Timothy Donaldson’s tweet made me think about how much mid-winter is the season for phatic communication. I think phatic communication is one of those small, but nevertheless delightful points of communication theory.
Just a phatic one for now
— Timothy Donaldson (@tmthy_dnldsn) December 26, 2014
Phatic communication means messages which do not convey new information, but simply aim to keep the communication channel open. The term was coined by Malinowski and elaborated by Roman Jakobson, who writes:
[M]essages primarily serving to establish, to prolong, or to discontinue communication, to check whether the channel works […], to attract the attention of the interlocutor or to confirm his continued attention […]. This set for contact, or in Malinowski’s terms phatic function, may be displayed by a profuse exchange of ritualized formulas, by entire dialogues with the mere purport of prolonging communication.1
All, or at least most communication, can be said to contain a phatic element. But many messages are almost purely phatic. This includes our daily ‘Hellos’, ‘Good mornings’, and so on. An engineer bent on efficiency might now say that if this communication doesn’t convey information, it seems useless and we might as well stop doing it. But as John Fiske points out, the importance of phatic communication is not so much in what is said, but in the fact that it is said at all:
My ‘Hello’ may not alter or develop the relationship, but not saying ‘Hello’ would certainly weaken it.2
Therefore, I always joke to my students that they should stop saying ‘Hello’ in the morning and simply state ‘Phatic communication’ to each other. After all, it doesn’t really matter what you say, as long as you say something which fulfils the phatic function.
Seasons greetings, Christmas, and New Year cards are a fun example of phatic communication. They are not quite as mandatory as greetings when we encounter each other face to face. However, I think it is the very phatic nature of the cards that make people nervous about them. We realise – consciously or unconsciously – that sending that card once a year sends an important signal, even if you haven’t seen the recipient in a long long time. On the one hand we realise a simple Xmas card is quite trivial, but at the same time we know not sending it might be construed or misconstrued as a message of hostility or neglect.
Evolutionary psychology tells us that women spend more energy on social relationships than men. We can see how this is reflected in the stereotypical couple where the husband isn’t very interested in the cards at all. However, at the moment I don’t have the time or energy to find studies on the matter, but it might be a fun avenue to pursue further some other time.
So, this year, why not just skip the cliche statements of traditional greetings cards, and just send phatic greetings to all! ;)