Is there a word for when you're asking someone something only to go through the motions and uphold social norms?
For instance, when you ask "Can I come in?" before just going in their house or whatever (in particular, you do not reasonably expect the answer to be "no," and they're also expected to go through the "routine" when they answer).

  • A hypernymic term is 'observing the niceties'; Lexico has: nicety ... 1.2 A minor aspect of polite social behavior; a detail of etiquette. ‘we were brought up to observe the nicetiesPolitenesses, pleasantries, inconsequentialities are all ballpark. Oct 11, 2020 at 14:57
  • In a novel, you could risk << "Can I come in," he observed. >> Especially if your name's Rowling. Oct 11, 2020 at 15:49
  • @EdwinAshworth Is that because she's such a big name she can get away with anything?
    – BoldBen
    Oct 12, 2020 at 2:26
  • @BoldBen Not directly. (1) She's a fine author (I don't know whether she does all her own final proofreading, as Tolkien almost certainly did), certainly a good role model for most learners of English. (2) She's so widely read that she affects idiomaticity (which makes (1) all the more valuable). Oct 12, 2020 at 11:58
  • Interestingly, this reminds me of another Q here recently about people saying "Do you wan't do X?" when they really mean "Do X." The terminology was never uncovered there. Jul 8, 2021 at 16:40

3 Answers 3


The term for this sort of nicety is phatic communication:

phatic a
Of or relating to communication used to perform a social function rather than to convey information or ideas.
TFD Online

It includes questions that don't expect a literal answer.


Acts like this fall under the category of politesse. Basically, the adherence to social norms and decourousness.

In a roundabout way, the question can also be said to be rhetorical. You are asking a question for which the answer is obvious or implied and you don't really expect an answer.

  • Again, one can use these, but there's no getting away from you need more than the single word 'politesse' etc to make people understand that there's an idle question involved, and more than the term 'rhetorical question' to show that these questions are asked merely to conform to social norms. Rhetorical questions have primary roles in hectoring / teaching. Oct 11, 2020 at 15:43
  • @EdwinAshworth "May I come in?" He asked with his best politesse.
    – David M
    Oct 11, 2020 at 16:11
  • Is there a word for “pretending to ask?” (ie with that definition). Oct 11, 2020 at 19:12

I would probably use the word "obligatory" for this purpose:

Obligatory: ...

(3) so commonplace as to be a convention, fashion, or cliché

[Merriam-Webster Dictionary]

For example, I've been working on a project recently and have a friend who is really knowledgeable on it. I'll regularly call him and ask for advice, and our conversations will start:

Me: Hey I have a quick question for you, but let me offer an obligatory "What's up?" first.

Him: Nothing, what's your question?

He and I both know I'm not really calling to talk about "What's up" in the middle of a work day, but it's a little abrupt to call someone out of the blue and begin grilling them with questions. That said, I know he usually only has a few minutes to talk during the day, so it lets him know that I'm not just trying to dawdle on the phone. Of course, it runs the risk of being considered rude based on the context it's used in, such as:

After John's brother died I sent him the obligatory bouquet of flowers.

This might be taken as a rather insensitive thing to say, as it could be interpreted as me saying that responding to the death of his brother is a mundane chore for me.

  • I'd probably use this, but there's no getting away from you need more than the single word 'obligatory' to make people understand that there's an idle question involved. Oct 11, 2020 at 15:40

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