The Proliferation of Phatic Communication, Or, of Cats and Ice Cream

I find myself more and more often going through a frustrating routine which involves signing into facebook, reading through the latest status updates, and after a bit of eye rolling and disappointment, signing out and vowing never to do so again (I usually repeat this several times a day). It’s partly because the process has become so predictable: Picture of cat. Picture of dog. Someone is going to the gym. An obvious observation about the weather. A Youtube link to some song everyone has heard before. Humorous anecdote. Inspirational message posted as a jpeg. However, this post isn’t (primarily) meant to be a sanctimonious knock on facebook or on the inanity or unoriginality of the things most of my “friends” post (although most of it is unbearably inane and unoriginal).

I want to discuss the broader implications of something others began noting shortly after usage of facebook and other “social media” sites became widespread, namely, the proliferation of these kinds of posts. Why this is noteworthy is because they all, despite their range of topics, tend to serve a similar function. They are all forms of “phatic communication.” This term was coined by anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski in the 1920s as somewhat of a technical term for small talk. Malinowski was originally making an observation about “primitive cultures” – he argued that phatic communication is the primary form of communication in these cultures. But, he noted that the same could be said for “civilized cultures” as well (except that “civilized cultures” were obviously better because they had science and other substantive forms of communication). Academic colonialism notwithstanding, here’s how he defined the concept:

[Phatic communication] is a flow of language, purpose-less expressions of preference or aversion, accounts of irrelevant happenings, comments on what is perfectly obvious [there is] always the same emphasis of affirmation and consent. Are words in Phatic Communion used primarily to convey meaning, the meaning which is symbolically theirs? Certainly not! They fulfil a social function, and that is their principal aim, but they are neither the result of intellectual reflection, nor do they necessarily arouse reflection in the listener. Once again we may say that language does not function here as a means of transmission of thought.

Malinowski, B. (1923) ‘Supplement 1: The Problem of Meaning in Primitive Languages’, in C. Ogden and
I. Richards (eds) The Meaning of Meaning, pp. 296–336. London: Routledge & Keegan Paul.

The chief point to hone in on here is not that phatic communication typically conveys banalities, but its social function, which is essentially to maintain social relationships by affirming ones shared feelings, attitudes, or experiences with others in a mutually reinforcing way. Example: “Ice cream is delicious!” Response: “I also like ice cream!” When you post a picture of your cat, it is so that your friends can briefly affirm their shared affinity for cats. When you post that it’s snowing outside, it’s probably not because anyone needs you to give them a weather update, it’s so you can imagine a shared experience of being out in the snow. Often I am guilty of posting quips or attempts at humorous anecdotes to facebook. In many regards this is an attempt to virtually share a laugh with others (though I don’t mean to imply that humour is inherently a phatic form of communication).

There’s nothing necessarily insidious about phatic communication. Communications Studies scholar Danica Radovanovic argues that it plays many important and non-trivial functions. On this note, I should point out that in vaguely using the concept of phatic communication I am in no way implying an argument for its consistency or rigour as an analytical concept.  Obviously, the concept has been expanded upon, challenged, and rethought since Malinowski. And I don’t mean to imply that forms of online communication like facebook are necessarily phatic (though the whole point of discussing it here is because they seem to have a structural propensity to encourage phatic communication). Phatic communication isn’t small talk because of brevity of communication. Very short messages can be informational, critical, and reflective, while long stories can serve primarily a phatic function. Also, communication and language can most likely serve multiple simultaneous functions. In other words, phatic communication, and online communication in general (and pretty much everything else I discuss for that matter), is bound to be way more complicated than how I’m presenting it here.

Anyway, for the sake of argument, I’m going to assume that there is a phenomena something like what Malinowski was talking about, and that most people will likely will be familiar with this kind of discourse (is it even discourse? I’m not going to get started on that one…). Furthermore, there’s also arguably a good reason that some people are disdainful of small talk. It is mundane. It is predictable. In some ways it is symptomatic of unreflective, status quo attitudes. It is entirely unremarkable and unoriginal. It challenges nothing. It interrogates nothing. It reflects on nothing. It progresses nothing. One of the reasons for this, I speculate, is that beyond its function in creating and maintaining social groups, phatic communication serves a validation function. It uncritically and superficially validates one’s tastes, feelings, and opinions. Other people also like ice cream? Other people also get frustrated driving in traffic? Other people also like the same song as I do? I must be right then!

