Phatic Negotiation

Coupland, Justine; Nikolas Coupland and Jeffrey D. Robinson 1992. "How are you?": Negotiating phatic communion. Language in Society 21: 207-230.

Since its introduction by Malinowski in the 1920s, "phatic communion" has often been appealed to as a concept in sociolinguistics, semantics, stylistics, and communication, typically taken to designate a conventionalized and desemanticized discourse mode or "type." (Coupland, Coupland & Robinson 1992: 207)
Conventionalization touches upon the routine and standard nature; and desemantization is aligned with the asemanticity, referential irrelevance, etc. of phatic utterances.
But a negotiation perspective, following the conversation analysis tradition of research on greetings and troubles telling, fits the discursive realities better. Phaticity is a multidimensional potential for talk in many social settings, where speakers' relational goals supercede their commitment to factuality and instrumentality. (Coupland, Coupland & Robinson 1992: 207)
I understand potential (e.g. phaticity enables future communication due to earlier contact), but how is it multidimensional? What dimensions are there? (Could organon orientations be such directions?) Elsewhere I've met a lot of talk of relations and relationships, but relational goals is a new one. Jumping a bit ahead of myself, "pseudo-phatic" communion would in this sense be a communion wherein relational goals do not supercede instrumental ones. And "factuality" is just as weird as La Barre's insistence on semantic communication being about "genuine or verifiable statements about the structure of the universe". It's weird for me because I don't think in terms of truth value. In my opinion people don't go around spouting facts about the universe.
Although phatic communion is a concept that has surfaced quite regularly in semantics, sociolinguistics, and communication research, there have been very few systematic attempts to draw on or elaborate on the concept in sociolinguistics or discourse studies, the main exception being Laver's series of papers in the 1970s and 1980s (see later discussion). Consequently, phatic communion remains an often appealed to but underanalized term in an implicit taxonomy of discourse "types." (Coupland, Coupland & Robinson 1992: 207)
This is all too true for phatics in general. Too frequently one meets quotes from Malinowski or Jakobson and some slight variation in the choice of terms, but in-depth analysis of the issues involved is rare. (Meltzer & Musolf 2003 is a commendable exception in this regard.)
On the assumption that the need for the mere presence of others is "one of the bedrock aspects of man's [sic] nature in society," speech can be seen as "the intimate correlate of this tendency" (Malinowski 1972: 150). Therefore, communion among humans will often be marked in speech - "phatically." (Coupland, Coupland & Robinson 1992: 208)
Why is "man's" earmarked with [sic]? It seems pretty clear that Malinowski means man here in the archaic general sense of human. Likewise, there's a slight shift in the word "society" which we today understand more abstractly than mere "company of others". This is one of the biggest issues with Malinowski - his language is so archaic that in modern contxts it becomes fluid. There have been so many shifts in language use.
In this initial delimitation, we find the origins of the interpretation of phatic communion as a form of "small talk," discourse operating in a limited domain and dislocated from practical action and what Malinowski thought of as "purposive activities" (which include hunting, tilling soil, and war in "primitive" societies). (Coupland, Coupland & Robinson 1992: 208)
How limited is the domain of phatic speech?
"But though the hearing given to such utterances is as a rule not as intense as the speaker's own share, it is quite essential for his [sic] pleasure" (Malinowski 1972: 150-151). (Coupland, Coupland & Robinson 1992: 209)
Would a phrase like "his or her pleasure" be better? I have a rather hard time getting the details of the sentence as a whole: what does "the speaker's own share" refer to? The intensity of hearing? I don't quite understand what's going on there. Through all these Malinowski quotes I'm actually thinking that it might be a good idea to perform an "intralingual translation" of the relevant pages (the excerpt in Laver's 1972 edition, for example) and update the language. Even for just the exercise of it.
