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?

4 Answers 4


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

  • Nice. Never heard of that before. Sounds spot-on.
    – Jacob
    Commented Mar 25, 2011 at 18:15
  • ...or the noun "phaticism".
    – Mitch
    Commented Mar 25, 2011 at 19:00
  • 2
    Is that related to emphatic?
    – Martha F.
    Commented Mar 26, 2011 at 2:09
  • 4
    @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
    Commented Mar 26, 2011 at 13:40
  • Sadly I'll have to -1... nobody would say a couple people were exchanging "phatics"!
    – user541686
    Commented May 2, 2017 at 6:26

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.

  • 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
    Commented Mar 25, 2011 at 16:35
  • 1
    @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
    Commented Mar 25, 2011 at 16:37

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

  • 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
    Commented Mar 26, 2011 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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