Phatic Focusing

Meltzer, Bernard N. and Gil Richard Musolf 2003. Phatic Communion: Bringing Unfocused Interaction into Focus. In: Musolf, Gil Richard, Structure and Agency in Everyday Life: An Introduction to Social Psychology. Second Edition. Lanham; etc.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 141-154.

We now try to show how actors, through the use of phatic communion, bring unfocused interaction into focus, which may be as fleeting as a brief encounter or the beginning of a more sustained interaction sequence. Goffman is, again, a major contributor to our understanding. About 75 years ago, Bronislaw Malinowski (1943; first edition 1923) coined the phrase "phatic communion" (from the Greek pathos, spoken). (Meltzer & Musolf 2003: 141)
This is only the second source I've found that knows the etymology of phatic, though it should correctly be phátos.
Subsequently [to Malinowski], other scholars (chiefly linguists) have characterized phatic communion (sometimes termed "phatic communication") as follows: "making conversation for the sake of it" (Burton 1980), "language for the sake of maintaining rapport" (Crystal 1987), "talk ... where speakers' relational goals supersede their commitment to factuality and instrumentality" (Coupland, Coupland, and Robinson 1992). Moreover, since much of everyday conversation comprises phatic elements, popular designations abound, such as: "just being sociable," "casual conversation," "small talk," "chewing the fat," "shooting the breeze," "shmoozing," "yakking," and "chit-chat." (Meltzer & Musolf 2003: 141-142)
"For the sake of it" is a definition emphasizing autonomy. "Rapport" is commonplace but I have yet to read anything significant about it. "Relational goals" approaches Bateson's μ-function. I can't make out the Crystal 1987 reference, but Coupland et al. is already downloaded and Burton is something I might look at when I return to concourse. Reference:Burton, Deirdre 1980. Dialogue and Discourse: A sociolinguistic approach to modern drama dialogue and naturally occurring conversation. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. [excerpt]
Linguists have found Malinowski's concept a productive source of theoretical formulations and research enterprise. Much of their recent work has centered upon the consideration of politeness, chiefly the strategies for maintaining face for oneself and others. In contrast, most sociologists and social psychologists, with the very notable exception of Erving Goffman, have virtually ignored the subject. (Meltzer & Musolf 2003: 142)
It seems like these authors are ignoring anthropologists. Goffman, too, i would argue, was at least in part an anthropologist (at least for his thesis, Communication Conduct in an Island Community).
Altohugh some sociologists have studied conversational openings and closings - which typically entail phatic utterances - they have tended to consider the phatic function only indirectly, incidental to other aspects. Examples of such studies are those by Miller, Hintz, and Couch (1975; Leighty (1986); Schegloff (1988); and Sacks (1995), in which no explicit mention of phatic communion is to be found. It is no surprise, therefore, to find that the term "phatic communion" is absent from the vocabulary of sociology. We find the foregoing facts especially puzzling in light - as will be shown later - of the contribution phaticity makes to the fundamental sociological question, "What is the nature of the social bond?" or, as Goffman put the question, "How does social reality sustain itself?" (Meltzer & Musolf 2003: 142)
But should phatic communion or even phaticity be included in the vocabulary of sociology? I get that it revolves around a topic very near and dear to sociology - communion and community are not unrelated - but it would really muddle the picture if we started going over the history of sociology (i.e. Durkheim, Weber, Simmel, etc.) and reevaluating the phaticity of some forms of sociological thinking. Maybe it would instead make the picture much clearer, I don't know.
We begin with various conceptions about the nature of phaticity, touching upon both consensually-accepted antd debated characteristics, as well as upon such derivative concepts as interaction rituals and politeness. (Meltzer & Musolf 2003: 142)
Those four intuitive points by Žegarac & Clark (1999: 328) are probably most consensually accepted. Some of the stuff that I'm working on is not even debated, because it's just way out there. But this must be the third time I protest against the word "debate" when it comes to phaticity. I have yet to recognize an actual debate on the subject. It kinda seems like everyone is working away on their own conception of what phaticity is, what it applies to, and how to study it.
We have seen that the defining features of phatic communion have been conceptualized as (a) its nonreferential character and (b) its emphasis on social ties. (Meltzer & Musolf 2003: 143)
(a) is more prone to Jakobsonian thinking of the phatic function, which is in direct opposition to the referential function; and (b) is more prone to Malinowskian thinking, which does indeed emphasize the social nature of phatic communion more than the speech aspect.
