Using “Phatic Speech” to Help with Small Talk

by David Mein

Something introverts often complain about is having to make small talk. It baffles us how people can have long conversations about essentially nothing. And it’s always pointless (I know it’s nice out, we’re outside!). In the end, of course, it’s one of those things we just have to accept and try to do, even if we’re not particularly good at it.

But today I want to add to the usual introvert discussion about small talk the concept of phatic speech. In real life, I’m a student of translation studies and when translating, what is said is often not as important as the function of what is said. That is, it’s not so much the words themselves, but what the words are supposed to make the reader do. With this is mind, linguists have categorized language according to function. The linguists Katharina Reiss and Hans Vermeer, for example, came up with three types of texts; informative, expressive and operative.

The linked table shows how Reiss and Vermeer categorized texts according to function. Informative texts have the function of representing objects and facts, expressive texts have the function of expressing the sender’s attitudes, and operative texts have the function of making an appeal to the text’s receiver.

So what is phatic speech and what does it have to do with introversion? “Phatic” speech is a concept developed by another linguist, Roman Jakobson, and its function is simply, as the wikipedia article puts it, “to perform a social task, as opposed to conveying information.” In other words, a lot of speech, like small talk, has no purpose other than to make a connection with another person. It may seem pointless to let me know what the weather’s like when we’re already outside, but conveying information about the weather wasn’t the purpose of the statement to begin with.

In fact, if you read further down in the wikipedia article, you’ll see that “phatic speech” is sometimes called “verbal grooming.” That’s “grooming” like when monkeys pick nits off of each other and eat them as a means of social bonding. Small talk is just a more evolved version of that.

So how can you use this new information? Knowing that small talk is supposed to be pointless won’t make it any more interesting, but it may help alleviate some of the anxiety around it. Like any introvert, even when I accept that small talk has to happen, I have a hard time coming up with something to say. I’ve realized, however, that I have this difficulty because I feel whatever I say has to be meaningful. Understanding that the function of some speech is just to connect with the other person makes it a little easier to say something inane like “It’s really nice out today.”

The lesson for today, then, is that just because some speech may be meaningless, that doesn’t mean it has no function. Humans are social animals, and they use speech as a way to connect. Like the rest of you introverts, I don’t always enjoy small talk and find it difficult at times, but, in the end, I prefer it to eating the nits off another person.

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