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Friday, March 6, 2020

Why greetings can mean less than their words

When I was in high school, I had a linguistic game I used to play on my unsuspecting schoolmates.

Moving through the hallways between classes, we’d normally call out to the people we saw every day, “Hi, how’s it going?” or “Hey, what’s up?”

But I practiced giving the opposite response without skipping a beat. To “What’s up?” I’d answer, “Good, how’re you?” while to “How’s it going?” I’d say, “Not much, what’s up with you?”

What surprised and delighted me every time is that people never seemed to notice.

As long as I could pull it off smoothly, people were perfectly content to accept the “wrong” reply to their greetings—it was only when I faltered that people pulled up short. (Try it yourself sometime!)

I didn’t understand why, any more than I understood why there were several pairs of greetings that were made out of different words but meant essentially the same thing when taken as a whole, and eventually I chalked it up to one of life’s (and my own) little eccentricities.

As I learned more linguistics, I realized two things.

First, that this is eminently normal budding linguist behavior, and second, that linguistics had a reason for why my greeting mismatch experiment worked.

These social phrases are known as phatic expressions, and their meaning is more about the context you say them in than the sum of their individual words.
Source: Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language by Gretchen McCulloch

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