Goffman (1971, 93) asserts, "From the fact that greetings are found among many of the higher primates, as well as in any number of preliterate societies and all civilized ones, it would be easy to conclude that something like access rituals are universally found in societies" (emphasis added); (also see Miller and Hintz [1997]: 93). At least two scholars (Hymes 1974; Crystal 1987), however, have challenged the universality of phatic communion: Crystal (1987: 11), claims that in some groups (including the Paliyans of southen India and the Aritama fo Colombia) members say little and prefer silence; Hymes (1974: 127) makes a similar statement about the Wishram Chinook of the Columbia River. However, Senft (1995) questions these claims and calls for further research on the matter. (Meltzer & Musolf 2003: 143)
Yeah, I'm also not sure. Estonians say little and prefer silence, but it does not mean that we don't have access rituals (as I understand it, specific culturally conditioned ways of approaching other people).
Malinowski's neologism emerged from his study of meaning in nonliterate languages, especially among the Tribriand Islanders. This source limited his focus, perforce, to face-to-face conversations. Most linguists have followed his lead by treating phatic communion as, exclusively, a speech phenomenon. Quirk (1962: 59), for example, writes of "a use of language which relates only to speech, to spoken and not written language." On the other hand, McArthur (1992) and Crystal (1987) indicate that phatic expressions are conventional in the salutations and farewells of letters ("Dearest friend," "Sincerely yours") and in commercial greeting cards. Also, some scholars (e.g., Pavlidou 1994) have included telephone conversations within the purview of phatic communion, and e-mail, obviously, is a recend medium. We see no compelling reason for restricting the concept solely to speech; however, as Rlystal (1987: 178) points out, "the immediacy of speech makes it ideal for social or 'phatic' functions." Hayakawa (1947: 62) expresses a somewhat similar view, pointing out that breaking bread together, playing games together, and working together are ways of establishing communion, "but talking together is the most easily arranged of all these forms of collective activity." (Meltzer & Musolf 2003: 143)
This is a good point. Nowadays it seems impossible to confine phatic to speech, since there are even more recent mediums than e-mails that are phatic (i.e. phatic technologies). But there is also a point for at least keeping "phatic" confined to communicative phenomena, as opposed to something like phatic architecture, since the etymology does involve speech. Hayakawa's view is very illustrative of this difficulty: eating, playing and working can indeed be collective activities that establish communion, but only speech can be phatic communion, since that's what "phatic" means.
As we earlier suggested - and shall later show in some detail - phatic communion functions to affirm and reaffirm social bonds. This use of language, Wardhaugh (1993: 171) astutely asserts, "serves humans much like 'grooming behavior' serves many animals," bringing them together and helping to maintain social relationships. In a similar vein, Chaika (1982: 32) tells us that phatic expressions are akin to patting dogs on the head as a way of letting them know we care. (Meltzer & Musolf 2003: 143)
Much like one architecture theorist who noted the phaticity of "wallflowers", here it seems equally important to emphasize manifesting "care". This makes especially a lot of sense in relation with the quarreling Pauline and Arthur example in relation with phatic intrpretations: if they haven't spoken with each other in three days then finally saying something, anything, is a way to let each other know that they still care; i.e. "Pauline still loves me".
Malinowski (1943) and many linguists (e.g., Steible 1967; Marsh 1989) equate phatic communion with polite, friendly speech, which implies tie-binding consideration of the feelings of others. (Meltzer & Musolf 2003: 143)
Consideration of the feelings of others is exactly the point where "phatic" meets "emphatic". In The Ethnography of speaking Delly Hymes goes as far as writing that "The function which Malinowski called "phatic communion" can be taken as a kind of alternating or reciprocal expressive function of speech, as when housewives exchange stories about their children or anthropologists about their field work." This is also in line with Piaget's 'dual or collective' monologue, "a certain type of drawing-room conversation where everyone talks about himself and no one listens" (Piaget 1959: 9; in Harris 1996: 168-169). In this view phatic communion consists of communal expressive speech.
