The Phatic Vocabulary

Today I heard something wondrous. I was walking along the sidewalk and I heard the people behind me strike up a conversation. What made this conversation stand out amongst all the others was that it began with the words “So what do you think about this strange weather we’ve been having?”. This was said non-ironically and the conversation continued in earnest for the next minute. Now, I know a minute does not seem like a long time but for a conversation purely about the weather it was quite drawn out. They had far surpassed all things I cared to mention about the entirely average day but they managed to continue.

Jokes that concern people talking about the weather are so common that I rarely ever hear it talked about seriously. I had derisively dismissed it, just like everyone else, as something that stuffy rich people used to do in the old days when they had nothing else to discuss. This was the first time that I encountered it in the wild.

I was startled to find that I liked it.

To be clear, I did not find the debate over how windy it had been that day remarkably stimulating. What drew me in was the phatic signaling of the conversation. There was nothing substantial in the words but the conversation itself was significant because of what it meant in a social environment. These were strangers building a bond on entirely safe and mutually known territory. It felt like steps in a basic square dance to see if your partner could keep up with you before you attempted to tango.

We may laugh at the aged custom of talking about the weather but we have not stopped signaling. We still begin conversations with strangers by drawing out the classic topics revolving around which sports team is doing what, how someone’s kids are, whether or not the traffic has been good. Someone mentioned to me on the bus that their go-to-move when trapped in an elevator is to say something about how sad they are it is Monday or how excited they are about Friday. This puts everyone on common ground and opens the metaphorical floor for conversation. My friend said he was extra proud of himself because on Thursday he told someone “Happy Friday-eve!”

This signaling is a wonderful part of every day interactions because it is so commonly understood. It is not accessible to everyone but it is still worthwhile for its own benefits. It might not be as stimulating as deep probing questions but it is intriguing that so many people know where to start. Cultures frequently have customs when meeting strangers to show that they aren’t dangerous (or at least to pretend they aren’t) and communicate intentions. Our daily signaling does not rest on such high stakes, but it is an almost essential step toward the creation of allies. We never know when or where we are going to need these people but the best way to protect ourselves from wild beasts or social stigma is to signal that we are friendly, that we are normal, and that we share something in common with our daily strangers.

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2 responses to “The Phatic Vocabulary

  1. Odd to me that you don’t encounter this more. Perhaps you have a different culture, but at Brown we talk about the weather a ton. In fact, my roommate and I consistently worry about how phatic conversation and signaling is taking up large amounts of our daily time, boring us, and making us associate negative feelings with socializing. In our situation, it seems much more advantageous to countersignal: vehemently avoid phatic signaling (respond truthfully to “how are you” or exaggerate greatly about “what did you do today”). Since few people are so creepy that they can’t talk about the weather (thank you, admissions office filter), but many people are boring enough that they spend most of their time on these signals, it’s a much more effective filter to reject banalities. Jumping immediately to fringe topics, throwing your interlocutor off-balance, and genuinely trying to swap meaningful information with them allows us to place a much more important filter on whether the interlocutor can think on their feet and likewise exchange meaningful information.

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  2. I have never noticed weather conversations taking up a great deal of time but I do like the use of countersignaling. I also think there is a difference in the settings we observe these conversations. I am picturing them mainly with strangers whom I do not want to share a lot of meaningful information with on a regular basis, not at a party or meeting where I want to get to know others. Finally, sure most people can talk about the weather but the way they do so still gives you information about their conversational style without requiring emotional investment.

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