Cargo Cult X

“Good listeners do often reflect words back—but not because they read it in a book somewhere. Rather, it’s cargo cult advice: it teaches you to imitate the surface appearance of good listening, but misses what’s actually important, the thing that’s generating that surface appearance.

The generator is curiosity.

When I’ve listened the most effectively to people, it’s because I was intensely curious—I was trying to build a detailed, precise understanding of what was going on in their head. When a friend says, “I’m furious with my husband. He’s never around when I need him,” that one sentence has a huge amount underneath. How often does she need him? What does she need him for? Why isn’t he around? Have they talked about it? If so, what did he say? If not, why not?

It turns out that reality has a surprising amount of detail, and those details can matter a lot to figuring out what the root problem or best solution is. So if I want to help, I can’t treat those details as a black box: I need to open it up and see the gears inside. Otherwise, anything I suggest will be wrong—or even if it’s right, I won’t have enough “shared language” with my friend for it to land correctly.”

-Ben Kuhn, “To listen well, get curious.” December 2020.

I liked this notion of cargo cult as an adjective. I was trying to think of other types of cargo cult advice. Most self-help is cargo cult advice. There is rarely one right way to be in the world, and as the rest of this text suggests, perhaps all advice given without understanding the context a person lives in has the potential to be cargo cult advice.

Then, it occurred to me that cargo cult can have more expanded use as an adjective. Facebook friends might be cargo cult friends.

Belief systems around romantic relationships and “finding the one” might be another. Doesn’t make more sense to think about relationships as a skill, and it is possible to have meaningful relationships with many “the ones”, if we could only learn those skills?

When you start thinking about it, much of what is going on in our culture is cargo cult culture. There are many people, following the same paths, subscribing to the same ideas, and it gives them a sense of belonging to a group, which helps them form their identity. But, much of it is a display that denies our experience and requires us to gaslight ourselves and deny our lived experience.

There’s to lot to unpack in this idea. Perhaps something to think on further and write a longer essay about.