From the Sources: Preface to The Gulag Archipelago

There are two kinds of people in the world: children and grownups. A lot of people walking around in thirty-year-old, forty-year-old, and fifty-year-old bodies are really children, so what’s the difference? What sets the children apart from the true grownups?

Children are impulse-driven, emotionally volatile, capricious, self-centered, and oblivious to the feelings of others as well as the effect of their own behavior on others.

Grownups, by contrast, are rational, professional, effective, modulated in their responses, and aware of other people’s feelings and responses. Grownups might not adjust their behavior and activities to accommodate another person’s wishes, but at least they are aware of them. They adapt their own behavior based on the widest rational subset of factors affecting everyone involved, both others and themselves.

We can see from these two descriptions that a lot of what appear to be adults walking around the world are really just overgrown children. Their bodies age, but inside, they still act like two-year-olds.

The single, most pivotal difference between children and grownups is Effective communication.

When children communicate, they succumb to emotional outbursts. They stomp their feet and punch and kick. They cry and belly-ache and whine. They use every emotional manipulation in their arsenal to get what they want.

Sometimes they don’t even vocalize what they want. They just expect us to grasp through the airwaves what they want or what is bothering them. They expect us to read their minds without them communicating at all.

Grownups communicate rationally and professionally. They measure their language to pitch it somewhere between direct and polite. They transmit the necessary information to accomplish whatever it is that needs to get done.

They eliminate as far as possible any manipulation, drama, or emotionally-charged subtext that might interfere with the efficacy of the communication process. They realize that bringing the other person to a complete and unblemished understanding of the situation is far more important than any emotional undercurrents that might muddy the waters.

Let me give you an example.

One of my freelancing clients emailed me about a project that I’m doing for him. He asked, “Have you made a start on this yet?”

I wrote back and said, “Not yet. I will be starting on 3rd of August and finishing on 16th of August.”

Simple. Direct. Professional. To the point. Uncomplicated by emotionality or drama.

I could have gotten all bent out of shape about his message. I could have read a ton into it. I could have jumped to the conclusion that he was insinuating that I’m incompetent, that I’m not capable of doing my job, or that my timeframe wasn’t meeting his standards.

I could have gotten all butt-hurt that he didn’t read my previous email when I told him my schedule and set my deadline. I could have spent weeks dwelling on it and feeling inadequate and attacked.

That isn’t professional behavior. Thinking and feeling those things about myself would not have helped the situation. Communicating them to him would definitely have diminished my professional standing in his eyes and my own.

I have three young children. I would estimate that 90% of my job as a parent (beyond just keeping them alive) is teaching them how to communicate effectively so that, when they leave home, they are ready to do this with other grownups out in the world. That’s it. That’s the whole job of parenting.

Most of this comes down to modeling effective communication for them. In order to do that, I have to communicate effectively. I have to break down my messaging into bite-sized, easy-to-understand pieces that their tiny brains can digest and copy. I do that because I’m the grownup in this situation. They’re looking to me to show them how to communicate the right way.

Let me give you another example.

I went to my kids’ school to drop them off in the morning. Overnight, the New Zealand government had taken the country to a higher COVID-19 alert level, so I wasn’t allowed on the school grounds, but I needed to talk to my daughter’s teacher about a situation that came up that morning.

A different teacher was standing at the gate to greet students and make sure they got onto the school grounds without their parents. I said goodbye to my son and then I said to this woman, “I need to talk to Mrs. Barret.”

The woman sort of startled alert and then she said, “Oh. Okay. I’ll go and get her for you.”

End of conversation.

She went off to find the other teacher and I waited. No subtext. No underhanded implications. No hidden agendas. Just plain, effective, simple communication.

Other grownups appreciate direct, professional, effective communication in which our emotions, insecurities, and personal dramas don’t get involved. We can be feeling anything at all. We can be feeling confused, uncertain, angry, hurt, or any of an array of emotions.

Feeling those things doesn’t stop us from communicating effectively.

You might be thinking, “Sure, Leah, that all makes sense for an everyday professional exchange, but what about our personal relationships? What about when we have to communicate strong and possibly negative emotions to the other person? We can’t be professional and straightforward then.”

I would submit to you, not only that we can, but that we have to. This is what being a real grownup is all about. