A matter of politeness? A contrastive study of phatic talk in teenage conversation

Anna-Brita Stenström and Annette Myre Jørgensen


This corpus-based article explores London and Madrid teenagers’ use of phatic expressions as a politeness device in their everyday conversations. The starting-point for the study is Leech’s ‘Phatic Maxim’, which he suggests as a supplement to the four maxims making up Grice’s Cooperative Principle. The purport of the maxim is to avoid silence by keeping talking, which may involve anything from loose formulaic talk to connectors and the use of taboo words, all of which are phatic devices with a strong bonding effect. The teenage talk studied here is largely void of the formulaic expressions that characterize conversational openings and closings in adult speakers’ casual encounters. Both groups are frequent users of turn-final appealers which trigger turn-initial uptakes and of reaction signals realized by interjections and taboo words, all with a strongly bonding effect. Boys in particular are not only allowed but even expected to use taboo language as a sign of camaraderie and a means to reinforce the phatic strength of an exchange. In both corpora, there is ample use of fillers that help the speaker to hold the turn, and hedges, which often act as fillers in addition to helping the speaker avoid self-commitment. And whereas the Spanish teenagers use certain vocatives as a purely conversational resource to establish and maintain contact, the English teenagers insert ‘unsolicited’ minimal feedback signals (for example, realized by mhm or mm) which encourage the current speaker to go on speaking.

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