This post will explore some of the basics of Dr. Eric Berne’s Transactional Analysis (TA), one of the popular theories in the humanistic psychology movement, and will also briefly cover “metacommunication” as a principle in communication theory. Eric Berne is perhaps best known for his book The Games People Play, which popularized some of his concepts regarding TA – a psychoanalytic theory. Another popular book about TA was I’m OK, You’re OK, by Thomas Harris.
Communication theory posits that every statement made within a relationship works on two levels: the content of the statement, and as a statement about the nature of the relationship. So I’ll start with some thoughts on what a relationship is and the different kinds of transactions that occur in relationships. A relationship can be a casual ongoing series of social transactions, such as your relationship with your postal carrier or a store clerk whom you see from time to time, or it can be something deeper. Dr. Berne listed the kinds of transactions that occur in relationships, from the superficial to the intimate.
The most basic transactions are what Berne called rituals, polite exchanges that superficially acknowledge a relationship, but contain no real, meaningful content. “How are you doing?” “Oh, I’m fine. Hot enough for you?” The next level of transactions is pastimes, where two or more acquaintances pass the time together, watching TV or playing a game, with no sharing of meaningful content. After that is activities, where people get together to engage in purposeful pursuits, with a goal in mind, without getting past superficial interpersonal exchanges. In the next level of transactions, games, there’s an effort to connect and share meaningful communications, but the people involved engage in inauthentic manipulations. It was this level of transactions that Berne primarily focused on in The Games People Play. A popular song borrowed its title: “Oh the games people play now/ Every night and every day now/Never meanin’ what they say now/Never sayin’ what they mean.”
TA is a psychoanalytic theory because it re-casts Freud’s superego, ego and id as parent, adult and child, and analyzes games in relationships within that framework. I’ll write about games and crossed transactions in a later post. For now I’ll just say that the highest level of transactions in TA is intimacy: non-manipulative, authentic relating.
Having said that relationships can range from superficial to intimate, now I’ll elaborate on communication and metacommunication. On one level, any statement within a relationship is characterized by its content, whether it’s a “How ya doin?” communication that simply affirms that a relationship exists, or whether it contains more meaningful content. But on another level, metacommunication, the statement is a comment on the nature of the relationship. It’s as if every statement within a relationship were preceded by, “We have the kind of relationship in which I can say to you ______.” If you have no problem with the statement, then you and the person who said it agree on the nature of your relationship. If you find the statement creepy or inappropriate or offensive, there’s a disagreement about the nature of your relationship.
Take the example of a newly-single mother, the night after Dad – who used to be the sole parental disciplinarian – moved out. With Dad gone, Mom has had to take on that role. The first time Mom (in Dad’s absence) tells Junior it’s time for bed, she’s saying. “We have the kind of relationship where I can order you to go to bed.” If Junior complies, putting on his pajamas and brushing his teeth, he’s affirmed Mom’s new role. If he replies, “I’m not ready to go to bed yet,” he’s attempting to reject Mom’s new definition of their relationship, implying, “I don’t have to do the things you tell me to do if I don’t want to.” If Mom lets Junior stay up, she’s let him define the relationship. If she says, “Nine o’clock is your bedtime. If you’re not in your pajamas with your teeth brushed in ten minutes, no TV or video games tomorrow,” she’s asserting that she is the parent and gets to define the relationship.
Another example involves a woman who has just taken a job in an office managed by a lecherous boss. If, on her first day of work, he tells her “You look hot in that dress” and she doesn’t object, she’s communicating that she accepts his understanding that “We have the kind of relationship where I can comment on your body and make suggestive remarks.” If she doesn’t want this kind of treatment to persist, she needs to reject his assertion as to the nature of this new relationship. “Mr. Smith, I know you meant that as a compliment, but I really don’t feel comfortable with you talking to me like that.” In saying that, she’s asserting that the relationship is professional, not personal, in nature.
I’ve found this principle of metacommunication to be very helpful in making sense of the complexities of human interactions. (Or, as Eric Berne would have it, “analyzing transactions.”) You already know intuitively, from your own experience, the essence of what I’ve written about in this post; I’ve just given you the principle behind what you know, and given it a name. The term has another meaning that I’ll get into in a later post: within a relationship, metacommunicating means communicating about how we communicate, talking about how we talk together.