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Transactional Analysis

May 15th, 2007 by dk

Who among us wouldn’t like to find the culprit that has robbed our culture of its civility? The list of usual suspects goes on and on: cynical politicians, shock radio, rap music, air conditioning, tribalism, etc.

I’d like to add two more. Directory assistance and NPR.

Ma Bell controlled our lives back when we looked up to corporations. They took care of us, and we paid for the service. Then upstarts like MCI came along and offered us lower prices if we did some of the work ourselves. (Remember dialing eleven-digit codes to access your account that entitled you to save a couple pennies a minute?) The phone company — and later the phone companies — responded by removing the niceties that lubricate human relations. Operators were no longer “standing by,” waiting for us to need them. Instead, we were told via recording that our call was “very important to them” and would be answered “in the order it was received.” But worse, our interactions with directory assistance no longer ended with “good-bye.” Instead, we got “click.” And then “hello” was replaced with “city please.” Cut to the chase. Just the facts, ma’am. I’m busy, whaddya want? City please. No longer was it a real human interaction. A simple request became a business transaction.

Thanks to the phone company, conversations no longer begin with “hello” and end with “good-bye.” And thanks to NPR, we’re abandoning the age-old “you’re welcome.”

National Public Radio broke new ground 25 years ago when it introduced “long-form” news radio. People felt like they were getting more complete coverage of events, and maybe they were, but a significant contributor to that sense came from the human interactions that frame the information. When Bob Edwards interviewed somebody, it started with “thank you for stopping by” or something like that. As if you were listening to some very well-connected person’s living room ramblings.

But listen closely. Hardly anyone closes the transation with “you’re welcome.” As NPR has become a force in broadcasting and interviewees are gleeful to have reached such a vast audience, they can’t help themselves before they say some version of “no, thank YOU!” But that doesn’t close the transaction. The accounts don’t balance. Same with all the variations of “no problem,” which attempt to zero out the original “thank you” by devaluing it to nothing. It never quite succeeds, so again you are left with an unfinished conversation.

Senators have the tidiest dodge. They must teach it to them when they get the job. They all use it and usually with the same rhythm. They can’t say “you’re welcome,” because that would sound regal. They can’t use “no, thank YOU” because that would seem craven. “No problem” is too flip. So every U.S. Senator ends an interview with “it’s been a pleasure to be with you.” Are you lucky to be with me or am I lucky to be with you? Let’s decide to not decide. It’s been a pleasure.

Why does this matter? Humans have code they use to acknowledge one another. Shaking hands to show we’ve dropped our rocks has given way to language. Hello and good-bye do that. So does please, thank you, and you’re welcome. Without these markers, we may forget we’re dealing with another human being of equal value to our own. And if ours is not a transaction among equals, then I can treat you any darn way I please, thank you very much! You’re welcome.


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