In one of the dialogs from J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit”, Gandalf, despite having lived on Middle Earth for over 3,000 years, failed to understand the meaning of a simple phrase: “Good Morning!”

Here is the dialog itself:

“Good Morning!" said Bilbo, and he meant it. The sun was shining, and the grass was very green. But Gandalf looked at him from under long bushy eyebrows that stuck out further than the brim of his shady hat.
"What do you mean?" he said. "Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?"
"All of them at once," said Bilbo. "And a very fine morning for a pipe of tobacco out of doors, into the bargain.

The main takeaway from this simple dialog is that the phrase “good morning” itself does not actually convey any information at all! While we all take it for granted as a simple conversation starter, this phrase has nothing to do with anything “good” or with “morning” — or with “afternoon”, or even “night,” at all.

Samwise Gamgee's hobbit hole.
Photo by Nikhil Prasad / Unsplash

That begs a certain question: In our world, where we tend to strive for efficiency and insist that all things serve a certain purpose, why do we habitually make use of expressions that seem to make no practical sense at all?

In this article, we’ll take a look at what these phrases actually mean, how what they mean can change over time, and why different generations of people might perceive the same expresions differently. (No spoilers, but a lot of this has to do with politeness.) Without further ado, let’s get started!

Why bother with politeness?

According to Wikipedia, politeness is “the practical application of good manners or etiquette so as not to offend others.” If you refer to the same article, but the version that’s written in my native language, it also says that politeness is a personality trait. This suggests that for some people being polite is as common as breathing, while for others it is something of a foreign experience. Like other traits, it can be acquired or learned over time: someone rude could become the sweetest person there is, if they really wanted to. It works the other way around, too, of course.

Politeness can be thought of as a culturally defined code of conduct, which means that some actions considered to be rude in one culture might be seen as acceptable in another. As cultural norms change over time, etiquette isn’t set in stone. Some behavior your grandma finds okay might seem outrageous to you.

Naturally, politeness can be expressed through language as well. Such words and phrases as “hello” or “thank you” are used because it is customary to greet and thank people in certain situations. However, other things are said because they are supposed to be said... but actually provide zero informational value.

These things are called phatic expressions, and that’s what we’re going to focus on today.

What is a phatic expression?

Phatic expressions are the sort of expressions in which the semantic information communicated is far less important than the pragmatic information communicated. In this context, semantic refers to the information delivered in a sentence, and pragmatic concerns what a given sentence is supposed to accomplish in a conversation. In other words, phatic expressions are words that are said simply for the sake of being said, not because they provide the listener with any new information.

For example, expressions such as “Hello,” “How are you?” and “How’s it going?” are made up of different words, but all of them mean roughly the same thing. The only real difference between them is the degree of formality and appropriateness. More practically speaking, all of these phrases simply serve to acknowledge another person. They’re the verbal equivalent of a wave.

Photo by JuniperPhoton / Unsplash

Additionally, the meaning of some phatic phrases may vary from one culture to another (assuming that the same language is spoken in both places.) A common American “You alright?” would be thought of as an expression of genuine concern in the UK, for example. This works the other way around, too: “What’s up?” is not perceived as a greeting by most Brits, but is commonly used as such in North America.

Politeness is dynamic

Much like other social norms and whatever is considered to be proper etiquette, phatic expressions change with time. The textbooks that were used to teach me English when I was in elementary school were based on utterly outdated material. I learned the phrase “How do you do?” as being universally used and a common way of greeting someone. When I first went to the UK in 2013, however, I learned that this phrase was overly formal and basically obsolete.

Another example is the reply “no problem” to “thank you, which is completely okay in modern-day spoken English. However, older generations might not think of it as being phatic but instead as impolite. They would expect you to say “you’re welcome,” which, in turn, might sometimes sound off/strange/incorrect to many younger folks. The problem arises because “no problem” is phatic for young people but not old people, and while both “no problem” and “thank you” are phatic for young people, they have slightly different nuances. Saying “no problem” emphasizes that the speaker did not have to go to great effort to do something, whereas “you’re welcome” more strongly communicates that the speaker did indeed do something for the purpose of helping the listener.

Why bother saying "meaningless" things?

So, why do we bother using these seemingly useless phatic expressions? Why not just jump to whatever it is that we had wanted to say in the first place? Well, because it would be rude to do so, and you wouldn’t want to deal with such a person. But why is it rude? The answer is simple — but, much like phatic expressions themselves, is somewhat counterintuitive: traditions and culture.

Greetings are used as a universal acknowledgment of another person’s existence and are used to initiate a conversation. They act as a symbolic “doorway” to communication, serving as a means to start an interaction.

Hello Goodbye
Photo by Courtney Cook / Unsplash

Here are a few other things that phatic expressions do:

  • Establish a hierarchy within the circle of speakers or reinforce the nature of the relationship between them. For example, you most likely wouldn't say “hey” or “wassup” to your university professor. The use of more formal language towards professors by students hints at the unequal nature of their relationship.
  • Mark the intent of a speaker, which is useful information that helps other speakers decide how to approach the upcoming interaction. If someone who is normally rude starts off a conversation in a friendly tone, for example, you automatically know they need something from you without even having to hear a request being made.
  • Backchanneling, which means the use of such phrases as “uh-huh” and “okay” to indicate that a listener is indeed actively listening. In some cultures, their application is so common that foreigners may find it difficult to understand whether a listener repeating words like “uh-huh” should be interpreted as them agreeing with a speaker… or a sign that they’re ignoring the speaker.

Some closing thoughts

The ultimate takeaway from this article, I guess, is that a lot of communication (and language) goes beyond the actual words that we happen to be using. This adds another level of difficulty to learning a foreign language, especially a distant one: the expressions you habitually use to navigate conversations and other social interactions might not be the same. Indeed, an expression that's polite in your language might not be in your target language. As such, it's not enough to just learn a language: you've also got to learn the culture behind that language.  

As for now, that’s it for today, folks. Have a nice day and see you later!

Curious about the intersections between language and culture?

  1. The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis: Does Language Create Reality?
  2. Keigo: When, Why and How to use Japanese Honorifics
  3. Buddhist Monk in Thailand and His Thai Learning Journey
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