3 Things Never to Say to Someone Involved With a Cult
A follower entrenched in cultish ideology will not respond well to these phrases
“My brother got caught up with QAnon, and now he won’t speak to me.”
“My best friend is obsessed with this sketchy New Age guru, and I don’t know how to talk to her anymore.”
“I think my dad is in a cult. How do I convince him to leave?”
These are some of the most frequently asked questions folks have posed to me, ever since I started researching the social science of cult influence. Partly inspired by my father’s childhood in a notorious cult called Synanon, I’ve spent the past two years writing a book about the language of cults: how cultish leaders — from notorious villains like Jim Jones to more quotidien figures like CEOs, SoulCycle master instructors, and scammy spiritual influencers — use a systematic pattern of language techniques to condition and coerce their followers. (The book is called Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism, and it comes out in June.)
Equally important is the conversation about how we as a society talk about cults and their believers. What I’ve learned after interviewing scores of sociologists and psychologists, religion scholars, and cult survivors themselves is that cultish influence isn’t just reserved for wild-eyed Charlie Manson types stationed on remote compounds in the woods; it imbues our everyday lives, from our corporate offices to our Instagram feeds. Dividing us into “brainwashed cult followers” and “normal” people who’d never fall victim to “mind control” is both unhelpful and reductive in that it prevents us from understanding what is truly going on with people who wind up on the more dangerous side of the cultish spectrum. The truth is that most folks who wind up in “cults” are not desperate, disturbed, or intellectually inferior. They tend to be educated, idealistic seekers who slipped a little too far down a rabbit hole…. and then way too far… winding up in a headspace where certain words and phrases, which may sound totally rational to “outsiders,” land differently for them.
How to talk to “cult followers” is an extremely thorny question (and one that I’ll attempt to answer in a later post), but I find that it’s a bit easier to…