Phatic Communication and the Meaning of “Woof!”

When I was in graduate school, I saw a short film about cultural norms in France. One scene featured two people greeting each other in Paris’s Jardin de Luxembourg. After the archetypal bises on each cheek, the young man in the film asked the older woman, “Ça va?” Instead of saying simply, “Oui, merci.” she proceeded to describe how things were going (which in her case included a lot of maladies). The video’s purpose was to show American students that people in France are more likely to respond sincerely to the question, “How’s it going?” than they are to treat it as a conversation opener. The example was meant to stand in contrast with the United States, where asking someone “What’s new?” isn’t necessarily a way of soliciting information, but rather a means of engaging in social interaction. In other words, according to the premise of the film, when Americans remark to their neighbors, “Nice day, isn’t it?” chances are they’re reinforcing social ties, not pointing out the weather. Even if the French are more likely to answer the question with a thoughtful response (which I’m not so sure is the case), they too engage in phatic communication as part of everyday life. Everyone does.

The commonness of “meaningless utterances” doesn’t mean that they are without importance, including in the online classroom. Their ability to create bonds with students should not be underestimated. Even “empty words” (which is what phatic communication is composed of) provide speakers with an opportunity to show how they are feeling. In the typical place-based classroom, the appearance, body language, and speech of students can clue instructors into the state of mind of both individuals and the class as whole. When I taught, I occasionally decided to postpone the due date for an assignment if I noticed that the majority of students seemed stressed and overtired, states made obvious by the harried expressions and nodding heads in front of me. Instructors of online courses, who usually do not see video images of their students regularly, if at all, cannot rely on non-verbal cues to assess how their students are doing, and must therefore find other means to make meaningful personal contact with their students.

One way of discovering the value of phatic communication in online classes is to learn what’s supposedly wrong with it. Language that performs only a social function has a reputation as wasted words that impede real exchange. In 2016, Forbe’s Magazine published an article, Here’s the Phatic Expression You Should Never Say to Remote Employees, whose premise was that, “if ‘Everything’s fine.’ is what you’re hearing from your remote employees [in response to “How’s it going?”], it’s trouble.” Mark Murphy, the article’s author, calls questions that don’t solicit a real response “lazy communication.” He encourages managers of telecommuters to ask about more concrete concerns, such as, “What’s getting in the way of your success?” or “What’s frustrating you today?” All of his suggestions for “real communication” imply that there is something wrong, however, which is not necessarily the case when someone says, “I’m fine.” Solid relationships between manager and employee, as well as between teacher and student, are not usually built only through gripe sessions, but through shared experiences, both positive and negative. Although “How’s it going?” might be an empty phrase, it can show that you are looking for a personal connection, which has meaning in itself, whether or not the conversation continues. Subsequent questions, such as, “What did you do over the weekend?” can be a prelude to a real exchange, even if the information gleaned is not directly work related. At the very least, it shows that you are interested in the other person’s life.

Despite its potential for significance, the quasi-automatic nature of phatic exchange can indeed hamper real communication. Even if “What’s new?” and its equivalents are real questions with the potential to elicit thoughtful answers, their overuse and role as conversation substitutes often empties them of potential significance. Such is the case with almost any exchange where canned responses lose their literal meanings and become instead symbols of communication. A friend of mine recently demonstrated this phenomenon through a gay dating app where phatic communication is the default mode of contact. If you see a profile that attracts you, you can signal your interest by simply “woofing” its owner, which means pressing an icon that notifies that person you’ve done just that. A “woof” is a friendly—and welcomed—hello, which means I like your profile and hope you like mine. In other words, “woof” is completely phatic a way of getting someone’s attention and inviting him to communicate, since the word itself has no meaning (except, perhaps, for a dog). The app also makes use of a number of community-derived, purely phatic replies that carry specific meanings: a returned woof means, “I acknowledge you.” without anything else implied. Writing back “Thanks!” means in reality, “Thanks for the compliment, but no thanks.” On the other hand, “Thanks, handsome!” implies that the person woofed might be interested in chatting with you, particularly if followed by a “Back atcha! ;-).”

Although the conventions of dating app may not seem to be relevant to online teaching at first, they do reveal important aspects of phatic communication that can be useful in the classroom. In some online communities, it is appropriate to use formulaic responses because they are an efficient way of getting to the point of the exchange; in the case of the aforementioned dating app, for example, “woof” ultimately means, would you like to communicate, or not? Such stock phrases often emerge from a community itself, out of self-determined standards of conduct. Just as “Thanks, handsome!” would be an inappropriate way to respond to an instructor’s compliments on your work, so would “I’m not interested” be an impolite way to respond to an admirer’s “Woof!” Despite their supposed meaninglessness, “I’m fine.” and “Thanks, handsome!” are subtle, but effective ways of signaling that you are not interested in engaging in further conversation, which a more protracted exchange might not accomplish as delicately.

An important similarity that remote workers, dating-app users, and online students and educators all share is that their communication is mediated, most often in the form of written chat or email. Although these virtual relationships cannot rely on physical and paraverbal cues (like tone of voice), they compensate through mechanics, such as punctuation and emojis. When I first started working as an instructional designer, for example, I learned from my colleagues’ reactions that there are differences in meaning among “Sure” “Sure.” and “Sure!” The first signals simple agreement, the second, a lack of enthusiasm, and the third, willingness or desire (but not necessarily excitement). Although I was quite surprised that this non-traditional use of punctuation could be imbued with so much meaning, I realized that it was a convention of the medium of chat and the culture of my workplace that was simple to adopt, once I understood it.

Like punctuation, emoticons and emojis are an effective means of modulating sentences to clarify intent and convey emotion. Although they are often not seen as suitable for academic discourse, their usefulness may outweigh their informality, particularly when trying to reach a student on a more personal level. A smiley after a question like, “I noticed you didn’t turn in the last homework assignment. Did you forget? :-)” is much friendlier than the same question without the emoticon, which could seem like an accusation. A smiley face in and of itself is even more devoid of inherent meaning than a rote greeting, but that doesn’t mean it communicates nothing. In fact, deliberately adding emotional nuance can be crucial in electronic communication, since it is the only way to inflect one’s words.

Teaching online requires rethinking many pedagogical strategies, especially those used to create presence and community. Despite its ill repute, phatic communication has real power to create social bonds that can enhance student experience. Being sensitive to trends in communication, such as register of language, use of punctuation, and how symbols give “empty words” meaning, can make phatic communication between teachers and students of online classes a gateway, rather than a barrier, to more substantive exchange.

Tom Armbrecht has a PhD in French Studies from Brown University. Formerly a tenured Professor of French, he taught literature and philosophy to both undergraduate and graduate students at an R1 university before deciding to focus his career on online learning. Tom has been involved in educational technology since its inception, first as a student, then as a professor, and now as an instructional designer. His current position as an Online Learning Architect allows him to capitalize on his pedagogical expertise to create courses that engage and inspire students and teachers alike.

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Phatic Communication and the Meaning of “Woof!”

by Tom Armbrecht