Inquiries about health [our emphasis, since the expression relates directly to the data we consider later], comments on the weather, affirmations of some supremely obvious state of things - all such are exchanged, not in order to inform, not in this case to connect people to action, certainly not in order to express any thought. (Malinowski 1972: 151)
The legacy of Malinowski's treatment is therefore a somewhat ambivalent view of phatic communion - talk that is aimless, prefatory, obvious, uninteresting, sometimes suspect, and even irrelevant, but part of the process of fulfilling our intrinsically human needs for social coheniveness and mutual recognition. (Coupland, Coupland & Robinson 1992: 209)
I emphasize their emphasis on inquiries about health because it validates my previous opinion that almost all authors pick one or other aspect of Malinowski's "somewhat ambivalent" exposition and run with it. La Barre takes "commens on the weather" and turns it into interpersonal atmosphere. Blanco takes up the affirmation aspect and shows how families re-affirm their membership through family pictures.
In the many later uses of the term phatic communion, it is the negative valuation that predominates, particularly when talk is analyzed to be referentially deficient and communicatively insignificant. (Coupland, Coupland & Robinson 1992: 209)
So the case is similar with its namesake, phatic function, which in some corners has become synonymous with any "attention-getting device".
Wolfson (1981) discussed how foreign students in the United States complain about "phoney" invitations to social events offered insincerely as part of phatic small talk. (Coupland, Coupland & Robinson 1992: 209)
While reading Meltzer & Musolf (2003) I had a similar connection regarding sociability and fugal/pedal dispositions. Foreign students from cultures with a sociofugal dispositions in a social environment with a sociopetal disposition can indeed feel like all the smiling, handshaking and welcoming language is really a thin facade of sociability substantiated by nothing more than convention. Reference: Wolfson, N 1981. Invitations, compliments, and the competence of the native speaker. International Journal of Psycholinguistics 8: 7-22.
Cheepen (1988) revived Malinowski's distinction between language as a mode of action and phatic communion. She renamed phatic communion "chat" (Cheepen 1988: 14ff), though she took the category to include narrative as a key element (which Malinowski in fact considered a separate category). (Coupland, Coupland & Robinson 1992: 209)
Depends on the definition of "narrative" though. Isn't "life-history" a kind of narrative? Reference: Cheepen, C. 1988. The Predictability of informal conversation. London: Pinter.
Hudson (1980) glossed phatic communion as "the kind of chit-chat that people engage in simply in order to show that they recognize each other's presence" (Hudson 1980: 109). (Coupland, Coupland & Robinson 1992: 209)
That's actually a pretty good approximation. The emphasis is not only on affirmation and consent but on the actualy function of greetings, the show of recognition and acknowledgement. Reference: Hudson, R. A. 1980. Sociolinguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Turner (1973) saw it as semantically "empty." In his view, we should "give the name 'phatic language' to all language which is designed more to accommodate and acknowledge a hearer than to carry a message" (Turner 1973: 212). (Coupland, Coupland & Robinson 1992: 210)
Similar to the last, but with an emphasis on sign systems. In historical context it is actually a step back: expressive language, for example, became the emotive function over time, as did ideational language become referential function. That phatic function should become phatic language is unprecedented due to starting out in Malinowski's treatment as a language function, but can indeed be viewed also as a subset of language, if language is understood more like a system of code (in Jakobsonian sense).
Taken as a whole, these later treatments tend to underplay Malinowski's insistence on the human embeddedness of phatic communion - indeed his motivation for using the term communion rather than communication and speech. (Coupland, Coupland & Robinson 1992: 210)
I have attributed this to Jakobson's influnce, this underplaying of "communion" in phatic communion. Part of it is probably the crypticness of both "communion" and "embeddedness".
But beyond this, the assumptions underlying many of these contemporary approaches raise their own difficulties. Phatic communion is taken to designate some sort of minimalist communicative practice, though along several possible dimensions. The "mereness" of phatic communion (which is clear enough in Malinowski too) by virtue of its low interest value, low information value, low relevance, perhaps also its low trustworthiness, presuposses an alternative mode of "true" or "authentic" discourse from which phatic talk deviates. (Coupland, Coupland & Robinson 1992: 210)
Don't they know that true and authentic discourse consist of genuine and verifiable statements about the structure of the universe?
