Phatic Communication

“Phatic communication” is small talk: the nonreferential use of language to share feelings or establish a mood of sociability rather than to communicate information or ideas; ritualized formulas intended to attract the attention of the listener or prolong communication.

The “ritual” talk on greeting and departing is what gets to me because I think about it and take it seriously, even if humorously. Negatively, mostly. Why? I want to take it literally, but phatic communication is meant only to break the ice, or re-freeze the ice once again on taking leave. The ritual does not work for me; it works on me, and I do not know why. It just does: I am nearly always thinking about what I am saying meaningfully.

Here’s what I do with it.

“Have a nice day!”

[Me] “Do I have to? Actually, I was going to have a bad day. I’m bound to have one now and then and today is it. You really must stop ordering people around like that.”

They do not know what to say to that. I have called to their attention their ritualizing. They are nonplussed. The ritual crock has cracked. It is really a small dirty trick I have pulled on them. It’s the ritualizing of communication that is wet-paint to me.

Every morning I listen to a radio call-in show. The host takes a call. Invariably, the caller starts out with, “How are you?” or “How you doin’?” Of course he’s been listening and the previous caller found out that the host was “Fine!” But maybe something has happend in the meantime to make the host “unwell”. So he had to ask where “Hi!” would do, or else just start off with his or her name and place and the question or statement he called to make. But no, it’s phatic time!

The checker-outer at the grocery store says, “Did you find everthing all right?”

Now what could I, or do I do with that?

“I wasn’t looking for everything. I just wanted this stuff.” I do get the feeling that I’m being a smart ass, and that is not a good feeling because I don’t want to be that. Smart alecky! Irritatingly oversamrt. It is a surprising rejoinder, usually catching them off-guard.

I am always popping off like that. Yesterday I was in a store where a little girl was zipping around on the wheels built into the soles of her shoes. I looked at the Mom and said, “Do you have to give her lessons in hjow to walk again?” Or, “Does she forget how to walk?” Or something like that. Some find it amusing. She did.

It is small talk. It has very important functions, bonding, breaking the ice, I am positive and non-threatening and funny. Just once take that “How are you?” seriously and come back with an ailment you want advice on. Better than, “Stick ’em up! Your money or you life!” I have fun with it, like that. “Wassup?!” “O, now and then.”

Published in: on March 2, 2012 at 12:54 pm  Comments (3)  

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