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Some verbal/written exchanges convey almost no meaning but are part of the protocol of conversation. For example, somebody greets you with "How are you?" and they're not usually not listening for actual information, just for you to say, "Fine," or similar. Or when you go through any sort of service transaction, it seems like half a dozen "thank yous" are exchanged between both parties.

Is there a term or phrase describing the phrases we use for maintaining the facade of politeness?

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up vote 16 down vote accepted

This is an example of phatic communication:

phatic [ˈfætɪk] adj (Linguistics) (of speech, esp of conversational phrases) used to establish social contact and to express sociability rather than specific meaning

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Nice. Never heard of that before. Sounds spot-on. – Jacob Mar 25 '11 at 18:15
...or the noun "phaticism". – Mitch Mar 25 '11 at 19:00
Is that related to emphatic? – Martha F. Mar 26 '11 at 2:09
@Martha F.: Surprisingly they come from different but similar-sounding Greek roots: phatic from "phatos ‘spoken’ or phatikos ‘affirming’" and emphatic (via emphasis) "from emphainein ‘exhibit,’ from em- ‘in, within’ + phainein ‘to show'." – Robusto Mar 26 '11 at 13:40

They are called pleasantries. From The Free Dictionary:

pleas·ant·ry (n.)
1. A humorous remark or act; a jest.
2. A polite social utterance; a civility.
3. A good-humored or playful manner in conversation or social relations.

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I thought pleasantries were things like discussing the weather or latest celebrity gossip. Is there a term for the punctuation-like phrases lubricating conversation? – Jacob Mar 25 '11 at 16:35
@Jacob: Those are included in the term pleasantries. If you want something more specific, than "Greetings" cover the hellos and how-are-yous. "Farewells" would be anything at the ends and "manners" would cover saying "Thank you" and "You're welcome." – MrHen Mar 25 '11 at 16:37

It just occurred to me that "formalities" is what I was looking for.

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+1 is for both the answer and the question. – Mitch Mar 25 '11 at 19:01
Formalities seems an overbroad term to me compared to pleasantries. Not to be too strong -- it's clear that the sets of pleasantries and formalities intersect substantially and meaningfully -- but there members of both sets that cannot be included in the other. Kow-towing towards the Emperor of China, for example, would be a formality, and not a pleasantry, and not what you asked for above; kow-towing is not "part of the protocol of conversation." – Uticensis Mar 26 '11 at 15:47

Depending on the extent of the conversation "small talk" might be applicable too. This would cover not just the formalities (which are specifically things that are necessary, not just chit-chat) but the ensuing social niceties, banter that helps to fill what would otherwise be potentially awkward silence or whatever business was to be conducted.

That's about five answers right there.

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