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Phatic Talk and Banter

Within the study of language and occupation, many linguists have carried out research into various aspects of language. An important linguist in the field of phatic talk and banter is Almut Koester, who is known for her research in spoken workplace discourse (written or spoken communication).

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Phatic Talk and Banter

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Within the study of language and occupation, many linguists have carried out research into various aspects of language. An important linguist in the field of phatic talk and banter is Almut Koester, who is known for her research in spoken workplace discourse (written or spoken communication).

This article will look firstly at some key definitions to give us a base understanding of the study. Then we will look at Koester’s 2004 study, Relational sequences in workplace genres1, including what motivated it, how it was carried out, and what was found (with a focus on her findings of phatic talk and banter). To finish off, we’ll then think about how we can apply this study to language and occupation. Throughout, we'll look at some phatic talk examples as well to make sure we can fully understand the topic.

Phatic Talk and Banter Phatic Communication StudySmarterFig. 1 - Asking a colleague about their day is an example of phatic communication.

Key definitions in phatic talk and banter

In summary, phatic talk and phatic communication refer to the use of language and communication primarily for the purpose of establishing and maintaining social relationships rather than conveying information. Phatic talk is a language interaction known as small talk. Banter is lighthearted, playful, and often good-natured teasing between individuals.

Almut Koester's study investigates the two.

Phatic meaning

Phatic talk and phatic communication are typically used to initiate and maintain social interactions. Phatic talk typically involves casual and non-substantive topics, such as weather, current events, or personal interests. This type of communication involves superficial or formulaic responses that do not convey any meaningful information.

Phatic communication is the language used purely for social purposes with the intention of establishing and building relationships. This can be seen in the use of greetings, talking about the weather, and talking about the traffic.

In a workplace environment, this relates to any social interaction that is not work-related and has the function of maintaining social relationships. Have a look at the phatic expressions below:

A phatic communication example can be seen in the following interaction between two people (Tom and Julie) who have just arrived at work:

Tom: Morning Julie! Terrible traffic on the way in today.

Julie: Morning! Yes, it was horrendous, how’s the broken window on your car holding up?

Tom: Well, it still won’t go up the rest of the way.

Julie: Deary me, I imagine that was a bit drafty and wet then?

Tom: Yeah I have a bit of a damp arm from the rain coming in. I’m taking it to the garage on Thursday though, so not too much longer of it!

Julie: Hopefully so. Anyway, must get on.

This whole interaction is made up of purely phatic communication where Tom and Julie are interacting for the sake of having a social interaction with no workplace-related motives or goals.

Phatic communication can also be referred to as phatic talk, phatic expressions, or small talk.

Banter falls under the category of phatic communication and refers specifically to good-natured jokes and teasing to express positive feelings and goodwill between participants in a conversation.

Types of phatic communication

There are 12 types of functions of phatic communication interactions. These are:

  • starting a conversation - saying hello, initiating an interaction with someone in some way.
  • breaking a silence - a method of avoiding or mitigating awkwardness.
  • making small talk - being friendly, cultivating relationships without being too familiar.
  • gossiping - talking about things going on around you or within your social circle.
  • keeping a conversation going - maintaining or extending a topic of conversation.
  • expressing solidarity - showing someone you agree with them or support them.
  • creating harmony - acting upon your compatibility with someone, or diffusing tense interactions.
  • creating comfort - making people feel comfortable or relaxed in your presence.
  • expressing empathy - showing someone that you care about them or their situation.
  • expressing friendship - fostering meaningful relationships with people, and maintaining them.
  • expressing respect - showing someone you think highly of them and appreciate them.
  • expressing politeness - using manners and being conscientious.

Each of these functions can be used to build upon or maintain social relationships, but don't necessarily have a purpose that goes beyond being social.

Phatic communication: examples

Here's a list of examples of all the types of phatic communication we covered in the above section:

Types of phatic communicationExamples of phatic talk
Starting a conversation'Hey Dave, how are the kids?'
Breaking a silence'Did it just get really cold in here?'
Making small talk'I saw your holiday photos on Facebook, did you have a good time?'
Gossiping'I heard that James is looking for a new position elsewhere with higher pay.'
Keeping a conversation going'If you're into outdoorsy activities, have you ever thought about going canyoning?'
Expressing solidarity'I completely agree!'
Creating harmony'I think that's a good idea, we should give it a go.'
Creating comfort'Sorry for taking up so much room on the desk, let me make some space.'
Expressing empathy'I hope everything goes well with your surgery. Let me know if you need anything at all!'
Expressing friendship'Do you want to grab a coffee this weekend?'
Expressing respect'I really admire your patience and calmness. How do you do it?'

Phatic Talk and Banter Phatic Communication Examples StudySmarterFig. 2 - Using phatic talk such as telling jokes, giving compliments, and being generally friendly are good ways to express friendship.

Transactional talk

This is the typical form of interaction within a workplace and is, therefore, the most commonly seen type of communication between work colleagues. Transactional talk refers to interactions that have a purpose such as completing a task or reaching a work-specific goal – below is an example of transactional talk.

Tom: Have you seen the report from Bob?

Julie: Yes, I had a read of it earlier.

Tom: Bob wanted us to arrange a meeting when we could all go through it and decide how we’re going to present it to the client.

Julie: Okay, well I can book a small conference room for 10am on Wednesday so we’d have some time to do anything else before the client meeting on Friday.

Tom: Great, I’ll check my calendar and email you to confirm.

Julie: Fab, I’ll send one over to Bob as well to check he can do it.

Unlike the previous example of an interaction between Tom and Julie, this one is purely interactional, serving the purpose of arranging a meeting. In this instance, the goal is to organise a meeting that is met through the transaction of information for a solution to be concluded.

Within Koester's study, we're going to be looking at the use of both phatic and transactional talk.

Phatic talk and banter: Koester’s 2004 study

Now that we understand what some key concepts are, we can delve into Koester’s study and findings on relational sequences in workplace genres.

Motivation for the study

By 2004, there was already a large amount of research establishing the existence of workplace-specific communication and a link between language and occupation. Much of this research focussed on the differences between workplace language and ordinary social language. However, it's widely recognised by linguists that social interactions do play a part in workplace language.

Research has already shown that, although completing tasks is the main aim of workplace communication, phatic talk is also present. This phatic talk can be both long and short stretches of talking.

Koester’s study focuses on the shorter units of phatic talk occurring in workplace conversations to see if there were patterns in the type of phatic talk used. We will look at the study as a whole, however, we are then going to focus on the occurrence of phatic communication.

Methodology of the study

Koester collected data from three types of workplace offices in the UK and the USA. These types of offices were university offices, editorial offices in publishing companies, and editorial offices outside of publishing. These offices are all professional work environments where the language used is expected to be typical of workplace interactions.

Koester collated 30 hours of data which were transcribed into 66 conversations. Most of these conversations occurred between two participants and were task-oriented but in a somewhat informal fashion.

The sorts of tasks being carried out during these conversations were:

  • Making arrangements
  • Decision making
  • Making requests
  • Giving instructions
  • Reporting information.

There were some exceptions to these task-oriented conversations, such as conversations comprising of small talk, office gossip and banter.

Koester then used conversation analysis to see what was occurring in each interaction.

Study findings

In the workplace interactions analysed, it was clear that where phatic talk appeared, the participants shared goals. These goals were found at four different levels of interaction, some in a recurring structural pattern in conversations. The four levels of interaction are non-transactional conversations, phatic communion, relational episodes, and relational sequences and turns. Let's look at each level in more detail.

1. Non-transactional conversations

These were the interactions that revolved around office gossip, small talk and banter.

For example: “Did you hear about what Steph did at the weekend? Martin said he saw her out with her ex-husband’s sister and they were…” and so on.

2. Phatic communion

By phatic communion, Koester refers specifically to the small talk occurring at the beginning or end of a transactional interaction. This occurred as both general small talk and as banter and was used to create a sense that the participants value the social relationship they have and are not just using each other for the task at hand.

3. Relational episodes

These are the occurrences of small talk, office gossip and banter during a transactional interaction. For example, while planning a meeting and briefly veering off-topic and then returning to the task being undertaken. The main difference between relational episodes and phatic communion is the positioning in a sentence. Phatic communion happens at the beginning or end of a sentence, whereas relational episodes occur throughout.