What might "proper," "full," or "accelerated" communicative interaction involve? Taking the converses of the (consensual) defining attributes of phatic talk, we would have to identify talk that involved: (1 factual information exchange, (2) intrumental goals, (3) serious key, and (4) unwavering committment to openness, truth, and disclosiveness. These characteristics are not dissimilar from those referred to in Grice's well-known maxims of cooperative talk. But there are many reasons to doubt (and Grice himself was far from claiming) that we can identify such a mode of talk in action let alone treat it as a communication ideal (see Brown & Rogers 1991, for a parallel discussion. The most important reason is that it is demonstrably the case that even our most instrumental, transactional encounters are pervasively organized around multiple interactional goals that go well beyond the transmission and reception of factual information (see Tracy 1991; Tracy & Coupland 1991). Goals of talk that relate to building, modifying, or dissolving personal relationships, and, on the other hand, those that have to do with the definition and redefinition of one's own and others' identities as interacting beings, are no less intrinsic to the enterprise of talking. (Coupland, Coupland & Robinson 1992: 211)
The latter two goals are very much to my interest. Namely, "talk that relates to [...] personal relationships" is a broad conception of "communication about relationship" (a variant of metacommunication that Bateson terms the μ-function). The narrow concept that Bateson actually subscribes to involves the current relationship between the interactants, while the broad concept involves all kinds of relationships. In this sense, a speaker divulging information about his or her relationship to his or her parents is a form of phatic communication. Dell Hymes remarks that the "psychological connection" seems to him "significantly independent of the nature and state of the channel". How independent? Surely, independent enough to be about the social relationship between the participants that extends outside of the current communicative interaction. But if we took a truly "network"-oriented stance, then the "psychological connection" between the participants depends not only on their own mutual relationship but on the various types of relationships and networks of relationships that they are a part of. That is, phatic speech would involve not only speech about speaking in the current interaction (i.e. "Were you going to say something?") but also about relationships external to it (i.e. Laver's example, "Say hello to Jeanie for me"). This is what Laver describes as "a web of social solidarity with the speaker by the ties of common acquaintance" and I don't think this aspect has been developed enough in phatic studies. The second goal, the transformation of identities, comes to the foreground when we treat the relationship between phatic communion and autocommunication, but this will have to wait. (Roy Harris wasn't as useful in this regard as I would have hoped. I hope I find a better treatment of it somewhere somewhen.)
This suggests that it is quite wrong to isolate a discourse mode that embodies relational closeness as some partial or minor act of communication. As Malinowski had it, phatic communion may on the contrary be what is communicatively a most human process. Phaticity may be best seen as a constellation of interactional goals that are potentially relevant to all contexts of human interchange. Yet in the majority tradition of analysis, there are interesting allegiances to capitalist and patriarchal ethics. "True" communication is assumed to be geared to productive and efficient achievement through the business of exchanging serious information. This is the critical standpoint from which some feminist writers embrace rather than resist the notion of female gossip. (Coupland, Coupland & Robinson 1992: 211)
In my view phatic communion is the "degree zero" - as the French would put it - of communication. It foregrounds the act or fact of communication. Not only that but it brings human sociality, its sociability, into play by emphasizing that relational closeness is an indivisible part of communication. It could even be said that communication is impossible without some form of relational closeness - an anonymous message unintended for a specific receiver with whom the source has no relationship is as much communication as, to make up a natural metaphor, empty pods can be considered "peas".
