I can be a total asshole when I write e-mails and texts, interact with people on channels such as Slack and Asana, and even talk to people on social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram.
A typical digital interaction with me often goes something like this:
E-mail from fan: “Hey Ben, I hope your day is going fantastically! I really loved how you laid out your entire recipe for that killer salad, then followed it up with the how-to smoothie video. You really inspire me, man. I have a huge favor/question to ask of you: can you let me know what your favorite book is for learning about healthy food preparation? Thank you so much!”
My e-mail reply: “Yeah, search for ‘healthy food book’ on my website.”
No winky face or other feel-good emoticon.
No gracious gushing thanks.
Just a strict, short, stoic, Spartan-Esque business response. Efficiency at all costs, right?
Or this Slack message, coming from me to a social media employee: “You spelled workout wrong. It is ‘work out’. Pls fix.”
Or this Voxer message, coming from me to a virtual assistant: “Find me organic coconut flakes by Monday, thx.”
Or this reply to an e-mail from a physician telling me about how excited she was about her cool new stem cell video series, via two highly descriptive paragraphs that finished with asking me whether I wanted to check out a preview of the videos. My curt response? “Not for now.” (Admittedly, that last one was one of those convenient Gmail smart composes, which can often aggravate this problem, although it tends to be slightly more polite than me.)
You’ve probably experienced the same thing.
Digital interactions make it incredibly easy to treat people like computers—simply a series of 0s and 1s that we say random things to in order to make other things happen. It’s even worse if you’re running a company digitally, like I do.
I rarely see my employees, or give them high-fives, or hug them, or look them in the eye, or ask them how their day went, or see if they want to go hit some tennis balls that evening because they are, well, largely digital to me in nearly all our interactions. As a result, they can simply be perceived by me as tiny, virtual “coin-bots.” I deposit X number of dollars into their bank account each month, and in return, they make Y things happen that results in Z outcomes for the business. What an efficient, logical, well-organized, tidy little factory!
Here are your marching orders and a coin. A hat and two cymbals. Now dance, monkey, dance.
And if things go wrong, or I am delivered results that are anything but perfect? I tend to be baffled. After all, it should be so simple, right? I say X, you do Y, and Z happens. If anything goes wrong in that logical chain of events, then you’re an idiot, because it’s all spelled out and you’re supposed to be able to do your task just like a computer dammit. After all, you kind of are a computer to me since I’m always talking to you through one. Or a machinery-driven monkey, if you’d like to think of it that way.
The same transactional scenario can happen with customers and clients, especially those with whom I interact with online. They can simply be tiny, virtual “coin-bots.” They pay me X dollars per month for Y services, such as a diet plan, fitness plan, 20-minute phone call, etc., etc., etc., and I then deliver those services to them, and the business is done, with near-zero consideration given to getting to know them on a more deep, personal level; understand their fears, worries, hopes, or dreams; know the names of their wife or children, or actually recognize them as real people. They are instead texts and font shapes, sound waves traveling through a phone or app, and pixelated, digital avatars who I cannot sense, touch, feel, smell, or fully appreciate in all their beautiful humanness.
Worse yet, once these kinds of impersonal digital interactions become a habit in your life (as they have very much become in mine), real face-to-face interactions seem to transform into a similar scenario.
That grocery store clerk ringing up my groceries? Nod, hand over the credit card, take groceries, leave. She’s the human “computer” ringing up my sparkling water and macadamia nuts. Who cares about her actual life or how her day is going? That would not be efficient, timely, or machine-like, which is what I’ve been trained to do in my virtual interactions.
The sweet, lovely gal who takes care of my printing and shipping needs, collects packages and mail from the mailbox, drives my kids to tennis and jiujitsu, and runs errands for me? Quite similar to the way in which I might send an employee a quickly written and emotionless text or e-mail task, I’ll call to her as I’m down working at the kitchen table: “Get the mail by one. Thanks.” That’s it. Nothing about how her day is going or how she slept or if she’s feeling well or what exciting things she may have done over the weekend. No real, meaningful connection. Just business as usual, often in a reactive, frantic, and machine-like fashion.
