Did you know that there are three types of ‘conversation’?

  • transaction
  • interaction
  • argument

In this article, I’ll be dealing only with the first one: transaction.

A transaction is not an ordinary conversation but involves (usually) two people conducting some kind of business. On the one hand, we have the customer who specifies what he or she wants; and on the other hand, we have the provider who tries to meet these needs. You, the customer, are in a restaurant, ordering a meal; you are at a ticket office, buying a ticket; you are in a bank, changing money; you are at the doctor’s, describing your symptoms. In each case, the provider is taking note of your needs and attempting to meet them.

Clearly, these aren’t conversations in the ordinary sense. They occur in particular settings where the setting itself is part of the transaction. (You wouldn’t be in the bank other than to deal with money-matters.) The sequence of events is, with a few variations, usually predictable so the exchanges are formulaic, so much so that we can often describe a transaction as an if/then algorithm.

For example, the customer enters the restaurant and is asked if he/she has reserved a table; if ‘yes’, then … if ‘no’, then … . A lot of the language used consists of fixed phrases, which can be learned in advance.

One of the most interesting characteristics of a transaction is that the participants are enacting roles: they aren’t interested in each other as people. You don’t ask the bank clerk how his mother is, unless you know him personally. When the waiter arrives with the food, he may have forgotten who ordered what and will ask “Who is the fish?”

The customer takes part in this game and might answer: “I’m the fish and she’s the steak and fries.” For the waiter, the customers are merely food items (the man with the red hair ordered fish, etc.). For the customer, the waiter is merely the provider. You could almost say it’s a de-humanised, strictly business relationship.

This is true only if the transaction goes according to plan. If it doesn’t (for example, the restaurant customer hasn’t got enough money to pay the bill) then we are altogether in a different situation.

As transactions are important and relatively easy to master, Direct Books 1 and 2 particularly focus on them. Here’s an example from Book 1, Unit 3, Lesson 2: ‘Out to lunch – ordering’:

ELENA: Do you have fruit salad?
ELENA: That please with some rolls.
KEVIN: I want the hamburger special please. With onion and peppers and some vinegar for the fries.

And so on.

Here’s another example from Book 2, Unit 15, Lesson 2:

YOU: I need a new jacket.
SALESCLERK: What sort of jacket are you looking for, (sir/ma’am)?
YOU: I want something (that is) stylish …
… something which has stripes, (with stripes)
… something which is suitable for hot weather, … something which wears well.
SALESCLERK: How about something like this?
YOU: Hm. Let me try it on.

The customer specifies; the provider tries to provide.

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