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The term was coined by anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski in the early 1900s from Greek phanein: to show oneself, appear.
The utterance of a phatic expression is a kind of speech act.
In Roman Jakobson's work, 'Phatic' communication is that which concerns the channel of communication, for instance when one says "I can't hear you, you're breaking up" in the middle of a cell phone conversation. In the modern context, this usage appears in online communities and more specifically on micro-blogging.
For example: "You're welcome" is not intended to convey the message that the hearer is welcome; it is a phatic response to being thanked, which in turn is a phatic whose function is to acknowledge the receipt of a benefit.
Similarly, the question "how are you?" is usually an automatic component of a social encounter. Although there are times when "how are you?" is asked in a sincere, concerned manner and does in fact anticipate a detailed response regarding the respondent's present state, this needs to be pragmatically inferred from context and intonation.
The following is a specific example of the former: a simple, basic exchange, between two acquaintances in a non-formal environment.
Neither speaker expects an actual answer to the question. Much like a shared nod, it's an indication that each has recognized the other's presence and has therefore performed sufficiently that particular social duty.
In Japanese, phatic expressions play a significant role in communication, where they are referred to as "aizuchi".
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