Despite its name, small talk plays an outsize role in socialization. Social scientists refer to this type of speech as phatic communication, which they usually divide into two related but different theories for understanding its function. One theory, devised by the early-20th-century anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski, used phatic speech to account for small talk as an essential part of social bonding. You answer the phone, saunter into a shop, or pass a neighbor on the street. “How are you?” you might ask each other. When this happens, nobody really cares to hear how you are doing. The question is posed for social communion; it’s a way of saying hello, of acknowledging someone’s presence, of beginning a more meaningful interaction.
The other theory, put forward by the linguist Roman Jakobson, sees phatic speech as the chatter used to manage the channel of communication. It’s language that cues people in to where, how, and when they should speak. These days, you might pass fewer neighbors and see fewer co-workers, at least in person. Instead, those interactions are largely mediated by technology. And with that comes the need to talk about how to operate those apparatuses and how to behave when using them. “Oh, you’re breaking up,” or, “Your video froze,” or, “Bob, you’re still muted,” or even, “Wait, were we meeting on Zoom or on Teams (or on Slack, or by phone)?”
Altogether, phatic speech is the linguistic glue that holds our interactions together. And the pandemic has utterly broken it, making social interactions even more exhausting. First, the Malinowskian, social-bonding flavor of phatic speech has stopped working. Normally, people hear past the meaning of “How are you?” and recognize its social purpose. But as early-pandemic dreams of flattening the curve and getting back to normal devolved into a whole year of online meetings, schooling, piano lessons, and happy hours, each invocation of a phatic greeting became more noticeable—and newly burdensome. Suddenly, asking “How are you?” involved really and truly asking the question, whether you meant to or not. Who knows, after all, if the other party (or someone in their family) might be sick, or has lost their job, or has even just reached a new low of sorrow and terror.
While Malinowskian phatic social bonding collapsed, Jakobsonian phatic channel-fluffing ballooned in the worst and most awkward ways. In part, that’s because everyone started using communication technologies unfamiliar to everyday life. Zoom’s 2020 profits swelled fortyfold over the prior year as workplaces and schools shifted to video meetings. Other, similar services, such as BlueJeans, Slack, Skype, and Microsoft Teams, also witnessed huge growth. Figuring out how to get a co-worker into a meeting, a child into a virtual classroom, or a parent into a family videochat required a great deal of irritating meta-discourse. “Is it a phone call, or is it on Zoom?” “Meet in mine, or are you sending an invite?” “Oh, we don’t have a subscription, so you’ll have to host if it’s more than two of us.”