Why We Use Meaningless Expressions Like "Huh" And "Really?"

Illustration for article titled Why We Use Meaningless Expressions Like "Huh" And "Really?"

A "phatic expression" is a word or phrase that has no intrinsic meaning, but still conveys intent. It can be anything from the sympathetic grunts and "oh nos" that people let out, to whole phrases like, "I hear that." They seem useless, but they actually serve an important function.


Phatic expressions are often called "grooming expressions" or "grooming talk." It's the mouth-based equivalent of sidling up to another monkey in your troop and companionably picking fleas out of their fur for a few minutes. It reinforces social connections, makes both primates feel good, reaffirms that they have a friendly relationship, and isn't too taxing for either of them. All of these things are important in human society as well. It's necessary to let people in the world know that you acknowledge them, see them as friends, and are willing to put in a little effort to make them feel good.

That being said, we're not made of stone, and everyone has a pet peeve phatic expression. I hate anything in the category of, "How are you doing?" What's up. How's it going. How are you. I dislike them all. I don't mind them when I hear them from a friend as we sit down to lunch, but when they're said by someone walking past me at speed they ruin my walk. It's not the fact that the person saying them doesn't expect an answer that I mind. I get the intent. The problem is, however meaningless the phrase is, it's a direct question, and part of me can't help but feel that it's unspeakably rude not to answer it. Sometimes I answer and feel rude. Sometimes I don't and still feel rude. It's a lose-lose.

What are the phatic expressions that drive you up the wall?

Image: Alberto C. Vazquez.

[Via Organization of Behavior in Face-to-Face Interaction]



When asked "How are you?" I tend to give actual accurate information just because it throws people (usually in a pleasant way).

"How are you?"

"Fine. I'm breathing well. I just ate an hour ago. Things are looking good."


"How are you?"

"Tired. Stayed up too late playing video games and could not fall asleep."

"Me, too!"

Make a game out of it!