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(Book) Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism

Book is here.

Cultish is a quick, entertaining read that will change how you understand language and power dynamics.

You are a part of a cult. I am too. I’ll even name them: crypto is a sort of cult; Triathloners make up another cult. We all have them.

I use the term cult loosely here, of course. 'Cult' can be interpreted in myriad ways depending on context.

Author Amanda Montell is a self-proclaimed language scholar who uses experiences with, curiosity for, and knowledge of cults and cult language to define “Cultish,” the language of a shared group. Think along the lines of Spanish or English.

Speech is the first thing we’re willing to change about ourselves and the last thing we let go. Adopting new terminology is instant and (seemingly) commitment-free.

Ever notice how you and your friends or family talk similarly? Or how a new company feels like a different country because of all the new acronyms?

Today, fitness studios offer a place where people can experience real and in-the-flesh connections. It just takes a few key linguistic tools to get you hooked on OrangeTheory.

Unexpectedly, reading it made me a better listener.

What do I mean by that? I can listen for the tools that cults use.

Most cults have certain characteristics: a charismatic leader, a unique vernacular, important rituals.

These are a few verbal tricks that cults and communities often employ:

  1. Thought-terminating clichés — compress complex human problems into short, easily memorized phrases that avoid further consideration of the matter. “It’s all about balance”

  2. Loaded Language — inspires a sense of intrigue and a feeling of exclusivity or superiority to draw (and keep) people in

  3. Us-versus-Them labels — self-explanatory, but often used to make the insiders feel exclusive or ‘chosen’

Everything from Scientology to Amway to SoulCycle to Catholicism to Big Four cultures share some of these traits.

We are more susceptible to the characteristics and verbal tricks than we’d like to admit but it’s not our fault.

The process — convert, condition, and coerce — of any cult is executed with mathematical accuracy.

Listen Closely

It makes sense that we are drawn in to these modern ‘cults’ by language.

The book gets at what I think what we are all desperately searching for, and what modern-day cults are so good at: meaning-making. The search for meaning transcends time and space (see: Victor Fankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning).

A Cultish quote:

All kinds of research points to the idea that humans are social and spiritual by design. Our behavior is driven by a desire for belonging and purpose. This fundamental human itch for connection is touching, but when steered in the wrong direction, it can also cause an otherwise judicious person to do utterly irrational things.

So we find our own unique groups with their own vernacular.

If I had one takeaway: it’s important to listen. At the end of the day, be sure you are able to shed the “linguistic uniform” (great term) of a group. Maintain that separation when not engaged. “Touch grass,” as they say in the crypto cult.

The fact is that most modern-day movements leave enough space for us to decide what to believe, what to engage with, and what language to use to express ourselves. Tuning in to the rhetoric these communities use can help us participate with clearer eyes.


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