In these scenarios, no longer are real, flesh-and-blood people, actual people. No longer are they precious, unique spirits and souls who you may live with for eternity and beyond. No longer are they understandably flawed in a creative and magically imperfect way, but they are instead a walking flesh-and-blood computer with a chip that sometimes malfunctions and doesn’t do or say what you had desired or anticipated, easily treated as a commodity rather than a fellow human being. People are reduced to tiny cymbal-donning monkeys there to entertain your economic impulses.
There’s actually a name for this increasingly common phenomenon: transactional relationships.
What Is A Transactional Relationship?
Look, I don’t know who coined the term transactional relationship, but I first learned about it from my friend Benjamin Hardy, who details transactional relationships quite elegantly in this relatively recent Medium article “How to Create Rare And Life-Changing Relationships With Anyone (even your heroes)“.
Hardy describes transactional relationships as largely economic, functional, and based on an exchange of money, goods, or services. These types of transactional relationships serve a very clear point, and when that point no longer makes sense or has been fulfilled, the transactional relationship ends. You buy your groceries from a grocer, your home from a real estate agent, your suit from a tailor, then perhaps wave goodbye and never see them again or engage in any future meaningful interactions with them.
By their very nature, transactional relationships are about getting the most you possibly can in exchange for as little as possible on your part. They’re all about you, and what you can get. Not about what you can give or the deep, important connections that can potentially result from an interaction with a fellow human.
One way to determine whether you treat relationships as transactional is to ask yourself: Do you view “your people” as objects or as people? If the answer is the former, then the relationship is a transaction and merely a means to an end. In such a transactional relationship, there is no intimacy, and instead, everything is pure business. The relationship becomes an item and the meaning becomes a transaction.
If there were a true relationship, the person who is part of the interaction with you might feel an element of love, of trust, and of caring or kindness. They might feel protected. When that person, let’s say one of your employees or co-workers, feels protected, they’re willing to be more transparent with you, more willing to share what’s on their mind, more human, and even able to be more proactive, creative, and productive because they’re willing to take risks that may result in failure. Sure, a failure might be something that still needs to be addressed and fixed, but that failure doesn’t matter as much on a deep, personal level because your relationship with them goes beyond a pass-fail, black-and-white, transactional relationship, and is instead of understanding and accepting of them as a fellow human being. The relationship goes beyond a mere transaction. The hairstylist who messed up your bangs isn’t someone you crucify with a nasty Google review and who is going to be scared for her next dozen hair appointments because of how you’ve treated her but is instead willing to move on and rise to the occasion because you laughed with her, hugged it out, and talked with her about how she was distracted because her kid is at home with the stomach flu. Get it?
In contrast, Hardy describes in his article how, if a person doesn’t feel protected in a relationship, they won’t speak up. They won’t share what’s on their mind or take risks. Instead, they pander to the relationship, don’t act in their power, and act like a victim. This is because transactional relationships won’t protect a person. If they don’t show up how they’re supposed to show up, they’re not protected. Instead, they’re rejected.
I’ve personally seen this happen in many of my relationships. A book editor who is afraid to proactively point out to me potential chapter improvements in my book because of my tendency to comment robotically and rudely on her proposed fixes with mere “Yes, do this.” or “No, don’t do that.”
A personal assistant who won’t approach me about something I do that bothers or offends them because we don’t have a deep personal relationship, but instead a “show up, get paid, do your job, go home” transactional relationship. So they silently put their head down, work, and go home—still offended.
A child who isn’t creative and free-flowing on a book report due to my tendency to red pen an essay, hand it back, and give them their deadline to fix, without chatting with them about how the book made them feel on a deep emotional level or even how their day is going.