On the same theme as my recent post about being cynical about the media, I have noticed a proliferation of editorials and opinion pieces that serve such a purpose (I’m still cynical by the way). The pieces are obviously longer than facebook updates and tweets, but the function is the same – the validation of opinions. But the validation does not come from original argumentation or rebuttals, the introduction of previously unknown evidence, or a careful and detailed analysis. It’s entirely superficial. I should probably do a detailed textual analysis to show you what I mean, but I suspect that most people are probably anecdotally familiar with that I’m talking about. The more controversial the subject, the more easily an op-ed piece serves a phatic function, but any mildly polarizing subject will do. With virtually no effort, here are some examples that I found on the homepage of various online newspapers. From the Toronto Star we find an op-ed piece entitled “Unlike Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, Ontario Premiere Kathleen Wynne is an Adult,” while someone at the Globe and Mail writes, “Hey Liberals, Stop Boring us to Death,” and from the National Post we learn, “With the Claim of Soft Genocide Quebec’s Desperate Separatists Reach a Pathetic New Low.”

It’s quite clear just from reading these titles you know whether you are going to agree with the editorials. And unsurprisingly, if you are agnostic or you disagree with the implied argument, there is little of substance that will convince you otherwise to be found in the exposition that follows (topic for a later post: Is trolling the negative corollary of phatic communication?). If you agree, you will probably read the article and feel that your already held beliefs have been validated, since someone as smart and authoritative as a newspaper editorialist agrees with you.  

Ok, so here’s the question (that won’t be answered here): Has the rise of social communication technologies like facebook and twitter had a broad impact on all forms or mediums of online communication? In other words, is the rest of communication on the internet becoming more like facebook and twitter? Or more substantially, is human communication becoming primarily phatic? I’m usually very wary of excitedly pronouncing that some new technology is causing fundamental qualitative shifts in human behaviour, so I suspect that the answer to at least the last of these questions is no. Quite clearly, humans were phatically communicating like rabbits long before the advent of the internet. At the very least, the internet, and sites like facebook in particular, has greatly facilitated phatic communication – there’s  more of it in absolute terms. But of course, the internet has greatly facilitated all other kinds of communication as well, so in relative terms, who knows? Somebody would have to study that, and that would probably take a long time and a lot of effort (somebody write a grant application, quick!). An interesting place to start would be to try to categorize editorials and news pieces of a particular site or sites, and see if the ratio of phatic pieces to informational news pieces shifts over time. Of course, then there would be all sorts of study design problems, like how to define informational pieces as opposed to phatic pieces, and in the case of the latter, one would have to differentiate between substantive arguments and the shallow expression of opinions. Which seems impossible. And this is why it’s so much easier to write speculative anecdotal pieces that merely assume others’ validating agreement…

(Jokes aside, others have speculated more seriously than I have here on these questions – no answers though – in case you want to read more/validate your opinions on the subject).

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3 thoughts on “The Proliferation of Phatic Communication, Or, of Cats and Ice Cream

  1. I recently got involved with the social media platform called Pinterest. At first I used it as a way to search for and store new dinner recipes, and when I wanted to share these dinner recipes with my friends, pinterest made it easy. I was happily pinning away without much interaction with others. Then I re-posted something about what to eat before and after working out. That pin changed everything. That was my first big pin. In the last two days I’ve received over 10 emails from pinterest telling me how all these girls (who I have never and will never heard of or met) have liked my pin and re-pinned my pin. Pinterest injected me with an overwhelming sense of popularity and feeling “cool” ’cause something I liked, EVERYONE else liked! And so all I want to do is pin more and get more likes and have more girls repin what I pin, and I’ll keep feeling amazing……
    The people at pinterest are geniuses – they are owning Phatic Communication right now.
    You know, I’m a little scared though. Will I ever feel the same high I got from my first big pin?

  2. This post about phatic communication fits in with what I am studying in Language Theory at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. I did a Google search on “phatic communication social media,” and your post was up near the top. Your title not only included phatic communication but also cats and ice cream. I love cats and also sneaking in a mention of cats in school assignments.

    Your point about social media being a form of phatic communication makes sense, and I also like your point about some editorials serving a phatic purpose. I’m glad I found your blog and look forward to reading more posts.

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