Phatic expression

From ActuallyAutistic Wiki

A phatic expression is speech used for social or emotive purposes rather than for communicating information.[1] In other words, these are phrases or exchanges that are intended to show a willingness to maintain basic social connection (instead of non-communication or outright hostility). Phatic expressions are not about the literal meaning of the words but rather about the implied nonverbal subtext. The most common example of a phatic expression used in daily communication is "How are you?".

A lot of allistic communication is phatic in nature. The tendency of autistic people to take things literally is one of the many reasons for frequent misunderstandings between those two neurotypes. However, both allistic and autistic people may use phatic expressions. Autistic people may use these expressions as part of Masking or Scripting to imitate an allistic communication style.

The function of phatic expressions[edit]

In order for a society to function, organisms need to show a basic level of cooperation and altruism between each other. In the current state of the world, most humans cannot feasibly live alone and solely on their own power - they must rely on others to grow food, provide clean water, create goods, and build and maintain infrastructure that facilitates the transfer of all of the above. If a human refuses contact or acts extremely unfriendly towards these others, essentials like food, water, shelter and items that provide quality of life may be harder to access or inaccessible. Phatic expressions have evolved as part of a larger system of maintaining social contact and cooperation between humans.

As best as I currently understand it, phatic expressions are shorthand for communicating the following: "I recognize you as another human. I would like to maintain the bare minimum of cooperation with you in order to make both of our lives easier. I am unwilling to deal with the difficulty that refusing basic social contact with you would likely result in."

Note that these expressions do not indicate a person's 'actual' feelings of like or dislike. For example, an allistic person may personally dislike their coworker, but may engage in phatic expressions with them because they find being honest is too difficult and/or causes too much emotional stress. On the other hand, an allistic person may approach someone and try to initiate conversation using phatic expressions because they would like to engage in small talk with a person they find pleasant.

Many allistics do not consciously understand the underlying meaning behind the phatic expressions they use. If asked why they use them, an allistic might say its "just how society works", "it's common sense", or "its just called being nice".

Examples of phatic expressions[edit]

This is a non-exhaustive list. Not all expressions may fit, but I've found most fit within the following two categories: general concern and vague invitations.

Expression of general concern[edit]

This has a lot of variation in asked question and expected answer across regions, cultures, and individuals. See Responding to "How are you?" for more detail.

  • How are you?
  • How are you doing?
  • What's up?
  • You alright?

Invitation to repeated connection[edit]

  • Let's talk together/get together again later.
  • Let's do coffee/lunch/dinner soon.
  • I'd love to have you over sometime.
  • We should talk/text/Skype/Zoom again sometime.
  • I'd love to talk to you about [subject] later.

Identifying and responding to phatic expressions[edit]

Finding phatic expressions in conversation is confusing, and oftentimes it's not clear whether an allistic said something to be nice or because they had an actual interest. The easiest method of ascertaining is of course, asking directly whether they meant it literally. However, many allistics find this question confusing or offputting, and struggle to answer. They feel conflicted because they feel if they answer honestly that they're not actually interested, you will be insulted and it will be interpreted as hostility, but if they lie that they're actually interested, they are now committed to maintaining this lie and engaging in emotional/social depth they may not want to access currently. It is also emotionally exhausting on the autistic side to evaluate whether its safe in the first place to ask honestly.

A common attribute of phatic expressions is non-specificity. An invitation to talk again later is typically vague, mentioning no further time, place, or purpose. They will not follow the statement up with questions about your schedule or attempts to actually plan a reconnection. If you initiate the process of scheduling, they may claim they're too busy or put off the discussion until later, hoping the topic does not come back up. When asking about you, someone who is actually interested in your answer will typically ask about something specific that you've mentioned recently, such as "Hey! How are you? How was the concert last weekend?" or "You complained a lot about your back recently - how have you been doing?"

Phatic expressions very commonly overlap with small talk, and often act as a bridge to starting such conversations.

The easiest and expected answer to any phatic expression of general concern is something along the lines of "I'm good, thanks. How about you?". Variations in script and emotional openness can be found on this page. To a vague invitation, agreement and casual excitement like "Yes, let's!" is the standard.

See also[edit]