Tom: Have you seen the report from Bob?

Julie: Yes, I had a read of it earlier. Did you hear about him having an argument with his wife on the phone the other day?

Tom: Yeah apparently it sounded pretty heated! I wouldn’t want to be him dealing with his wife.

Julie: Yeah she seems to be really uptight about everything, you know she plans Bob’s outfits for him?

Tom: I know! He’s a grown man, he can wear what he likes! Anyway, Bob wanted us to arrange a meeting when we could all go through the report and decide how we’re going to present it to the client.

Julie: Okay, well I can book a small conference room for 10 am on Wednesday so we’d have some time to do anything else before the client meeting on Friday.

This interaction is transactional as it has a purpose but the office gossip in the middle would be classified by Koester as a relational episode.

Phatic Talk and Banter, Relational Talk, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Gossiping is one of the functions or types of phatic talk.

4. Relational sequences and turns

This relates to a conversation where the main focus is relational (creating relationships), with something like gossip, banter or phatic talk being the topic, but there is a task-related element. This may occur when people are chatting about social plans while working in the office, occasionally talking about the work they are doing but mainly focussing on the social aspect.

Understanding the study

Koester’s findings on the types of relational interaction are all important but we want to focus on the use of phatic communication (or phatic communion or small talk) and banter.

The main point to acknowledge from Koester’s research is that in workplace encounters, people simultaneously pursue both transactional and relational goals. This means that relational sequences, phatic talk and banter are key to effective transactional conversations and are woven into the base structures of workplace interactions. For example, starting and ending a transactional conversation with small talk, and sharing a joke or some item of gossip in the middle.

Koester’s findings concluded that there are regularities in the occurrence of relational and phatic talk. These are:

  • Relational and phatic talk often appear after a task, before the next one is started.

  • Relational and phatic talk often appear towards the end of a conversation.

  • Humour and banter are often used as subtle means of phatic talk.

  • Phatic talk and banter are used to perform functions such as relationship building and getting tasks done.

Where to apply phatic talk

This study acknowledges the existence and need for phatic talk in the workplace. This is something that is often not covered by other language and occupation theories, such as Drew and Heritage’s theory of institutional talk2, which focus on the language of transactional conversations.

Koester’s findings are directly applicable to the field of language and occupation, especially where we have to carry out our own conversation analysis. These findings can allow us to say why phatic talk and banter are present in workplace conversations, and why it is important to have a social aspect to the working environment.

Phatic Talk and Banter - Key Takeaways

  • Phatic communication and phatic talk refer to the use of language with the intention of social interaction rather than conveying information. Phatic talk is often known as small talk.
  • Transactional talk is communication that serves a purpose such as carrying out a task or exchanging information.
  • Koester's study used conversation analysis to look at relational and phatic interactions in the workplace.
  • People in workplace interactions simultaneously pursue transactional and relational goals.
  • Elements of relational talk like phatic talk and banter perform functions of relationship building and help with getting jobs done in the workplace.

References

  1. A. Koester. Relational sequences in workplace genres. in: Journal of Pragmatics. 2004.
  2. P. Drew and J. Heritage. Talk at Work: Interaction in Institutional settings. 1993.

Frequently Asked Questions about Phatic Talk and Banter

Phatic talk is communication used purely for social interaction, like small talk. Koester found that phatic talk is key for maintaining social relationships at work and for getting jobs done.

Phatic communication allows relationship building through purely social interaction without an underlying goal of completing a task or conveying information. This creates better workplace relationships and makes a more effective work environment.

In a workplace, people often use particular ways of talking such as Drew and Heritage's institutional talk. Koester says that phatic and relational talk is important for building and maintaining workplace relationships and for getting jobs done.

Phatic communication can be better understood as the term small talk. Phatic communication includes conversational topics such as greetings, the weather, traffic, social plans and anything else not work-related.

The function of phatic communication and phatic talk is to build and maintain social relationships rather than just conveying information.

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

How many types of phatic communication are there?

Phatic communication in the workplace is not __________ and can be used to maintain____________. 

What does 'banter' include?

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