Communities vs. Transactions

My wife and I have different ways of looking at the world. It occurs to me today that the ambiguity of these two ways of looking at relationships is often exploited.

I think my wife’s understanding is typical. In her view, people do things for one another because they care about one another. Unless it is some extraordinary request, you don’t count the cost. If someone doesn’t care about you, or you them, then you are not obligated to do anything for them. In fact, it’s likely you won’t help them because you don’t have the feeling of reciprocity from them.

However, one problem with looking at the world in this way is that beyond a certain threshold, the community model moves into a transactional model. Someone asks for something beyond the normal level of reciprocity of the commons, and then you owe them something extraordinary in return. But, it’s tacit. This is never actually said because the transactional model is a different model of interaction, and it undermines the community model.

There are also some cases where there will never be anything in return. But, sometimes the obligation is created across generations, such as taking care of elderly parents with the hope that, one day, your children might take care of you in a similiar manner. These kinds of commitments gives community longevity, so they last beyond the current participants. But, again, there’s quite a bit of ambiguity, and in many cases, expectations won’t get met.

I start from a different place. I assume every interaction is transactional, and I try, to the degree possible, to be autonomous and self-sufficient. The last part is key.

In the transactional model, you’re in the world of commodities and commerce. While there are relationships built on commerce, they are not relationships of regard or community, they are relationships of convenience. The advantage of being autonomous and self-sufficent is you can live in a world of commerce and not have to count the cost, the same way that you live when you live in the community model, except it doesn’t matter whether people care about you or not.

Except, obviously, it does matter whether people care about you. The difference is that I don’t need that to be the basis for my day-to-day interactions with everyone. There is a small group of people that I interact with the expectations of community. But, outside of that small group, it’s the transactional model.

And, here’s why that’s important. When you go to a subreddit, like antiwork, and you see that a boss asks someone to come in on short notice and be a “team” player. That’s a community argument. But, does the boss care about you? Not at all. The relationship is transactional. Working this kind of ambiguity, given how many people subscribe to the community model, is a path for exploitation. It’s really that simple.

The Danger of Small Talk

“The Finnish don’t believe in talking bullshit.”

—Laura Studarus. “How the Finnish Survive Without Small Talk.” BBC.com. October 17, 2018.

Small talk is a social lubricant. It creates openings, fills in gaps in conversation, and eases partings. In environments with complex social networks that extend past our Dunbar numbers, social anxiety is a natural byproduct of the environment. Small talk eases this anxiety.

Gossip also has these features. It can be useful in communicating social standing in a group. It’s how reputations are made. But, it is can also be damaging if it becomes the focus of interaction, where what others think and will say about us within a group polices group behavior, leading to inauthentic lives.

Small talk has a similar problem. Sure, it can signal social connection and paper over awkward moments. But, it can also become a crutch that we rely on so much that we do it instead of making any kind of meaningful connection with others, which can easily heighten our feelings of social anxiety and disconnection.