Phatic Interpretations

Žegarac, Vlad and Billy Clark 1999. Phatic interpretations and phatic communication. Journal of Linguistics 35(2): 321-346.

In (I), it seems that Mrs. Lancaster would like to have a relatively banal conversation about the weather. Phil Connors makes clear that he recognises this intention and blatantly refuses to comply. (Žegarac & Clark 1999: 322)
In this case there is an explicit metalingual question about the intention, "Did you wanna talk about the weather or were you just making chit chat?", in other terms they are actually negitiating the working consensus about what their conversation is about. As soon Lancaster shrugs, shakes her head and affirms "Chit-chat", the interpretation is fixed and Connors ends the conversation.
These exchanges illustrate the sorts of phenomena to which the term 'phatic' might be applied. It might be said that Mrs. Lancaster attempts to start a phatic exchange and that Connors refuses. Another account might say that both Mrs. Lancaster's comment about the blizzard and Connors's lengthy response are phatic, the difference being that Mrs. Langarster's phatic intentions are 'positive' while Connors's are 'negative'. (Žegarac & Clark 1999: 322-323)
Instead of "pasitive" and "negative" so-called "phatic intentions", I would suggest sociofugal phatic attitude (negative) and sociopetal phatic attitude (positive). But now I'm thinking that perhaps "attitude" is not the best term here. Something like "disposition" (i.e. sociopetal phatic disposition) might go over better because it holds a potentiol for conjunction with Charles Morris's disposition to respond, which is at the core of his approach to interpretation.
This raises a number of questions. How does Connors recognise Mrs. Lancaster's phatic intention? How does he decide how much to say about the weather? Is Roma's utterance ambiguous between a phatic and a non-phatic meaning? (Žegarac & Clark 1999: 323)
Here I'm not sure if "phatic meaning" is the best term. Many hold that phatic utterances are essentially meaningless (referentially irrelevant, asemantic, etc.). I think it may have more to do with a "frame" or something to that effect, i.e. how relevant the meaning of a given utterance is evaluated. this is where Relevance Theory may pay off.
Comparing Connors's response with Aaronow's, why does Connors's over-informativeness communicate something different (his attitude towards Mrs. Connors's chit-chat) from Aaronow's over-informativeness (perhaps just that he has misunderstood, perhaps that he wishes to change the tapic)? (Žegarac & Clark 1999: 323)
Here the authors themselves use the term attitude. Here it also makes sense, because it doesn't characterize so much a social style as attitude towards a particular person's chit-chat.
More fundamentally, what does the term 'phatic' mean and to what range of phenomena should it apply? (Žegarac & Clark 1999: 323)
This is a question we're trying to answer as well, but it's difficult because "phatic" means various things to various theorists and the range of application is by no means limited even to communication as such (i.e. l'image phatique in French visual theory, or phatic fountains in soft architecture theory).
Another important notion is that of MUTUALITY. All assumptions which are manifest to an individual make up that individual's COGNITIVE ENVIRONMENT. The set of all assumptions that are manifest to two individuals is their SHARED COGNITIVE ENVIRONMENT. But an assumption may be manifest to a number of people, without the fact that it is manifest to all of them being itself manifest. In other words, assumptions may be MANIFEST without being MUTUALLY MANIFEST. (Žegarac & Clark 1999: 324)
Malinowski (1923) considered PHATIC COMMUNION in his discussion of the distinction between language as 'an instrument of reflection' and language as 'a mode of action', and made a number of interesting observations, including the following which are frequently referred to in more recent literature:
  1. In Phatic Communion language is used as a mode of action, rather than for the transmission of thoughts.
  2. The various types of Phatic Communion (greetings, gossip, and the like) have something in common: the whole situation in which the exchange takes place consists in, andis largely created by, 'what happens linguistically'.
  3. In Phatic Communion the mere meaning of the words is almost irrelevant. Rather, the linguistic expressions used fulfil a social function.
  4. This social function may be to 'overcome the strange, unpleasant tension caused by silence' and/or to establish an atmosphere of sociability and personal communion between people.
(Žegarac & Clark 1999: 328)
In my own words these aspects concern: (1) the fact that phatic communion is a type of action; (2) that consists of speech; (3) particularly non-referential speech; (4) that aids in overcoming the tension of silence.
