Phatic Communication Definition and Examples

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

phatic communication
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Phatic communication is popularly known as small talk: the nonreferential use of language to share feelings or establish a mood of sociability rather than to communicate information or ideas. The ritualized formulas of phatic communication (such as "Uh-huh" and "Have a nice day") are generally intended to attract the attention of the listener or prolong communication. Also known as phatic speech, phatic communion, phatic language, social tokens, and chit-chat.

The term phatic communion was coined by British anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski in his essay "The Problem of Meaning in Primitive Languages," which appeared in 1923 in The Meaning of Meaning by C.K. Ogden and I.A. Richards.

From the Greek, "spoken"


  • "How are you?"
  • "How ya doin'?"
  • "Have a nice day!"
  • "Cold enough for you?"
  • "This train is really crowded."
  • "What's your sign?"
  • "What's your major?"
  • "Do you come here often?"
  • "Sincerely yours"
  • "How about those Mets?"
  • "Some weather we're having."


  • "Speech to promote human warmth: that is as good a definition as any of the phatic aspect of language. For good or ill, we are social creatures and cannot bear to be cut off too long from our fellows, even if we have nothing really to say to them." (Anthony Burgess, Language Made Plain. English Universities Press, 1964)
  • "Phatic communication refers also to trivial and obvious exchanges about the weather and time, made up of ready-made sentences or foreseeable statements. . . . Therefore this is a type of communication that establishes a contact without transmitting a precise content, where the container is more important then the content." (F. Casalegno and I.M. McWilliam, "Communication Dynamics in Technological Mediated Learning Environments." International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, November 2004)
  • "Phatic communication, or small talk, is an important social lubricant. In the words of Erving Goffman, 'The gestures which we sometimes call empty are perhaps in fact the fullest things of all.'" (Diana Boxer, Applying Sociolinguistics. John Benjamins, 2002)
  • "Phatic communication was identified by Roman Jakobson as one of the six functions of language. It is content-free: when someone passes you in the corridor and inquires 'How are you?' it would be a breach of manners to take the question as having content and actually to tell them what a bad day you've had." (John Hartley, Communication, Cultural and Media Studies: The Key Concepts, 3rd ed. Routledge, 2002) 
  • "[The] strictly rhetorical, 'phatic' purpose of 'keeping in touch' for the sake of keeping in touch [is] best illustrated by the 'uh-huh' that lets the listener on the other end of a telephone connection know that we are still there and with him." (W. Ross Winterowd, Rhetoric: A Synthesis. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968)
  • "'Nice weather we're having' is perfect, Leonard. It's a subject that lends itself to speculation about future weather, discussion of past weather. Something everyone knows about. It doesn't matter what you say, it's just a matter of keeping the ball rolling till you both feel comfortable. Eventually if they're at all interested you'll get through to them." (Phil in the one-act play Potholes by Gus Kaikkonen, 1984)
  • "[P]hatic utterances constitute a mode of action just in their being voiced. In short, a phatic utterance communicates not ideas but attitude, the speaker's presence, and the speaker's intention of being sociable." (Brooks Landon, Building Great Sentences: How to Write the Kinds of Sentences You Love to Read. Plume, 2013)
  • "What the anthropologist Malinowski called 'phatic communion' might seem close to 'pure persuasion.' He referred to talk at random, purely for the satisfaction of talking together, the use of speech as such for the establishing of a social bond between speaker and spoken-to. Yet 'pure persuasion' should be much more intensely purposive than that, though it would be a 'pure' purpose, a kind of purpose which, as judged by the rhetoric of advantage, is no purpose at all, or which might often look like sheer frustration of purpose." (Kenneth Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives, 1950)

Pronunciation: FAT-ik

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Phatic Communication Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 25). Phatic Communication Definition and Examples. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Phatic Communication Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).