Category Archives: phatic communication

"Dig it"


“…like the FBI, and the CIA, and the BBC.” So goes the Beatles’ shortest song, from the 1970 Let It Be album (now available for legal download on iTunes). Beat musicians had been saying “Can you dig it?” or “Ya dig?” for decades [the American version of “nar’mean?”], to ask “Do you understand what I just said?” but by the time the Beatles used it, the phrase had morphed from the Metalingual [message clarification] speech function to the Phatic. It had come to mean “Listen” [as in “do you want to know a secret?”]

Well, do ya? [Want to know a secret, that is.] In the 60s, Daniel Ellsberg was convinced that we all wanted to know the contents of secret briefing papers on strategies for vanquishing North Vietnam [thereafter known as The Pentagon Papers]. So he dug up some classified information and gave it to the press, for all us quidnuncs to read.

La plus ca change, la plus ca meme chose. Nar’mean? Julian Assange? WikiLeaks? Ya dig?

Guess who thinks Mr. Assange is a swell guy for sharing with the whole [cyber-linked] world the classified information he was able to dig up? Why, Mr. Ellsberg, of course.

Whether you do, too, depends on your reference group. Are you more “The truth will set you free”; or more “Loose lips sink ships”? Far be it from me, to try to get you to switch groups. None of us can predict the effect of the WikiLeaks disclosures on global security. I’m more curious about the precursors. [As in, what got up Assange’s nose, that he decided to crack the code of encrypted websites and report his findings?] Mind you, that’s the basic mission statement of those who work for the FBI, and the CIA, and the BBC.

Our [often fear-based] Need to Know What’s Happening is the key to our individual and collective survival. Curiosity saved the cat, the dog, and us. We all “want to know a secret,” but we don’t all “promise not to tell.”

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Filed under phatic communication, pro bono publico, reference group

Tom Wolfe Knows


Yeah, we all know Tom Wolfe can do social satire; but until I read A Man in Full I didn’t know he could do chilling urban anthropology [Note to Self: Try not to go to jail in Alameda County.], Stoic philosophy, and more compelling redemptive narrative than Dostoevsky’s Crime & Punishment. I shall quote from the chapter, “Epictetus Comes to Da House.” Our hapless hero, Conrad [picture Steve Buscemi], through a series of unfortunate misunderstandings, finds himself locked up in the Santa Rita pokey [in all senses of the word], clueless how to survive. N Aff [see “The Lone Wolf” post] is the only code of conduct, and Conrad can’t find a reference group. He gets the “wrong” book sent to him–The Stoics instead of The Stoics’ Game–but discovers that Epictetus [an ancient Greek, sold into Roman slavery by his parents, who when freed became a philosopher] knows a thing or two about enduring unfair captivity. When Conrad is cornered by a Very Bad Man whose aggressive subtext is clear, he channels the wisdom of Epictetus [who says we all must die of something, sometime, but we can try to do it with our character intact]. To his own chagrin, Conrad slips into the idiom of an “Oakland homey,” [when in Rome, and all…] and tells the bully, “Hey, brother, look! You a number in here, and I’m a number in here…see…and I ain’t tryin’a disrespectchoo none…I ain’t tryin’a sweatchoo none, play you none, dog you none, or get over on you none…so ain’ no cause for nobody be playin’ me or doggin’ me or runnin’ a game on me, neither.” To find out what happens next, buy the book.

Let’s notice how much Phatic speech Conrad uses. Always a good idea, when addressing strangers, or those acting strange. A young boy’s Phatic communication once saved my life in Boston. I was on the escalator at the Back Bay train station, wearing a long, flowing muffler, when I heard the cryptic words: “Goy Lee! Goy Lee! Ya skaaf! Ya skaaf!” I deciphered this as: “Girlie! Girlie! Your scarf! Your scarf!” I then realized that I was the “Girlie,” about to do an Isadora Duncan [choke myself by getting my muffler caught in the machinery]. I yanked the flowing tail up, and shouted back, “Oh, yeah, t’anks a million, dere!” [When in Boston, and all…] If he had just yelled, “Ya skaaf! Ya skaaf!” I’da been none da wiser, an’ needin’ a wake, surely.

