language does not function here as a means of transmission of thought.

Malinowski himself understood that phatic conversation was far from the exclusive domain of "primitive languages", though like any good Western anthropologist, he probably didn't perceive the phatic in his own culture as easily saw it in others. Just a hunch.

I actually filched the quote entire from a very good post on a blog called Hearsay and Backtalk that I happened upon in my travels. The initial observation there is that many, many of the posts on Facebook and the like are actually forms of phatic communication. And the writer, who doesn't identify him or herself, wonders if social media hasn't proliferated phatic expression, and even spread its influence to other spheres. The 'like' button would seem to be crucial to this phenomenon.

As I read on through this thoughtful piece, which I do recommend, a couple of things came up. First, phatic speech isn't so empty of information as all that. Sometimes we really do want to know something about the weather, for instance. And a phatic question can quickly become non phatic. "How are you doing?" "Terrible--my wife just died." I actually just overheard a variant of this last just a couple of days ago and will attest how quickly the conversation becomes non-phatic, even to someone who is only just inadvertently listening in.

The other thing is that as the above mentioned blog post points out, even small talk has its place. The blog leads to a further link to a little piece by Danica Radovanović on phatic posts, which she takes from her own doctoral research. At heart, and I think "heart" is a relevant word here, phatic communication acknowledges that others exist and maintains connection with them. Not such a bad thing, all in all.

Oh, yeah--



  1. Whoa, fascinating. I'm probably phatic challenged. Also, I had to look up the origin of the slang "phat".

  2. So what did you find? I saw phat come up when I was looking for images, but didn't pursue it.

  3. Seana

    I never heard of this term before, but its interesting that in fiction or movies no one really includes the phatic parts of conversation because they're seen as boring, yet much of life is actually made up of this. If you really wanted to be naturalistic or provide a slice of life your dialogue would be very dull and thats not necessarily a bad thing. Hollywood action movies in particular suffer from non phatic disease - every conversation has to advance the story or reveal character and thats why these movies always sound so false and Hollywoody.

  4. It's funny--I thought I had heard, or at least read the word before, so thought I might have some idea. Obviously, I didn't.

    For better or worse, I think it might be one of those words that becomes popular for awhile, simply due to its obvious usefulness in talking about Facebook and its ilk. But really, small talk says it all and really so much better.

    I wasn't aware that action movies really needed dialogue at all anymore.

    I wonder where humor fits into the whole picture?

  5. Seana

    Yeah dialogue is just a slave to the story. If it doesnt turn a story wheel they cut it which is terrible.

  6. Well, it is a visual medium, but there's such a thing as going too far.