Schneider (1988), in fact, equates phaticity with politeness. It is clear, however, that while politeness manifests itself on both the communicative and non-communicative levels, phaticity is found only on the former level. (Meltzer & Musolf 2003: 144)
You can politely not communicate, but you cannot not communicate phatically? This is where the so-called minus-phatic aspect gets really dubious, for it basically depends on whether we lean more towards Malinowski's phatic communion or Jakobson's phatic function, since the latter also includes the aspect of termination. But what is phatic about not communicating? In a face-to-face interaction, perhaps nothing. But if phaticity is viewed also as a quality and something like sociopetal and sociofugal phatic dispositions are considered, then it turns out that the phatic aspect in communication styles consists of a proneness towards phatic communion (sociopetal phatic disposition) or aversiveness towards phatic communion (sociofugal phatic dispositions). In other words, some people like to engage in phatic communion, others don't. To refer back to the universality contention, this is also a cultural matter. In some cultures it is polite to greet and chit-chat, in others it is exactly impolite to do so (Why are you bothering me?).
Encompassed by such speech - again, according to Malinowski and some linguists - is idle gossip, in the sense of "free, aimless social intercourse" (1943: 313). However, Schneider (1981) argues that gossip must be excluded from phatic communion because much gossip is, inescapably, intended to be referental, or informative (thereby violating a defining characteristic of phaticity). It would appear to us, on the other hand, that specific instances of gossip may be considered phatic to the extent that the foreground relational goals. Thus, a distinction can be made between aspects of the use of utterances that ma be referred to their function as phatic communion and aspects that may be referred to their referential function. (Meltzer & Musolf 2003: 144)
These authors really have a habit of treating the key issues related to phaticity. This point of contention here concerns whether something like "Gossip and marketplace psychology" (Rosnow 1977) should be included in the phatic canon, as Manuel Padilla Cruz (2013: 137-138) does. Since I'm more of a Jakobsonian myself I have no real problem with it, since the structuralist view does not exclude viewing communication as having a dominant phatic function with a subordinated referential function. That is, when housewives exchange stories about their children or anthropologists about their field work, they are still engaged in phatic communion.
Numerious depictions of phatic utterances are available. Such expressions are typically formulistic or stereotyped, composed of cliches and platitudes, noncommittal or perfunctory, minimally self-involved, avoidant of comments that are too personal, given to saying what one is expected to say, and marked by subordination of literal or "real" meaning. (Meltzer & Musolf 2003: 144)
Žegarac & Clark generalized phatic utterances as "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" (1999: 335). This is spot on.
Clearly, phatic communion requires - as in any effective communication - that the listener share the speaker's intended meaning, that interactants participate in a process of mutually sustaining a definition of the situation. As Goffman (1969: 9) puts the matter:
Indeed, the very sense of a message depends on our telling whether it is conveyed, for example, seriously, or sarcastically, or tentatively, as an indirect quotation, and in face-to-face communication this "framing" information derives from paralinguistic cues such as intonation, facial gestures, and the like - cues that have an expressive, not semantic, character.
Although we have, thus far, dealt only with the verbal medium of phatic communion, one need hadly be reminded that substitutes for verbalisms are to be found in handshakes, smiles, hugs, kisses on or past cheeks, slightly prolonged eye contact, and the like. [...] As we indicated earlier, Goffman 91967), too, stressed the importance of glances, gestures, and positioning - along with verbalizations - in meeting ritual requirements that signal willingness to interact. (Meltzer & Musolf 2003: 144)
Here we take the long route to metacommunication. That is essentially what Goffman is treating in that passage: that expressive (analog) signs frame or comment on (communicate about) how semantic (digital) signals should be interpreted. The classical example of a phatic utterance, "How are you?", depends in its phaticity very much on the tone of voice it is enunciated with. If it is said in a fast pace and overemphasized tone, it's more likely to be phatic; but if someone looks you in the eye and with a concerned tone asks you this same question, it is possible that s/he is actually interested and demands a non-phatic reply.