The underlying goals of phatic talk are seen as establishing relationships and achieving transition. Because these together are defining characteristics of ritual activities, phatic communion for Laver falls within the scope of this general category. Laver willingly acknowledges the debt his theoretical position owes to Firth's (1972) work on greeting and parting as ritual and patterned routines. But again, ritual sequences, Laver suggests, are far from purposeless and desemanticized. There is the basic consideration that all utterances, phatic or otherwise, mean contrastively by being differentiated from other possible utterances, or from silence, in the context of their use. Hymes (personal communication) also noted that "even if the what of a ritual is predictable [...] there is information in the how. In a perfunctory manner, with feeling, haltingly, masterfully, respectfully, disrespectfully." Laver also argued that the linguistic form of a phatic initiative both constrains the thematic development of the interaction (i.e., it is sequentially meaningful) and confers crucial indexical meanings (i.e., it is socially diagnostic). (Coupland, Coupland & Robinson 1992: 212)
"Meaning contrastively" is a "weakly constitutive aspect" (Bilmes 1994: 77) or what you might call "undiluted Saussure" (Harris 1996: 174-175). Nevertheless, the point about performance rather than content by Dell Hymes stands. If only I could get my hands on Martin Joos's The Five Clocks... In any case, I'm considering reading Raymond Firth's paper next.
There is little to be achieved from setting the traditional, Malinowski-derived "small talk" perspective and Laver's functional, prosocial perspective in opposition to each other. In some respects, Malinowski and Laver addressed (or assumed) independent ranges of interactional situations. (Coupland, Coupland & Robinson 1992: 212)
And other researchers go on to address and assume even more independent ranges of interactional situations (i.e. phatic technologies) and forms of communication (i.e. phatic images, phatic architecture).
It is not difficult to envisage situations where the phaticity of utterances is a matter of cultural definition and where criteria for defining forms of talk as phatic or otherwise will differ across social groups. (Coupland, Coupland & Robinson 1992: 213)
A matter of "cultural definition" or "phatic interpretation".
From the multiple goals perspective we referred to earlier, we might see the fringes of interaction as a natural locus for relational goals to be foregrounded - that is, as sequences where a phatic design or "frame" for talk (Goffman 1974) is particularly salient. On the other hand, by this account, phatic communion would cease to be associated uniquely with the fringes of encounters (Laver) or extended chatting (Malinowski, Cheepen) and we should expect to find instances where a relationally designed and perhaps phatic mode of talk surfaces whenever relational goals become salient - even within sequences of transactional, instrumental, or task-oriented talk. (Coupland, Coupland & Robinson 1992: 213)
This is actually more akin to a Jakobsonian perspective than one would think. Instead of transactional, instrumental or task-oriented talk you would have various linguistic functions, but the essence is same - the phatic function or mode can become dominant or salient whenever emphasis on contact or relational goals surface.
If in phatic communion there is a preference for positivity that, as Malinowski suggested, might lead to false expressions of interest in and engagement with a speaking partner, we must recognize that this can be true of talk in very many contexts of interaction. (Coupland, Coupland & Robinson 1992: 214)
Do you mean "emphasis of affirmation and consent"?
At this point, it is valuable to follow Hymes's critique of Jakobson's taxonomy of speech functions. Jakobson (1960) had acknowledged the multi-functionality of individual speech events, and even acts, but proposed that "the verbal structure of a message depends on the predominant function" (Jakobson 1960: 120). However, Hymes (1968) argued that, "the defining characteristic of some speech events may be a balance, harmonious or conflicting, between more than one function. If so, the interpretation of a speech event is far from a matter of assigning it to one of sever types of functions" (Hymes 1968: 120). Although phatic communion "can be taken as a kind of alternating or reciprocal expressive function of speech" (Hymes 1968: 121, Hymes argued that there need be no simple link between the phatic function and the existence of contact or rapport. "Messages to establish, prolong or discontinue communication may neither intend nor evoke a sense of communion; there may be a clear channel and no rapport" (ibid.). (Coupland, Coupland & Robinson 1992: 214)
Jakobson doesn't subscribe to neither rapport nor communion. His phatic function is more technical, closer to Bateson's metacommunication. But now I have a reference for Hymes's discussion of phatic function: Hymes, Dell 1968. The ethnography of speaking. In: Fishman, J. A. (ed.), Readings in the sociology of language. Mouton: The Hague, 99-138.