Also notice that Conrad is putting out the “subway subtext” [see the “Walk on the Wild Side” post]: “I am not your victim, but I am not your enemy.” Who knew, when my acting friends and I were busy devising this cool-as-a-cucumber response, that Epictetus had been there and done that 2000 years before us?

As valuable as witty ripostes and/or Stoic replies are, in the face of aggressive provocations, they do not always serve. There are, sadly, times–in my opinion and even that of Epictetus–that the appropriate response to aggression is aggression.

That’s for another post.

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Filed under aggression happens, Epictetus said..., phatic communication, reference group

Find Your Own Funny Bone


The life you save may be your own. Each of us has a unique sense of humor, although it overlaps with others’ on a Venn diagram of “What’s so funny?” My Occam’s Razor of jokes (biggest laugh for the fewest words) seems to depend on a love of horses and of watering-hole (as opposed to lavatorial) humor: “Horse walks into a bar. Bartender says, ‘Why the long face?'” No? Quod erat demonstrandum.

But you do have a favorite joke; and if you don’t, you are advised to get one–in fact, to lay in a large supply of them (along with the water, canned goods and flashlights that FEMA wants you to cache). Finding the funny in a rotten situation is the most universal form of sublimation (which is the highest order of ego defense, don’t you know). My Dad’s tiny G.I. edition of Max Shulman’s comic novel Barefoot Boy With Cheek was credited with saving lives in the Pacific Fleet during WW II, since it was memorized and recited verbatim among the watchstanders, keeping them awake and relieving both boredom & fear, through laughter.

An inside joke is a powerful defense against an adversary’s attempt to make a person feel like a victim. Remember the tune the PoWs whistled all through The Bridge on the River Kwai? It’s called “The Colonel Bogey March,” dating from WW I, to which Britons during the Blitz had made up rude lyrics concerning the genitalia of Hitler and his henchmen. Not even everyone in the movie audience was in on the joke, as the men whistled their defiance to their Axis captors. It makes the film much funnier, if you know the “secret code,” which, of course, all the actors did, sometimes making it hard for them to “put their lips together and blow.”

When the code is so secret that only one person knows it, that speaker (or whistler) is often dismissed as “just crazy”; but my psycholinguistic studies of the speech of schizophrenics and those with dementia, suggest that the person may be “crazy like a fox“–a New York figure of speech, meaning that there is method in his/her madness. Roman Jakobsen (there will be a quiz later, so take notes) divides all human utterances into six speech functions. You can give (or request) factual information [Referential speech]. You can clarify what you meant to say [Metalingual]. You can express strong emotion [Emotive]! You can give orders (even to yourself) [Conative]. So far, so boring, yeah? Here comes the good stuff. In order to make sure that the other party is listening to you, you must engage in a certain amount of Phatic speech, “You know? Well, let’s see. No kiddin’? Uh…” Wanna know which diagnostic category of people use the Phatic speech function least? Paranoid schizophrenics. Never underestimate the value of “Uh…”

The final speech function is the basis of all humor: Poetic speech. We use it when we believe that to give “just the facts” will get us killed (or at least, in alot of trouble). So we put it in code. We sing it, or say it in a put-on voice or accent, or exaggerate, or say the exact opposite of what we mean, or (if we are really dorky) use “air quotes.” If our intended audience doesn’t “lol,” we say, “No, but seriously…” and develop flop sweat. Often, but not always, the hidden message inside the bottle of Poetic speech is “I am so f&#king ANGRY!” When our audience gets the message and laughs with us, we all neutralize some of our rage: release endorphins, fight the build-up of cortisol, and avoid turning into werewolves.

So, how does Lili the dog come into this treatise on humor as an antidote to anger? Dogs are court jesters, for whom human laughter is a powerful reinforcement of whatever behavior they just did. Our dog trainer was constantly rebuking dog owners in our class, who giggled nervously when their dog committed a transgression, “Don’t laugh! You’ll only reinforce the behavior you’re trying to curb!” When the dog does something permissible but funny, we can laugh to our heart’s content. (We can also watch dogs on YouTube, where they can’t hear us laughing at them.)

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Filed under comic relief, phatic communication, pragmatics, secret code