For fear of the phatic

Chloe Hansen, Opinion Columnist

Words are castles. Too often it is the most comfortable choice in our lives to cross the drawbridge and vanish inside. One can speak for hours without saying anything, beating perpetually around the bush so that our listener can get the gist of our meaning without being vulnerable enough to state it outright. To be precise requires a certain suppression of the fear of judgment or the fear of being misunderstood. Sometimes, rather than fear, it is simply laziness; it is easier to say “fine” or the noncommittal “well, you know …” when asked how we are than it is to allow the question to stimulate our mind and prompt ourselves to consider how we are actually doing. Modern speech dwells in implication rather than precision, and it is putting our minds to sleep.

The danger of this is becoming disenchanted with the sensual elements of what speech is gesturing at in the world around us; we are accepting signs as sufficient without truly considering its signifier. The person who relies heavily on phatic language that says nothing but still appeases a listener’s desire for something (e.g. “Slay!” “Yeah,” and “Sure”) is doing themselves a disservice. As proponents of the Formalist school of literary theory will tell you (or anyone who has taken English 290), “waging war” against language considered ordinary that does not register in our minds as interesting is the most effective way to become more sensually aware of the words themselves and what they might mean. 

As an example, you could compare two answers to the same question: “How was your Thanksgiving break?” It is easiest to say, “Good! I just spent it at home.” If instead one sets themselves to the task (and it can still be brief) of considering how it really was, how it made you feel, what you saw, what you heard, smelled or tasted, a million new avenues for connection open themselves. You open yourself up to note, for example, that the wind blowing across campus is reminiscent of the wind in your hometown. In simple terms, to pick your words carefully, so that they might more fully encapsulate what it is you actually mean, allows you not only access to the synaptic connections that grow from this knowledge, but also the chance to offer your listener a bundle of metaphorical olive branches. Whoever is conversing with you is prompted, now, to tell you that the same sort of wind blows where they are from. Purely individualistically, what is lost without this is joy — life is too finite a span to be asleep to any connection that could bring so much happiness. What a missed opportunity for friendship, then, to have responded in shorthand. Forcing your mind’s speech faculties to stay alert, to slow down and consider meaning, may be the greatest gift you ever give yourself.