As I’ve learned more about the nature of transactional relationships and my propensity to engage in them, I began to ask myself: When did I start thinking of people as “transactions” instead of deep, human souls?
How I Became So Damn Transactional
I grew up observing my grandfather and my father’s serial entrepreneurship and, at quite a young age, became quite the little entrepreneur myself.
For example, as a young boy, I would save all my Halloween candy under my bed, then—when summer rolled around and king-sized Butterfingers, Halloween colored Nerds candy, and other fringe novelty sugar items were scarce—I would sell it to the other neighborhood kids and families in our homeschooling co-op.
As a teenager, I ran a successful neighborhood babysitting business and tennis coaching business, which is how I saved up much of my college money and how I also continued to realize that people have the potential to be not just people—but also “opportunities to build a business.”
Throughout college, I painted homes, hustled for tips while working at a pub and coffee shop, traveled through the city doing private in-residence, high-end personal training, made croissants and cappuccinos at a French bakery early in the morning, and engaged in all manner of enterprises that surely helped solidify within me a respectable work ethic and knowledge of business, but that no doubt continued to foster my tendency towards seeing people as a means to an end. Other human beings could help me fulfill the base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, pay the bills, and chock away a few coins in the hat for a rainy day.
But then things got even worse.
After graduating from college and managing my gyms and personal training studios for half a decade, I launched an online business. People not only continued to become transactions but also digital 0s and 1s who I didn’t even have to physically be with. I could hide behind a screen and bark orders. I could be faceless and emotionless, operating from a mentality of pure and strict business via a few taps of the keyboard to communicate with anyone, anywhere in the world. Eventually, there were no more Friday night parties with personal training clients, lunchtime forays with co-workers, hugs with customers who needed a little love, daily eye-to-eye interactions, high-fives, handshakes, or anything else that might have allowed for transactional relationships to become transformational. Lack of need for empathy and emotion can become so easily built into largely online and digital relationships, and this phenomenon certainly became woven into my life.
An online company.
Communicating primarily with virtual assistants or via computers, phones, software, and apps.
Is being a serial entrepreneur and having the ability to run entire companies via the internet a convenience? Yes.
Is it also able to transform one into an impersonal, fully transactional asshole who views work as a transactional process void of emotion? Also, sadly, yes. Ironically, even when able to engage in transformational relationships with people such as my wife, my children, or my close friends, the majority of my relationships that had anything to do with business became almost purely transactional. That was just my very flawed impression of how the world works.
Why You Too Can Easily Slide Into A Transactional Relationship Mentality
Let’s face it: Transactional relationships existed long before society’s evolution into digital work.
From the horrors of slavery to the mistreatment of factory workers during the industrial revolution to unfair wages historically paid to women and children, one can find examples of the travesty of transactions throughout history.
So what is the reason that relationships can become transactional?
Sure, I think a lack of love and truly caring for our fellow human beings can be part of the problem.
Certainly so can selfishness, greed, ungratefulness, or any other sinful and self-seeking character tendency.
But in my opinion, especially because I’ve seen many people, including myself—who actually do deeply care for others and love others, and who do via family and friendships display that they can create transformational relationships—nonetheless fall into the transactional relationship trap…
…The tendency to engage in transactional relationships comes down to navigating through life in a hurry, with an attitude of scarcity, of time and resources, and a particular perception that there just isn’t enough time in the day to treat every human in every interaction in a way that a human being should be treated and honored.
There’s not enough time to write a few extra lines in an e-mail showing that you actually care.
Not enough time to pick up the phone and call instead of sending an emotionless text.
Not enough time to chat with the grocery store clerk about how his or her day is going because, after all, you’re late for an appointment.
Not enough time to hug someone, look someone in the eye, or pause to engage in human connection because you’re rushing to your next important task.
That’s right: If you navigate through life with a belief in the scarcity of time, it’s going to be very, very easy for you to engage in rushed and shallow transactional relationships that leave people feeling as though they’re simply a stepping stone to your next checkbox in life.