There are three common intuitions about phaticness which we aim to capture. First, people have an intuition that the main point of some utterances depends on the fact that the speaker has said something to the hearer more than on exactly what has been said. For example, the main point of an utterance of the string nice weather directed at a stranger at the bus-stop seems to be to convey something like sociability rather than to start a discussion of the weather. Furthemore, uttering a string with quite different linguistic content, such as the bus is late again, would have had a similar effect. Second, there are degrees of phaticness. For example, a string like ho do you know Michael? seems 'less phatic' than a string like how are you? when uttered in the same situation (e.g. to someone you've just met at a party). The phaticness of how are you? may even have become standardised. [...] Third, phatic interpretations seem more likely when the social relationship between interlocutors is in doubt. Suppose, for example, that two partners in a long-term relationship have had an argument and then not spoken for a few days. This would make it more likely that anything either of them says to the other would be understood as phatic (the fact that they have spoken is more important than exactly what they say). This latter possibility is discussied in more detail below. (Žegarac & Clark 1999: 329)
It seems that these authors are attempting to approach the nexus joining asemanticity, autonomy and relationships that looms large over phatics. That is, the fact of communicating is more important than what is communicated (autonomy); thus the content is pretty much interchangeable (asemantic); thus the fact of communicating is most relevant in relation to the relationship between the communicators.
We propose to capture these intuitions by suggesting: first, that the thing which can be phatic or not are interpretations as a whole; second, that what makes an interpretation phatic or not is the extent to which it contains implicatures of a particular type. We begin this section by explaining what type of implicature we have in mind. (Žegarac & Clark 1999: 329)
The implicature part is way too pragmatic for my taste, since it necessitates too extraordinary terms (like manifestness), but the general intent here seems understandable enough. By shifting the phatic weight from utterances to interpretations they are actually kinda resolving the relativity issue (what is sociopetal in one culture is sociofugal in another; what is phatic for some is not so for others).
Recall that, as mentioned above, ostensive-inferential communication involves two intentions:
  1. a communicative intention to make mutually manifest:
  2. an informative intention to make manifest or more manifest a set of assumption.
This means that the speaker of any utterance will make mutually manifest assumptions which contain other assumptinos as sub-parts.
  1. It's ten o'clock.
The speaker of (4), for example will convey all of the assumptions in (5):
    1. It's ten o'clock.
    2. The speaker intends to make manifest that it's ten o'clock.
    3. The speaker intends to make manifest the speaker's intention to make manifest that it's ten o'clock.
(5a) is the PROPOSITION EXPRESSED. (5b) is the speaker's INFORMATIVE INTENTION. (5c) is the speaker's COMMUNICATIVE INTENTION.
Now, some implications of an utterance will depend on the proposition expressed. In this case, these might include:
  1. The film the hearer wants to watch begins in 10 minutes.
Other implications might depend on the speaker's informative intention. In this case, these might include:
  1. The speaker intends to inform the hearer that the film the hearer wants to watch begins in ten minutes.
Still other implications might depend on the speaker's communicative intention. In this case, these might include:
  1. The speaker wants the hearer to think that the speaker cares about whether the hearer sees the film or not.
Notice that the hearer can derive (6) from (5a) alone, while (7) depends upon deriving (5b) and (8) depends upon deriving (5c). There are other implications of this utterance which depend on the speaker's communicative intention (5c) but not upon linguistically-encoded meanings, for example (9).
  1. The speaker is willing to communicate with the hearer.
In the discussion which follows, we will use the phrase 'depends on' in a technical sense. DEPENDS ON X means 'results from an inferential process which takes X as a premise', where X may be: the proposition expressed by the utterance, the informative intention or the communicative intention.
(9) seems to correspond to what people have in mind when they talk about phaticness. We suggest that interpretations are phatic to the extent that they IMPLICATE (i.e do not merely IMPLY) such propositions. In other words, an interpretation is phatic to the extent that its main relevance lies with implicature like (9). (Žegarac & Clark 1999: 329-330)
This exposition made a surprisingly great amount of sense. Let's unpack the bold parts. The phatic implication, that the speaker is willing to communicate with the hearer, is still communicative since it intends to make manifest the speaker's intention to make something manifest, that "something" here being willingness to communicate. But it does not depend upon "linguistically-encaded meanings" because both the proposition expressed and the informative intention are irrelevant to communicate a willingness to communicate. In fact, something nonverbal like a glance could just as well do the job. Thus, by way of very pragmatic means these authors have actually gone to the heart of "phaticness" (although I'd like to protest against this clunky term), that it involves willingness to communicate.
There are two important characteristics of phatic implicatures. First, Relevance Theory distinguishes between IMPLICATED PREMISES and IMPLICATED CONCLUSONS:
Pauline: Do you want to go to the cinema?
Arthur: There's only violent films on tonight.
