Functions of Greetings

Greetings play an essential role in everyday conversational routines and are commonly used as a ritual form of politeness. As such, they serve an important function in building and maintaining social relationships. Greetings often consist of brief conventionalized expressions that are not necessarily meant to be interpreted literally, but rather are used as a tool to demonstrate politeness or to enhance the hearer's positive face.

Greeting expressions reflect ritualized aspects of conversational routines, and are typically interpreted as such. Ritualized language use is also called phatic communion (Malinowski, 1936), which serves an interactional purpose in communication rather than conveying information in a transactional manner. For instance, when a speaker utters the common greeting in English, "Hi, how are you?", s/he does not necessarily seek specific details about the hearer's state, but instead uses this ritual expression to negotiate the social relationship.

Oftentimes greetings are considered the first part of an interactional exchange between two or more people. Through a verbal or non-verbal greeting, the conversation partners can acknowledge each other's presence and begin a conversational exchange. A greeting statement often forms part of an adjacency pair, which consists of an initiation from the speaker and a response from the hearer, following an anticipated turn-taking routine.

Though greetings are a highly frequent universal phenomenon, they can vary significantly within and across languages, social groups, and even among the same individual in different circumstances. In this way, greeting behavior can be influenced by the relationship between the speakers, the social context at hand, as well as cultural differences that govern the politeness norms of the given community, among other factors.

Above passages adpated from Kakiuchi (2005a); Wei (2010); and Zeff (2016)

There are various functions that greetings serve in everyday social interaction. For example, greetings can serve to acknowledge the presence of a conversational partner (Goffman, 1971). Greetings can alsoform linguistic routines of politeness. In this sense, greetings often consist of conventionalized expressions that are part of conversational routines. As such, greetings are tools we use to behave politely and maintain group solidarity (positive face) with our conversation partners. Thus, greetings are ritualized behaviors that help us establish and maintain social relationships (Wei (2010)).



Goffman, E. (1971). Relations in public: Microstudies of the public order. New York: Basic Books.

Kakiuchi, Y. (2005a). Greetings in English: Naturalistic speech versus textbook speech. In D. Tatsuki (Ed.), Pragmatics in Language Learning, Theory, and Practice (pp. 61–85). Tokyo: The Japanese Association for Language Teaching, Pragmatics Special Interest Group.

Malinowski, B. (1936). The problem of meaning in primitive languages. In C. K. Ogden & I. A. Richards (Eds.), The meaning of meaning (pp. 296-336). London: Kegan Paul.

Wei, L. (2010). The functions and use of greetings. Canadian Social Science, 6(4), 56-62.

Zeff, B. B. (2016). The pragmatics of greetings: Teaching speech acts in the EFL classroom. English Teaching Forum, 54(1), 2-11.


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