So again, phatic communion cannot be defined as a type of talk, though the term can still locate an intriguing cluster of sociopsychological orientations to talk, along at least two key dimensions. Figure 1 is an attempt to illustrate social situations that may typicall, however grossly, be associated with different priorities for talk in terms of expressed or perceived commitment to openness and truth (the vertical dimension) and the degree of foregrounding of relational goals (horizontal dimension). What is of crucial importance here is that no single speech event (let alone speech genre) can be adequately characterized in these terms and that the phaticity of any one utterance is a matter for on-the-ground negotiation by participants as talk proceeds. (Coupland, Coupland & Robinson 1992: 214)
What is crucial, in essence, is that phaticity is a matter of interpretation. What is not crucialy, t would seem, is the choice of dimensions, because I would not put "commitment to openness" and "foregrounding of relational goals" as the primary phatic dimensions. I would rather go for "referential irrelevance" and "willingness to communicate" but even here I have my doubts.
(Coupland, Coupland & Robinson 1992: 215)
Too bad there is no lengthy exposition on this diagram because it's pretty interesting. The fact that phatic communion is set low on the scale of degree of expressed or perceived commitment to open disclosure, seriousness, factuality, etc. is somewhat limiting, because I see no reason why phatic communion can't be disclosive, serious, or factual. In my opinion it can be all of these, but only when it is also marked by a relational goal or emphasis on the autonomy of communication (i.e. I can discuss high concept philosophy not in order to seriously inform my listener but in order to pass time relatively pleasantly, because in some company this is what phatic communion consists of). Likewise, some hold transactional talk like booking a ticket to be phatic, because it is routine, formulaic. Really, the clustering of disclosure, seriousness and factuality into a single dimension seems erroneous.
Important further possibilities are that participants in talk may orient differently at one moment, among themselves but also individually at different moments, to the phaticity of an utterance. That is, we want to suggest that phatic communion may be negotiated relationally, and in real time. A sequence of what we might term phatic exchange may quite feasibly be constructed otu of qualitatively different participant roles that may themselves shift in the course of a single utterance. (Coupland, Coupland & Robinson 1992: 215-217)
I would argue that phaticity is really a matter of multi-levelled interpretation: there are socio-culturally defined situations and speech genres that are considered phatic; there occurs a relational negotiation of phaticity during the interaction; but there is also an intrapersonal interpretation of whether a given interaction was, is, or is going to be phatic or not.
Beyond this and in line with Fawcett's arguments, a more strategic analysis is necessary, allowing for the possibility that phatic talk can be engaged in dissimulatively, with an inherent and often valuable ambiguity. (Coupland, Coupland & Robinson 1992: 217)
Inching towards pseudo-phatic communion?
The data we consider show that establishing phatic/nonphatic modes of talk is indeed a complex, structured process, but one in which speakers feel their way toward or away from phaticity of their conversational exchanges through anything but pure, categorizable responses. We also raise the possibility that negotiating a response to HAY? [How are you?] is more than a simple act of self-disclosure (true or false) and is in fact a creative act toward establishing "tow we are" developmentally. (Coupland, Coupland & Robinson 1992: 219)
This is awesome - a processual approach to phatic communion (instead of the commonplace structural-functional).
But even here, and given that medical consultations need to be bounded with initiatory and perhaps particulary propitiatory talk (to defuse anxiety and establish rapport), HAY? will still need to be negotiated, and phatic processes are likely to present themselves for analysis. (Coupland, Coupland & Robinson 1992: 219)
This is marked up because I need alternative phraseology if I am to "update" the language in Malinowski's original treatment (I'm still considering attempting that).


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