Implicated premise: Arthur does not want to see a violent film.
Implicated conclusion: Arthur does not want to go to the cinema.
Implicated premises depend on the communicative intention and are normally not implied, not even contextually, by the explicit content of the utterance. It is the fact that Arthur can be seen as having the communicative intention of answering Pauline's question that licences the implicated premise, which in turn licences the implicated conclusion. But it is the implicated conclusion which meets Pauline's expectation of relevance. In this sence, the main relevance of Arthur's utterance can be said to depend on the implicated conclusion rather than on the implicated premise. So, we are suggesting that interpretations are phatic to the extent that they contain implicated conclusions which depend on the communicative intention. (Žegarac & Clark 1999: 330-331)
This reinforces the previous point that phatic interpretation does not depend so much on the informative intention but on communicative intention.
Second, by definition, all implicatures depend on the fact that a presumption of relevance is being communicated. What distinguishes phatic implicatures is that they depend to a greater extent on the communicative intention than on the proposition expressed by the utterance. We are now in a position to give a definition of phatic interpretations.
Phatic interpretation
An interpretation is phatic to the extent that it contains implicated conclusions which do not depend on the explicit content of the utterance.
Note that on this definition phatic interpretations are not wholly independent of linguistically-encoded meanings, but they do not follow directly from them: the explicit content of the utterance still provides evidence for some implicated premises which, jointly with other contextual assumptions, licence a particular phatic interpretation. (Žegarac & Clark 1999: 332)
Thus, the phatic interpretation in the last example depends on the implicated conclusion that "Arthur does not want to go to the cinema" and is phatic because... Well, here it gets tricky. Is it phatic here because it communicates Arthur's willingness to go to the cinema and in that way concerns future communication? Pragmatics is very action-oriented, so the action under discussion should ideally be communication itself, or at least something like "willingness to communicate".
While we suggest that the term 'phatic' is most useful as a technical term defined in this way and applied to interpretations as a whole, we will also use it derivatively in the following ways:
  1. A PHATIC UTTERANCE is one which gives rise to, or is intended to give rise to, phatic interpretations.
  2. PHATIC COMMUNICATION refers to acts of ostensive communication which give rise to, or are intended to give rise to, phatic interpretations.
(Žegarac & Clark 1999: 331)
These further definitions of a phatic utterance and phatic communication that depend on phatic interpretations seem a bit tautological. The system is no doubt consistent but how it relates to channel maintenance seems mysterious at this point.
Arthur may well assume that Pauline has mentioned the bill, not because she assumes he does not know about it or will forget to pay it, but because she wants to let him know that she would like to continue the conversation. (Žegarac & Clark 1999: 332)
Oh, there it is. It is also veritably "metacommunicative". That is, Pauline is mentioning the gas bill not because she wishes to communicate about the gas bill but because she wants to continue communicating. By doing so, she is communicating something about their relationship: that there still is willingness to communicate in that relationship. Otherwise she might as well not mention the gas bill and just let it fall silent (vakatada).
Contextual assumptions (2):
  1. Pauline and Arthur are having breakfast.
  2. Following a major row [domestic dispute], Pauline and Arthur haven't spoken for there days.
Given these assumptions the very fact that Pauline has spoken is so relevant that Arthur is unlikely to pay much attention to the linguistically-derived content of the utterance. He will probably derive implications such as: 'Pauline wishes to communicate with me', 'Pauline wishes to make up with me', 'Pauline still loves me', 'Pauline might go on a trip with me', etc. What all these assumptions have in common is that they are implicatures derivable from the act of ostension itself, i.e. from the fact that Pauline has spoken to Arthur. (Žegarac & Clark 1999: 332)
Score for autonomy. Phatic interpretation concerns the very (f)act of communication. (I very much like that "act" and "fact" can be meshed in this way, although it's not very attractive visually.)
The first intuition was that some interpretations depend on the fact that something has been said rather than on exactly what has been said. Our account handles this intuition in terms of a slightly different, and theoretical, distinction between the fact that something has been COMMUNICATED and the fact that something has been LINGUISTICALLY ENCODED. One consequence of this is that our account extends naturally to non-verbal communication. For example, we can distinguish a relatively phatic from a relatively non-phatic interpretation of a nod of the communicator's head. The relatively phatic interpretation is one where most of the implicatures depend on the fact that the nod conveyed a communicative intention. The less phatic interpretation is one where there are more implicatures which depend on the fact that the nod signifies agreement. (Žegarac & Clark 1999: 333)
This is definitely part of why I'm drawn to phatics myself, being naturally a student of nonverbal communication. But here I would like to draw attention to the sociopetal/-fugal dimension again. When we are dealing with a less phatic situation then nod signifies agreement and absence of nod signifies disagreement. But when we have a phatic situation (lets say a completely nonverbal communicative situation, such as passing an acquaintance on the street) then a nod signifies a communicative intention (you effectively communicate to the acquaintance that you are still willing to communicate) and the absence of nod signifies not a lack of communicative intention but a negative one (you effectively communicate to the acquaintance that you are not willing to communicate).
