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“‘Good morning!’ said Bilbo, and he meant it.
“‘What do you mean?’ Gandalf said.
“‘Do you wish me a good morning,
“or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not;
“or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?’
“‘All of them at once,’ said Bilbo.
“‘What a lot of things you do use good morning for!’ said Gandalf.”
What Gandalf is stubbornly ignoring in that conversation,
because there’s no way that a wizard who’s lived in Middle Earth for 3,000 years
doesn’t understand “good morning” --
but anyway, what he’s stubbornly ignoring is that the phrase “good morning”
doesn’t usually convey information at all.
Instead, it serves a social function.
It is a greeting.
Expressions like this are called “phatic expressions”.
They’re phrases where the semantic information
is much less important than the pragmatic information.
And generally, it’s to do with politeness.
“How are you”, “How's it going” and “Hello” are all phrases
that are made up of different words but mean approximately the same thing,
to the point that you can switch them up fairly interchangeably,
as long as they're tonally appropriate and you're used to them.
If you’re an American in Britain,
it might be quite jarring to be asked “you alright?” as a greeting.
For many North Americans, “are you alright” is not a phatic expression,
so “Are you all right?” expresses genuine concern.
Also, it probably won’t be “you alright?”, it’ll just be “y'arigh?”.
The other way around: applies to “What's up?”. For most Britons it’s an expression of concern,
not a greeting: it’s not phatic in British English.
Phatic expressions change with time.
“How do you do?”
eroded over time to “Howdy do” and then “howdy”,
but all those sound dated and formal to most modern listeners.
And these changes happen all the time!
It’s now usual to reply to ”thank you” with “no problem.”
But that’s a bit contentious because for some, usually older, folks
“no problem” is not phatic and it’s impolite:
it should be “you’re welcome” instead.
Which, to many younger folks, also sounds impolite!
We’re going to have these generational differences as long as language continues to change.
So why do we bother with phatic expressions at all?
Why is it rude to just immediately jump to what you actually want to say?
Well, greetings are a way to either acknowledge another person,
to initiate conversation by establishing a relationship,
or they're a verbal sort of handshake to make sure everyone’s paying attention.
Depending on the phatic expression we choose,
we can convey a hierarchical relation or intent.
We can use them for saying goodbye.
There are also phatic expressions for “backchanneling”,
which is how we express that we are actively listening.
Those serve the pragmatic function of demonstrating that, yes, you are listening,
and that you don't desire to be the one talking at the moment. You're not going to interrupt.
This is why backchannels often happen at the end of sentences;
they are the listener recognizing that they could jump into the conversation at this point,
but they are choosing to continue to listen instead.
Their prevalence varies from language to language, and culture to culture,
which can lead to misunderstandings.
In Japanese, backchanneling is so ubiquitous that foreign businesspeople
sometimes mistake it for agreement, and think that people are saying
“okay, I agree” and not “okay, I understand you, carry on”.
Not all phatic expressions are treated equally by everyone.
So look out for them. They are everywhere.
Play around with them and use unusual ones if you want… just…
don’t be Gandalf.
My co-author Gretchen McCulloch’s new book Because Internet
includes a bit on why we stress out so much about phatic expressions in email:
whether you should start that message with “Hi” or “Dear Name” or something else entirely.
There are links to her book in the description!