Pardon my beginning this article with an effusive declaration of how cool language is, but I couldn’t help myself. Language is vast. Really vast. There are so many different types of communication: non-verbal, kinesics, questions, statements, greetings, conversations, speeches, etc. Consider that in just English. Now, consider that there are hundreds of languages out there, and somehow we humans have managed to carve out a world with them.
Pretty cool, huh?
That statement, though, is only a diffuse colouring of what is a staggeringly complex assortment of pieces. Within language there are words — nouns, pronouns, articles, adjectives, more — as well as sentences, phrases, paragraphs, novels, all of which require structure in order to make sense to us. If you’ve ever gotten lost during an English class lecture on the various participles, then you have a smattering of an idea at how complex language is. (Though, to be fair, English is one of the more complicated and bizarre languages out there.)
Now, here’s the weird part: some of us like to spend our time reading these things called books, which are entire worlds made up of purely language.
I know, I know, who would do that? (Guilty. In fact, I’m so guilty that I write books, too.)
The thing about books, though, is that the language there, and the language we use in every day communication, are not the same. Similar, yes. But not at all the same.
Consider: The Greeting.
I’m going to get into some technical aspects of linguistics, or the science of language, for a minute. I hope that I’m not too convoluted in my explanation, but if ever any of this doesn’t make sense, just skip to the bit about Douglas Adams, because Douglas Adams is always fun.
In communication, we have this concept of “small talk.” It’s the communication that you engage in to establish yourself with another person, or to fill in the gaps when you don’t know what to say. It’s the, “Hi, how are you?” and the “Fine, thanks.” and things like, “Gosh, don’t you just hate this weather?”
Everyone engages in this, but, oddly enough, it doesn’t actually mean anything.
This is called “phatic communication,” and in linguistics, it serves many different purposes, one of which is merely to maintain social ties.
“Language is mainly used to communicate information or feelings, but it also has another function, which is that of establishing and maintaining social relations…used to establish social contact among people rather than conveying or seeking information.” (Fadhil, 62)
Phatic communication was first named by Bronislaw Malinowski, a renowned anthropologist, in 1923. It is derived from the Greek phátos, meaning “speech.” This phatic communication focuses less on the meaning of the language and more on the act of communication; that is, you are actively engaging with another person for a specific social purpose. It is a linguistic representation of a social act. There are many purposes that phatic communication fulfils, but none of them are really about what is being said.
According to the article Phatic Talk and Banter (studysmarter.us), there are twelve types of functions to phatic communication:
1. Starting a conversation
2. Breaking a silence
3. Making small talk
5. Keeping a conversation going
6. Expressing solidarity
7. Creating harmony
8. Creating comfort
9. Expressing empathy
10. Expressing friendships
11. Expressing respect
12. Expressing politeness
All of these acts are extremely common in every day life, provided, of course, that you interact with other people. (Which most of us do.) Some examples of phatic communication include such things as, “How are you,” which doesn’t actually ask how you’re doing, but merely acknowledges the other person, either in passing, or as a conversation starter. There are also lengthy discussions about the weather, which fill awkward silences or start conversations; as well as conversation enders such as, “good evening.”
(I will admit that, during my time in Great Britain, the conversations about the weather seemed to take on a more significant role than merely filling space. It was, in fact, a serious part of almost every conversation, as the weather was quite changeable. This is not applicable everywhere, though I did become rather invested in my weather conversations.)
For such an everyday occurrence, phatic communication holds great power. It helps regulate our social relationships with both friends and strangers, all with the use of a few words.
Interestingly enough, though, it rarely exists in fiction.
That’s right, small talk is hardly there in fiction.
If it’s so important, why don’t we see it in books? The answer is fairly straightforward: for all its social significance, phatic communication doesn’t actually mean anything, and in a world crafted entirely of words, having a section that means nothing is, in a word, pointless. In well-crafted stories, every word, every interaction between characters, has to either move the plot forwards, or be important for character development.
Phatic communication rarely does any of those.
More generally, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, all this small talk, all the little details that make up normal interactions, it’s all quite boring.
Those who are regular followers of the doings of Arthur Dent may have received an impression of his character and habits which…falls somewhat short, in its composition, of the whole truth in all its glorious aspects.
And the reasons for this are obvious: editing, selection, the need to balance that which is interesting with that which is relevant and cut out all the tedious happenstance.
Like this for instance: “Arthur Dent went to bed. He went up the stairs, all fifteen of them, opened the door, went into his room, took off his shoes and socks…At four he got up and went to the bathroom again. He opened the door to the bathroom…” and so on.
It’s guff. It doesn’t advance the action. It makes for nice fat books such as the American market thrives on, but it doesn’t actually get you anywhere. You don’t, in short, want to know. (Adams, 569)
If it’s boring, and doesn’t move the plot along or help in character development, then what do authors use instead of small talk? Because we can’t just have characters leaping into every scene with a statement that’s straight to the point, can we?
Actually, that is in fact what most people use. In Dead Romantics, a romantic comedy novel by Ashley Poston, the author primarily starts character interactions with comments about a character’s traits, or about a specific action that’s being taken. Essentially, leaping right beyond small talk and landing in relevant, meaning-laden conversation.
Thunder rumbled across the hills of the cemetery.
“A bit early for one of those moonwalks, isn’t it?” asked a familiar voice to my left. I glanced over, and there was Ben, his hands in his pockets, looking a little worse for wear… (Dead Romantics, 143)
Most genres follow this trend, leaping right into the meat of a scene rather than adding small talk. Romance novels usually feature more character-driven interactions, as the primary focus of the story is usually the characters. Mysteries, on the other hand, will often focus on plot: a piece of evidence, a key statement from a witness, even actions that need to be taken to solve the murder. Really, though, there is a range of ways to start interactions that have little to do with performing purely social acts.
The characters in these books don’t need phatic communication, because they don’t need to maintain social relationships in the way that we do. They exist to tell a story, and politeness, awkward silences, and random greetings of strangers are rarely necessary to stories. If they are necessary, then I can almost guarantee that they will be present. But it doesn’t happen often.
Honestly, I am one of those sorts of people that is baffled by these linguistic acts that don’t really mean what they say. I like things to mean exactly what they say, and phatic communication is truly contrary to this mindset. I much prefer my social relationships to appear like they do in books. That is, dive right in.
Adams, Douglas. The More than Complete Hitchhiker’s Guide. Wing Books, 1994.
Fadhil, Zahraa Adnan. “The Function of Phatic Communication in the English Language.” English Language, Literature & Culture, Science Publishing Group, 27 June 2022, https://www.sciencepublishinggroup.com/journal/paperinfo?journalid=195&doi=10.11648%2Fj.ellc.20220702.13.
Nordquist, Richard. “Phatic Communication Definition and Examples.” ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, thoughtco.com/phatic-communication-1691619.
“Phatic Talk and Banter.” StudySmarter US, https://www.studysmarter.us/explanations/english/language-and-social-groups/phatic-talk-and-banter/.
Poston, Ashley. The Dead Romantics. HQ, 2022.