The third intuition was that phatic interpretations become more likely when the social relationship between the interlocutors is in doubt. This intuition has been partly accounted for by our discussion of (11) given the second set of contextual assumptions above (where Pauline and Arthur have had a row and not spoken for three days). Our account presupposed that these contextual assumptions made phatic interpretations more relevant (and non-phatic assumptions less relevant) than they would otherwise have been. (Žegarac & Clark 1999: 334)
This assumption is very reminiscent of John Laver's treatment of the functions of phatic communion. He argues that phatic communion is especially relevant for "the detailed management of interpersonal relationships during the psychologically crucial margins of interaction" (Laver 1975: 217), by which he means openings and closings. Here we have something similar, in that during the margins of the interaction the social relationship between the interlocutors is in doubt, and when Pauline and Arthur have not spoken for three days they are in fact in a psychologically crucial margin of their whole relationship (if they do not make up and continue to not speak with each other then soon there is no relationship to speak of).
Under what circumstances should the hearer go beyond linguistically-dervied meanings of the utterance? Relevance Theory predicts that this should happen only if linguistically-derived meanings manifestly fail to yield enough effects for the criterion of consistency with the Principle of Relevance to be satisfied. An utterance of (11) (Pauline's 'There's a red gas bill') in context 2 (following a major row, where the interlocutors have not spoken for three days) illustrates the extreme situation in which, regardless of any linguistically-encoded meanings, the fact that the speaker has spoken is far more relevant than what is actually said. (Žegarac & Clark 1999: 334)
This actually presents an opportunity to turn around the characteristic of referential irrelevance associated with phatic utterances. That is, instead of viewing phatic utterances as referentially irrelevant, phatic utterances should be viewed as utterances within a context where reference is irrelevant.
So what makes an utterance likely to give rise to phatic interpretations? The answer we suggest is that phatic interpretations are likely for utterances containing a linguistic forms which has the following properties: (a) it is easy to process; (b) it is mutually manifest to the interlocutors in what kind of context the linguistic meaning of the utterance would be highly relevant, and (c) it is mutually manifest that the speaker could not have intended the main relevance of the utterance to lie with its linguistic meaning on this particular occasion. (Žegarac & Clark 1999: 335)
(a) is familiar to me as Herbert Spencer's general principle economy (of least possible mental effort); (b) would explain why my personal illustrations of phatic communion on the dormitory balcony concern discussions of smoking; and (c) seems the properly phatic aspect: that the linguistic content is not really all that important, the fact of talking itself is.
It seems to us that on any given occasion this is possible to the extent that the interlocutor's mutual cognitive environment includes some assumptions about the way conversations are usually conducted: how are certain topics usually relevant? What is thesocial relationship between the communicators? What are the norms for appropriate linguistic behaviour? (Žegarac & Clark 1999: 336)
In example (2), it is mutually manifest to the interlocutors that the question 'How are you' is usually not used to show the speaker's genuine interest in the hearer's welfare, but rather as a vague indication of the speaker's favourable disposition towards the hearer. (Žegarac & Clark 1999: 337)
Disposition or attitude?
Our definition of phatic interpretations makes no reference to social relationships. [...] However, many implicatures which depend upon the recognition of an intention to communicate do concern social relationships. This is because the fact that someone has made manifest an intention to communicate with another person rules out certain social situations, most notably the possibility that the speaker despises the hearer so much that she refuses to interact with him at all. While our definition includes implicatures which are not about social relationships, it also reflects the fact that most phatic interpretations achieve relevance by suggesting something about the nature of the social relationship between the speaker and the hearer. (Žegarac & Clark 1999: 339-340)
Communication about relationship.
As pointed out above, every act of ostinsive communication communicates the presumption that it is worth paying attention to, and that paying attention to it does not put the hearer to a gratuitous expenditure of processing effort. (Žegarac & Clark 1999: 340)
Metacommunication. It is also in stark contrast with Virilio's definition of the phatic image, or at least it seems so (perhaps the "focusing" aspect operates contrary to my current knowledge).


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