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Karyn Lewis

Qualitative Research Methods


0535-315-01 Winter 20072
Phatic Communication Report

Language use implies making the appropriate choices of linguistic forms for the appropriate

communicative setting and cultural context. This definition sees language as a symbolic tool of social

interaction and human communication, and emphasizes the system of rules and principles that define how

language functions in everyday life. Meaning, however, is considered a pragmatic phenomenon that

depends on the communicative setting, social relationships, and cultural context. By the rules of linguistic

communication, even an utterance has a message, and hence a purpose. The most prominent kind of
exchange individuals engage in is phatic communication—exchanges purely meant to establish and

maintain the possibility of social interactions. This is the linguistic phenomenon of “small talk”—

exchanges meant to provide a social connection rather than transmit information. Therefore, every time a

person is active in building a relation, he is involved in a phatic exchange.

With any type of naturalistic research, observation is key. On site, researchers need to frantically

take notes, mentally and physically. I spent roughly 40 minutes studying the use of phatic communication

among my peers in a setting inappropriate for anything but—the gym. I made observations and took notes

as discretely as possible (I tried not to stare) while cycling away on a stationary bike in the front row
upper-level cardio fitness area at the RIT gym beginning around 2pm Monday, December 10, 2007.

However, my mind tends to work analytically, and the majority of my observations were made in the

form of mental conclusions of the overall scene, which I will describe here.
I originally thought of phatic communication as verbal, but quickly learned it may also be

communicated with nonverbal gestures (a warm handshake or a wave), facial expressions (a smile or a

worrisome expression), and tone of voice. This is the most obvious conclusion drawn from simple

observation of human behavior over a short period of time. In my experience, the majority of passersby

simply acknowledged their sweat-stained peers with a nod or smile, sometimes a simple “hello”—if

anything at all. From this, I can see that individuality is so obviously a dominant characteristic of
American culture. Americans generally have an "everyone for himself" type of attitude, which, evidently,

is reflected in our social system. Not only do we engage in phatic communication in an individualistic and
arguably distant manner (as shown in our brief and somewhat impulsive greetings), but one has almost

complete anonymity as well. It’s my understanding that there's a somewhat universal feeling that many

seek and enjoy—myself included—of being "alone in a sea of people." Our social habits seem to lean

toward public privacy. For example, you can walk through a crowd with virtually no chance of meeting

anyone you know, and an even lower chance of someone you don't know trying to engage you in
conversation. Cellphones are even a good example of this, since you're inviting the people you already

know into your own personal space, and simultaneously ignoring everyone who is actually near you. This

said, are the phatic properties imbued in so many of our products today actually a response to a real lack

of this communication in our public lives? Did we lose our connection with the masses because we

became closer to our friends, or did our lack of communication with strangers drive us to seek closer

connections with the people we already know?


Evidently the social meaning of an utterance is only indirectly related to its conceptual meaning.

The social meaning, however, seems effective due to the understanding of relationships existing among

individuals and the social purpose of the verbal exchange. The use of simple, interactional conversation

allows us to develop relationships. Conversation, from my observation, can be defined as predictable,

reusable and unique. “Small talk” usually consists of short, predictable topics such as the weather. Much
of conversation, however, is characterized by topic-based material such as one’s interests. Like saying

“what’s up?” as you pass someone in the hall when you have no intention of finding out what is actually

“up”, the phatic function is communication simply to indicate that communication can occur. In terms of

content, phatic communion is trivial—“How are you?” “What’s new?” “Where you been?”—but in terms

of relationships, it’s extremely important; it assures us that the normal social rules for communicating are

operating here and that individuals want to communicate with each other. It says, “the channels of
communication are open, talking is an option.”

Through simple observation, I’ve realized that an important skill of interpersonal communication
is to recognize the importance of phatic communication, use it appropriately, and recognize the break

point to the next stage in a conversation. Without phatic communication, wouldn’t people just begin with

the “big” talk without even saying “hello?” Wouldn’t this clearly communicate that something is wrong—

because for some reason the normal rules of conversation are being ignored?