This week: The Phatic MaximEdited by: Max Griffin 🏳️🌈
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The Phatic Maxim
You say goodbye, I say hello
The famous Beatles song wonders why some people say goodbye while others say hello, but did you ever wonder why we say "hello" in the first place? After all, it doesn't really say anything. It's basically information free.
Ford Prefect, an alien passing for a human in "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy", wonders about earthlings' peculiar "habit of continually stating and repeating the very, very obvious, as in 'It's a nice day,' or 'You're very tall'." He wonders if human mouths seize up if not continually utilized, but then concludes that if human beings "don't keep on exercising their lips...their brains start working."
One can imagine that on Ford Prefect’s planet conversations never include information-free words like, “Hello,” or even platitudes like “What about this weather?” Instead, when two beings meet, they immediately launch into instrumental conversations on topics like string theory, the existence of intelligent life on Earth, or the nature of God, the Universe, and Everything.
That might work for beings on Ford’s planet, which orbits around Betleguese. But consider. Even the uber-utilitarian Vulcans end conversations with “Live well and prosper.” Certainly this phrase is information-free: it’s unlikely that any ever-logical Vulcan would live otherwise. Instead of exchanging information, this phrase serves the social function of reinforcing shared Vulcan objectives and values.
Of course, as Ford Prefect notes, humans pepper their conversations with information-free phrases and platitudes all the time. Sometimes it seems that all human conversation is information free. But I digress. One theory is that these platitudes exchanged by strangers are not exactly information-free, but rather examples of the Phatic Maxim.
What is the Phatic Maxim, anyway?
Here’s the basic idea. Two strangers, call them Sally and Bob, encounter one another. Say they are sitting next one another on the subway. Sally smiles and says “good morning” to Bob. This is not really content-free—it’s wishing the other person well. It doesn’t say anything novel or useful. After all, who wouldn’t prefer a good morning to a bad one, and who wouldn’t wish a stranger well? This kind of greeting establishes common ground and creates an initial opening.
The Phatic Maxim is that the act of talking serves a social function distinct from the exchange of information. The purpose of phatic conversation, then, is not to exchange information of intrinsic value. Instead, the purpose is to establish, maintain, and manage common social bonds.
Consider again our two strangers sitting on the subway. The train stops and there’s an announcement that there will be a short delay. Now Sally turns to Bob and says, “Don’t you hate it when that happens?” Again, this is phatic communication. No one is really happy when their train is delayed, so this doesn’t convey information. Instead, it establishes common ground and provides an opening for social interaction via shared grousing about the delay.
Phatic communication can even be nonverbal. Sally might smile at a cooing baby or wrinkle her nose at a malodorous passenger. Both actions can likewise establish common ground and invite further conversation.
Why should authors of fiction care?
Authors can apply these ideas to dialogue in fiction.
The first and least interesting way is to use the concept of phatic communication to add verisimilitude to character exchanges. Injecting information-free platitudes to break the ice between characters is, after all, what real people really do.
Understanding the Phatic Maxim also enables the author to add context, in terms of the point-of-view character’s inner thoughts and reactions, to the attempt at finding common ground.
If Bob asks Sally, “How are you?,” she may be too polite to say, “I just lost my job. How do think I am?” Or Sally may impulsively blurt out the unexpectedly honest answer. Either way, the author has an opportunity to either conform to or break social convention and, in so doing, add to characterization, advance plot, and increase tension.
Sometimes an attempt to establish common ground can fail, especially where the attempt presumes a commonality that doesn’t exist. “Live well and prosper” might establish common ground on Vulcan, but “I’ll pray for you” could be seen as a passive-aggressive criticism by someone not part of the speaker’s faith community. This kind of disconnect, or defamiliarization, is another way that the authors can use the Phatic Maxim. Our example above, where the Sally gives a hostile response to the “how are you” question, provides another example of defamiliarization since it breaks the social expectation of a polite, information-free response.
Indeed, defamiliarization opens a broader pathway for an author to apply the Phatic Maxim.
Imagine again our two seatmates on the subway, but this time Sally is scribbling away in her notebook. Bob asks, “What are you working on?” Sally now has multiple possible responses. Maybe she says, “Not much,” and Bob’s response is “Sounds awesome.” This little exchange shows several things. First, it shows Sally rejecting the opening with a noncommittal reply. But it also shows both that Bob wasn’t listening and wasn’t interested in a social exchange in the first place. From the standpoint of the reader, the exchange contains information after all. Both characters have broken the rubric of the Photic Maxim, which in turn tells us something about them. This context--along with how Sally reacts to to this feigned interest--can advance characterization or plot or both.
Alternatively, instead of being noncommittal, maybe Sally accepts the opening offered by Bob’s question and adds information to the exchange. For example, she might say, “I’m working on a short story.” This expands the range of Bob’s possible responses and he can either open or close further dialogue. These choices reveal bits about our characters and plot. Bob might accept the invitation by asking about the story. Alternatively, he might reject the invitation to dialogue by rolling his eyes and returning to his newspaper, a form of defamiliarization. Again, the reaction of both characters serves to advance the reader’s understanding of who they are and, potentially, advances the plot and increases tension as well.
To recap, phatic communication is an information-free exchange between individuals that serves a social purpose. Information-free communication by itself does not make interesting fiction. But phatic communication, thoughtfully deployed, can serve a multitude of fictional purposes as the above examples show.
Vonnegut teaches us that every word in a short story should advance character or plot, and preferably both. Understanding and using the Phatic Maxim is another way to not only add verisimilitude to your stories but to advance character, plot, and introduce tension.
As authors, we never know where we’ll find useful ideas. I encountered the Phatic Maxim for the first time in an article in the January, 2021 issue of The Economist. That led me to the paper cited below which explains in detail the ideas summarized above and uses these concepts to analyze a scene in the novel My Other Life by Paul Theroux. If you’re interested in learning more, I highly recommend reading this citation.
Urbanová, Ludmila. “Phatic communion and small talk in fictional dialogues.” Functional Perspectives on Grammar and Discourse, edited by C. Butler, R. Downing, J. Levid, John Benjamins Publishing Company, July 13, 2007, Amsterdam.
Accessed online here
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