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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

Tag Archives: Thomas Harris

transactional

(1970’s | therapese | “exchange-based”)

First there was transactional immunity, a legal concept having to do with grand jury testimony, where a witness may be compelled to testify about a crime he was involved in with a promise that he won’t face prosecution. Traditionally, the witness was assured that no prosecution would follow for a crime described in testimony, and that was known as “transactional immunity.” Congress changed the law so that a witness could be prosecuted for such crimes, but the witness’s grand jury testimony could not be used as part of the prosecution (“use immunity”). A complicated distinction with big ramifications.

In the seventies, along came transactional analysis, encapsulated in the book “I’m OK, You’re OK” by Thomas Harris, which led a fad in the middle of the decade. I don’t remember being aware of the term at the time (though I was aware of the book), and the definition seems to have been rather vague, but the idea was to examine how you dealt with other people in order to improve such encounters (transaction = interaction). In practice, that meant you did role-playing exercises to help you deal more pleasantly with others and learn more reliable methods of engaging with them. Transactional management, which emphasized maintaining an existing system through rewards and punishments, invoked a related concept in businese.

Today the catch-phrase is transactional data, which is what Google and Amazon want: detailed records of your purchases, on-line or otherwise, so they can wring more money out of you. Here we have a straightforward adjective formation meaning “of or pertaining to a transaction,” which has been around a long time and represents what is probably still the most common guise of “transactional.” In the seventies it was not used often; it’s much more common now.

Despite the continuing prevalence of the business usage, the real story here is the shift from the legal and financial to the human, which began with Harris. The word is often used now to talk about the ways we treat each other, related to the older concept of “keeping score” in a relationship. A connection between two people, like any other kind, does require some scorekeeping. Any relationship I’ve ever seen, healthy and successful or otherwise, involves a certain amount of paying attention to who has done what for whom lately and making adjustments accordingly. But a predominantly or purely transactional bond doesn’t last very long, because it forces you to focus on the wrong things. Instead of making the most of your partner’s pleasing or compatible traits, you wonder whether you’re getting enough for what you’re giving, and that line of thought leads to dissatisfaction and resentment.

A recent example from the wider world of politics: several commentators described as “transactional” Michael Bloomberg’s apology for excessive stop-and-frisks by the NYPD during his term as mayor. The word conveys the idea that the apology was insincere, a kind of bribe offered without any real reflection or concern about the effects of the policy. It’s safe to say that Bloomberg’s move asked for a quid pro quo; he was in effect asking African-Americans to reconsider him and even give him their votes. In larger social contexts as in smaller personal contexts, the transactional requires an ongoing series of exchanges, which must involve calculation and record-keeping (writing, humanity’s pre-eminent means of keeping records, developed out of commerce, after all). Now that the term has moved into social science jargon to talk about the interpersonal, it is firmly anchored in two realms and seems unlikely to budge from either.

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