Games People Play

This is the appropriately provocative book title of Eric Berne’s summary of his Transactional Analysis (the theory is just as provocative as the title).

In his book, which I recently came into possession of (secondhand store .89 cents!), he outlines a series of ‘games’ people play in order to meet their goals, strategies of how people get what they want. It is truly fascinating, and excerpted below is essentially the crux of the entire argument. A PDF of the full book can be easily found in Gscholar.


“Of more significance as an introduction to game analysis are informal rituals, and among the most instructive are the American greeting rituals.

1A; “Hi!” (Hello, good morning.)
1B: “Hi!” (Hello, good morning.)
2A: “Warm enough for ya?” (How are you?)
2B: “Sure is. Looks like rain, though.” (Fine. How are you?)
3A: “Well, take care of yourself.” (Okay.)
3B: “I’ll be seeing you.”
4A: “So long.”
4B: “So long.”

It is apparent that this exchange is not intended to convey information. Indeed, if there is any information, it is wisely withheld. It might take Mr. A fifteen minutes to say how he is, and Mr. B, who is only the most casual acquaintance, has no intention of devoting that much time to listening to him. This series of transactions is quite adequately characterized by calling it an “eight-stroke ritual.”

If A and B were in a hurry, they might both be contented with a two-stroke exchange, Hi-Hi. If they were old-fashioned Oriental potentates, they might go through a two-hundred stroke ritual before settling down to business. Meanwhile, in the jargon of transactional analysis, A and B have improved each other’s health slightly; for the moment, at least, “their spinal cords won’t shrivel up,” and each is accordingly grateful.

Berne in 1969.

This ritual is based on careful intuitive computations by both parties. At this stage of their acquaintance they figure that they owe each other exactly four strokes at each meeting, and not oftener than once a day. If they run into each other again shortly, say within the next half hour, and have no new business to transact, they will pass by without any sign, or with only the slightest nod of recognition, or at most with a very perfunctory Hi-Hi. These computations hold not only for short intervals but over periods of several months. Let us now consider Mr. C and Mr. D, who pass each other about once a day, trade one stroke each—Hi-Hi —and go their ways. Mr. C goes on a month’s vacation. The day after he returns, he encounters Mr. D as usual. If on this occasion Mr. D merely says “Hi!” and no more, Mr. C will be offended, “his spinal cord will shrivel slightly.” By his calculations, Mr. D and he owe each other about thirty strokes. These can be compressed into a few transactions, if those transactions are emphatic enough. Mr. D’s side properly runs something like this (where each unit of “intensity” or “interest” is equivalent to a stroke):

ID: “Hi!” (1 unit.)
2D: “Haven’t seen you around lately.” (2 units.)
3D: “Oh, have you! Where did you go?” (5 units.)
4D: “Say, that’s interesting. How was it?” (7 units.)
5D: “Well, you’re sure looking fine.” (4 units.) “Did your family go along?” (4 units.)
6D: “Well, glad to see you back.” (4 units.)
7D: “So long.” (1 unit.)

This gives Mr. D a total of 28 units. Both he and Mr. C know that he will make up the missing units the following day, so the account is now, for all practical purposes, squared. Two days later they will be back at their two-stroke exchange, Hi-Hi. But now they “know each other better,” i.e., each knows the other is reliable, and this may be useful if they should meet “socially.”
The inverse case is also worth considering. Mr. E and Mr. F have set up a two-stroke ritual, Hi-Hi. One day instead of passing on, Mr. E stops and asks: “How are you?” The conversation proceeds as follows:

IE: “Hi!”
IF: “Hi!’
2E: “How are you?”
2F (Puzzled’): “Fine. How are you?”
3E: “Everything’s great. Warm enough for you?”
3F: “Yeah.” (Cautiously.) “Looks like rain, though.”
4E: “Nice to see you again.”
4F: “Same here. Sorry, I’ve got to get to the library before it closes. So long.”
5E: “So long.”

As Mr. F hurries away, he thinks to himself: “What’s come over him all of a sudden? Is he selling insurance or something?” In transactional terms this reads: “All he owes me is one stroke, why is he giving me five?”

An even simpler demonstration of the truly transactional business-like nature of these simple rituals is the occasion when Mr. G says “Hi!” and Mr. H passes on without replying. Mr. G’s reaction is “What’s the matter with him?” meaning: “I gave him a stroke and he didn’t give me one in return.” If Mr. H keeps this up and extends it to other acquaintances, he is going to cause some talk in his community.

In borderline cases it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between a procedure and a ritual. The tendency is for the layman to call professional procedures rituals, while actually every transaction may be based on sound, even vital experience, but the layman does not have the background to appreciate that. Conversely, there is a tendency for professionals to rationalize ritualistic elements that still cling to their procedures, and to dismiss skeptical laymen on the ground that they are not equipped to understand. And one of the ways in which entrenched professionals may resist the introduction of sound new procedures is by laughing them off as rituals. Hence the fate of Semmelweis and other innovators.

The essential and similar feature of both procedures and rituals is that they are stereotyped. Once the first transaction has been initiated, the whole series is predictable and follows a predetermined course to a foreordained conclusion unless special conditions arise. The difference between them lies in the origin of the predetermination: procedures are programmed by the Adult and rituals are Parentally patterned.

Individuals who are not comfortable or adept with rituals sometimes evade them by substituting procedures. They can be found, for example, among people who like to help the hostess with preparing or serving food and drink at parties.”

Pretty wild stuff eh? The entire book can easily be found online, or more can be read here:


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