How To Give Yourself The Time to Truly Treat People As People
So what’s the opposite of scarcity of time?
The single biggest obstacle to you feeling as though there actually will be enough time to show people that you care, to ask people questions and engage in conversations blanketed in kindness and love, to be fully present in your interactions with others, and to provide a space of empathy, of listening and of connection is an absence of trust.
See, to be overwhelmed with a sense of peace that there will be enough time in the day to accomplish everything you need to accomplish and still have time left over for treating people the way they deserve, you must operate with a spirit of an abundance of time and a trust that God will provide, even if you are ten minutes late for a post-lunch appointment because you took the time at lunch to chat about life with a fellow co-worker or employee.
Trust that God will care for you. Trust that the time will be there. Trust that abundance will outpace scarcity.
But if you lose trust and you suddenly thrust time to the top of the totem pole of priorities, then eventually time comes before people, and people become transactional.
So your choice in terms of which direction your relationships go looks something like this:
Human Connection <– Transformational Relationships <– Spirit Of Abundance <– Time <– Trust | Lack of Trust –> No Time –> Spirit Of Scarcity –> Transactional Relationships –> Human Disconnection
If it does, then simply take a second this week to ask your restaurant waiter how their day is going.
Pause, and take one minute to write a couple of extra lines in that email you’d normally hurry through and send off without emotion.
Try to create just one comment to the house cleaner or plumber or landscaper or anyone else who you normally find yourself tempted to treat coldly and in a business-like fashion. Ask them about how their weekend was, or how their kids are, or what they’re doing for fun that night.
Just start small.
It takes less time than you’d think to make a human connection. You just have to trust that God will provide and that the time will be there even if you’re taking extra minutes out of your day to connect with people meaningfully.
As a matter of fact, the Bible tells us quite clearly why we don’t need to operate from a spirit of scarcity. Matthew 6:25-34 says:
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?
“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you— you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
That’s right: Each day has enough trouble of its own.
So be nice.
Don’t be a shitty monster to people.
Don’t be the ultra-successful go-getter who doesn’t have anybody show up at their funeral because they were an asshole.
Care, and don’t just say you care, show you care. Take the time. You’re not going to starve or miss a house payment or lose all your fitness gains or not finish a work deadline because you took the time to care for a fellow human being. If anything, you’re going to be a happier, more peaceful person—and they will be too.
A Few Other Tips To Create Transformational Relationships
In addition to trusting and having a spirit of abundance instead of scarcity, you may want to consider a few of the tips that are detailed in Laura Mazzullo’s “Transactional: is that REALLY who you want to be?” and Benjamin Hardy’s “How to Create Rare And Life-Changing Relationships With Anyone (even your heroes)“, including:
Assume the best intentions in others. Ask yourself: “What would happen if I assumed everyone was doing their best?”. People usually don’t slack, mess up, and commit all-too-common human errors on purpose or out of spite. Most folks, including your family and co-workers, actually do care. But they are fallible humans and not flawless automatons, which is why they have actual personalities, humor, proactiveness, and creativity. So cut them some friggin’ slack already.
Be kind. Just. Be. A. Nice. Person. That’s all. Care. Smile. Love your fellow human. Say “thank you” and “please” more often, and not “thx” and “pls.” Heck, even toss in a bit of “I love you.” or “I’m grateful for you.” Kindness tends to be kind of contagious actually and makes your day better too.
Provide advice and support, not just correction. Did your marketing manager butcher an e-mail headline or print a brochure with some glaring typos. Sure…point it out, but perhaps ask how you could help them avoid such understandable errors in the future (“Can I find someone to help proofread for you?” or “Can I purchase you access to Grammarly or give you some tips on how to use it?“)—all in kindness and assuming the best intention on their part, of course.
