Phatic expression

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In linguistics, a phatic expression /ˈfætɪk/ is communication which serves a social function, such as social pleasantries that don't seek or offer any information of value.[1] Phatic expressions are a socio-pragmatic function and are used in everyday conversational exchange typically expressed in situational instances that call for social cues.[2] In speech communication the term means "small talk" (conversation for its own sake) and has also been called "grooming talking."[3]

For example, greetings such as "hello" and "how are you?" are phatic expressions.[4] In phatic expressions, speech acts are not communicative, since no content is communicated. According to anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski, apparently "purposeless" speech acts—polite small talk, like "how are you?" or "have a nice day"—even though their content may be trivial or irrelevant to the situation, perform the important function of establishing, maintaining, and managing bonds of sociality between participants.[5]

In Roman Jakobson's work, the 'phatic' function of language 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. This usage appears in research on online communities and micro-blogging.[6][7]


The term phatic communion ('bonding by language') was coined by anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski in his essay "The Problem of Meaning in Primitive Languages", which appeared in 1923 as a supplementary contribution to The Meaning of Meaning by C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards. The term "phatic" means "linguistic" (i.e. "by language") and comes from the Greek φατός phatós ("spoken, that may be spoken"), from φημί phēmí ("I speak, say").[8]

Phatic Expressions defined in other languages[edit]


For example: "You're welcome" is not intended to convey the message that the hearer is welcome; it is 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?" (US English. In UK English this means "is there something wrong?")
Speaker two: "Hey, how's it going?"


Speaker one: "Alright?" (UK English. In US English this means "is there something wrong?")
Speaker two: "You alright."

Neither speaker expects an actual answer to the question but rather it is an indication that each has recognized the other's presence and has therefore sufficiently performed that particular social duty.


In Japanese, phatic expressions play a significant role in communication, where they are referred to as "aizuchi."


Taarof is a complex set of expressions and other gestures in Persian society, primarily reflected in the language.

Non-verbal Phatic Expression[edit]

Not all phatic expressions are done with spoken utterances. Non-verbal phatic expressions are used without spoken utterances to emphasize or add detail to the message that a person conveys or expresses. Common examples of these are smiling, gesturing, waving, etc.[9] According to Dr. Carola Surkamp, professor at University of Cologne, non-verbal phatic communication can be expressed with involuntary physical features such as direction of gaze, blushing, posture, etc. and that these have a vital function in regulating conversation.[10]

Online Phatic Expression[edit]

The online use of phatic expressions are utilized on different communication platforms on the internet such as social media networks where certain platforms require and prompt certain actions to be made between users to communicate or implicate certain messages between people without direct utterances. Examples for this would be: 'likes', comments/replies, shares/reblogs, emoji use, etc. These 'phatic posts' as Radovanovic and Ragnedda like to call them, are again used a social function of social communicative upkeep that has no real value but expresses social connection, relationships between users and recognition.[11]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Malinowski, B. (1923), "The Problem of Meaning in Primitive Languages", in Charles K. Ogden and Ian A. Richards, The Meaning of Meaning, London: Kegan Paul, Trench and Trubner, pp. 296–336 
  2. ^ Vladimir Žegarac, "What IS Phatic Communication?", 'Phatic Communication', April 25, 2018
  3. ^ "Teach Yourself Linguistics", by Jean Aitchison, ISBN 978-0-340-87083-9
  4. ^ "Phatic", Oxford Living Dictionaries: British & World English, Oxford University Press, n.d., retrieved October 25, 2016 
  5. ^ Malinowski, B. (1923) "The Problem of Meaning in Primitive Languages”, in: Charles K. Ogden and Ian A. Richards, The Meaning of Meaning, 296–336, London: Kegan Paul, Trench and Trubner
  6. ^ Makice, Kevin (2009). "Phatics and the design of community". Proceedings of the 27th international conference extended abstracts on Human factors in computing systems. Boston, MA, USA. 
  7. ^ pear analytics (2009). "Twitter Study – August 2009, Whitepaper". 
  8. ^ Haberland, H. (1996) "Communion or communication? A historical note on one of the 'founding fathers' of pragmatics", in Robin Sackmann (ed.), "Theretical linguistics and grammatical description", 163-166, Amsterdam: Benjamins
  9. ^ Carola Surkamp, "Non-verbal communication", April 26, 2018
  10. ^ Carola Surkamp, "Non-verbal communication", , April 25, 2018
  11. ^ Radovanovic and Ragnedda, "Phatic Posts", 'Phatic Posts', April 26, 2018