Idle talk, chit-chat, and gossip tend to provide the content of those medial phases of interactions that are marked predominantly by phaticity. In the course of such conversations - and, in fact, of other conversations - participants may employ what Goffman (1981: 28) calls "keep-going signals" in order to perpetuate the encounter: "Gee, gosh, wow, hmm, tsk, no!" when the chief aim of conversation is not to exchange information but to keep the conversation going, participants may interpolate bits of information, but sociability tends to outweigh referential marks. (Meltzer & Musolf 2003: 147)
And here phaticity links up with what Ekman and Friesen in "The Repertoire of Nonverbal Behavior: Categories, Origins, Usage, and Coding" (1969) called regulators. The convergence shouldn't be that difficult to comprehend; regulators control and coordinate interaction. That's also what the phatic function does according to the Jakobsonian interpretation.
That people generally feel obliged to avoid silence in situations of copresence has long been noted. In an ethnocentric (and classist) statement, Malinowski (1943: 313) asserted: "To the primitive mind, whether among savages or our own unedicated classes, taciturnity means not only unfriendliness but directly a bad character." Similarly, Akindele (1990: 3) finds that, among the Yoruba, failure to greet another in appropriate contexts tends to induce bad feelings, especially among close friends and relatives, to the extent that it can give rise to suspicion of sorcery or witchcraft. In most societies, of course, this failure to break silence in "sociability" contexts generally leads to such designations as "rudeness," "social error," "unfriendliness," "unsociability," "egregious behavior," "snub," or "cut," and to such feeling-responses as distance, alienation, distrust, dislike, fear, or ill will - not to mention puzzlement, at times, about the source of the offender's omission. (Meltzer & Musolf 2003: 147)
This is where the concepts of sociopetal and sociofugal phatic dispositions could really come in handy. My argument is that different levels - from individual to group to society - may have varying dispositions regarding phatic communion and there is a real possibility of mismatching phatic dispositions in intercultural communication. A good illustration of this is concerns the display rule (Ekman's term) for smiling in social interaction. Americans view smiling as politeness; Russians on the other hand view smiling as an expression of happiness. So when an American goes to Russian everyone appear rude and unfriendly to him; and consequently when a Russian goes to America the frequent smiles will ultimately lead the Russian to deem Americans phony and deceitful (they smile without actually being happy).
Another contextual element is that of the prior relationship between interactants. Linguists disagree on some aspects of this issue. While Wardhaugh (1985) holds that much of the dialogue between closely bonded participants tends to be phatic in nature, Marsh (1989) expresses the common view that small talk (used synonymously with phatic communion) takes place only between strangers. Schneider (1988: 287) leans toward the latter view in his assertion that "[a]s a rule, the share of phatic elements in a conversation decreases, the closer the interpersonal relationship." This less restrictive view comports with our everyday experiences and observations: we may exchange superficial, uninvolved greetings and farewells with both a bartender and a friend, but, in the time between greeting and farewell, our talk with the friend is more likely to be serious and referential than mere "talk for the sake of talk." (Meltzer & Musolf 2003: 149)
Exactly the conclusion I reached when reviewing Laver's (1975) paper. I think this holds a potential for another conjunction with Morris-Rueschian concept of communization. Namely, the phatic exchange with strangers usually have a goal, which is either to greet and say please and thanks in order to get something done (with a bartender) or to get to know the person (with an acquaintance), But with friends and relatives there is less emphasis on this because you already have a communion, you already know the person and instead of feigning interest there is real interest in his or her well-being. Thus, my argument here is that it takes more effort to be phatic with strangers, which consequently leads us to notice it more. With friends our casual conversations may involve a lot of phatic communion, but since it's effortless we don't really pay attention to how phatic it really is. This is just a hypothesis. Empirical studies may very well contradict it.
Laver (1975, 1981) has written intensively about the effects of relative social status (and power) on phaticity in England. He begins his insightful discussion by differentiating self-oriented comments, (referring to the speaker, e.g., "This heat is too much for me"), other-oriented comments (referring to the listener, e.g., "How was your weekend?"), and neutral comments (referring to neither, e.g., "It's a nice day"). (Meltzer & Musolf 2003: 150)
Laver is indeed a systematic thinker, and seems to gain at least some of his systematization directly from Jakobson (or at least so it seems to me). Here he has basically differentiated phatic-emotive, phatic-conative, and phatic-referential utterances. That is, first-person, second-person, and third-person reference in phatic utterances. One should not get too hung up on the term "referential" - in Jakobsonian thinking it's related to context, so that something like "It's a nice day" refers to the shared situation of the interactants, or at least something neutral not directly related to sender or receiver.


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