Phatic expression

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Not to be confused with Haptic communication.

In linguistics, a phatic expression /ˈfætk/ is communication which serves a social function such as small talk and social pleasantries that don't seek or offer any information of value.[1] For example, greetings such as "hello" and "how are you?" are phatic expressions.[2]


The term phatic communion was coined by anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski in his essay "The Problem of Meaning in Primitive Languages", which appeared in 1923 in The Meaning of Meaning by C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards. The term comes from the Greek φατός phatós ("spoken, that may be spoken"), from φάναι phánai ("to speak, say").

Besides speech, in the digital world, phatic expression can also cover digital interactions. For example, liking someone's social media post can communicate social approval and as a consequence build rapport.[citation needed]


The utterance of a phatic expression is a kind of speech act. According to Malinowski, even such apparently "purposeless" communication as polite small talk, like "how are you?" or "have a nice day," even though its content may be trivial or irrelevant to the situation, performs the important function of establishing, maintaining, and managing bonds of sociality between participants. [3]

In Roman Jakobson's work, 'Phatic' communication is defined differently, and 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, for instance, in research on online communities and micro-blogging.[4][5]

In speech communication the term means "small talk" (conversation for its own sake) and has also been called "grooming talking."[6]

By language[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. Much like a shared nod, it is an indication that each has recognized the other's presence and has therefore sufficiently performed that particular social duty.


Main article: Aizuchi

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


Main article: Taarof

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

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: Routledge, pp. 146–152 
  2. ^ "Phatic", Oxford Living Dictionaries: British & World English, Oxford University Press, n.d., retrieved October 25, 2016 
  3. ^ Malinowski, B. (1923) "The Problem of Meaning in Primitive Languages”, in: Charles K. Ogden / Ian A. Richards (eds.), The Meaning of Meaning, 133-135, London: Routledge
  4. ^ 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. 
  5. ^ pear analytics (2009). "Twitter Study – August 2009, Whitepaper". 
  6. ^ "Teach Yourself Linguistics", by Jean Aitchison, ISBN 978-0-340-87083-9