Saturday, August 8, 2009

Phatic responses

Sometimes Anthropology examines things that we all identify with. This is quite often the case with Linguistics. Language being a fundamental attribute of humanity, its study sometimes brings to light aspects of our own behavior that we may or may not have been aware of.

For example, often we take part in general pleasantries when coming into contact with other people. Some of these interactions are particularly interesting, I wanted to talk briefly about so-called "Phatic responses".

Two men are passing each other in the hall at their place of employement...

Speaker A:"Hey, how are you?"

Speaker B:"What's up?"

Both walk away contented.

This is an example of Phatic responses. These responses are not considered literal speech and don't expect to be answered as such. Although one can use the same language to ask a response-oriented question. The hearer usually can figure out the difference using pragmatic deduction based on context and other nuances. These "automatic" devices in some ways are utilized at the base level to acknowledge the existence of another person and to conform to accepted norms of Functionalism.
In other words you are performing a social duty which subconciously you feel obligated.

I was reading some of Bronisław Malinowski's very early work on this subject and I thought I'd test the reaction of those around me whom I took literally all their Phatic responses. The results were interesting.

In terms of those that lived with me I saw the least amount of action. These seemed to be the most-likely group to either ignore or naturally adhere to the flow of me taking their responses literally.

When I took this to my co-workers I got a slightly different reaction. In fact two of my three co-workers were thrown slightly off-guard by my three to four sentence responses to their simple "How are you?" and "What's up?" In fact the look on their faces showed confusion and the present of thinking as opposed to the mindless pleasantries.

Strangers who were friendly enough to ask a phatic question when I made eye contact walking by almost always responded with smiles and suprised giggles.

To wrap this up it is apparent to me that phatic responses are an accepted funtion of our language interactions and when an individual responses to them literally it leads to off-balanced and unprepared interaction.


  1. Hi Chris, it might be better if people only responded this way. Colder perhaps, but more likely to get back to a better time.