Imagine your digital interactions are physical. Write your e-mails the same way you’d say something to someone’s face (“Yo.” can become “Hey, how’s your day going man?“). Send a text as though you were looking into someone’s eyes (“Umm…OK.” can become “Can you explain a little bit more what you mean by that, I don’t quite understand?“). Introduce colleagues or make connections as though you were seated at dinner together (“John meet Ben, Ben meet John.” can become “John, you have to meet Ben. You guys are such kindred spirits, I know it. You guys have to hang out sometime, or at least get on the phone together for a bit.“). The feel of real physical connection can still happen when connecting in our digital era. And yes, I know it takes more time. That’s where trust fits in, remember?
Don’t see people as dollar signs. See them as people. Sure, they may be a paying customer, a producing employee, or a potential client, but the fact that we often exchange goods or services in exchange for other goods and services with these type of folks doesn’t mean that at the end of the day they’re also not a mother, a father, a brother, a sister, a parent, a person who loves tennis or the outdoors or cooking, and someone with just as many faults, flaws, worries, joys, F-ups, addictions, weird habits, and unorganized desks as you. We’re all messy humans and we all need stuff from each other. Let’s just not make needing stuff the ultimate objective of our interactions, OK? Let’s instead make the ultimate objective love and connection.
Be transformational. Finally, Ben Hardy, in the same article I mentioned earlier, describes the opposite of a transaction relationship. He calls it a transformational relationship. Transformational relationships can start out as transactions. But they then go far beyond the mere exchange of money, goods, or services—and are instead about giving the most you possibly to help others and advance others’ in a synergistic and win-win way. In transformational relationships, you have lots of protection, which is important because as I alluded to earlier, feeling protected is the key to doing invaluable work, which you just can’t do without the love, help, and support of others. For example, Ben describes how he hired someone named Joel to help him with his communication skills. But that relationship stopped being transactional very quickly. They connected deeply. They started serving and helping each other. And Joel has helped Ben in ways he could never help himself. In fact, Ben says Joel changed his life. He goes on to say:
“Your relationship isn’t transformational if it doesn’t change you. If you’re not getting better. And if there aren’t generous gifts given without compulsion. Your relationship isn’t transformational if it’s primarily about you. Your relationship isn’t transformational if you’re not creating a bigger pie — both for the relationship and all involved. But beyond that, your relationship isn’t transformational if you aren’t making the world a better place. Your relationships aren’t feeling protected is the key to doing invaluable work. Because you can’t do your best work without the love, help, and support of others. if you don’t truly love the people you’re with. If you aren’t genuine. If you’re not thoughtful.”
Once you recognize and identify the relationships and interactions in your life that have become transactional, the steps above become clear and easy to take. It’s just a matter of knowing the seriousness of the matter, then taking action. I trust that you’re now equipped to do just that.
So, world, I’m sorry.
I’m sorry I’ve been an asshole.
I’m sorry I’ve been transactional.
I’m sorry I’ve treated you like a digital 0 and 1, a pixelated avatar, and a coin-bot computer.
I’m ready for my relationships to become transformative. Life is too short and people are too magical for it to be any other way.
Please forgive me.
Let’s finish with a song that I think perfectly pairs to today’s article, shall we?
How about you? Have you slid, like I have, into largely transactional relationships with people, even those who you love and interact with on a daily basis? Will you join me in, instead, committing to transformational relationships? Then I challenge you to start here: Take one relationship that is currently a transactional relationship for you, and take a truly transformative, caring step towards making the transactional transformational. How about a phone call to an employee instead of a text? A “how is your day going?” to the grocery store clerk instead of a curt nod and half-smile? An email that, despite still efficient, actually shows that you’re human and they’re human, such an “I’m so grateful for you today” in your salutatory greeting? You get the idea. Leave your own questions, comments, thoughts, and tips below. I promise to read them all.
And yes, when I read those comments, I’ll be thinking of you as a very special, unique, and precious human being—not an email address or a means to an end or a digital avatar surfing my website. I’m grateful for you.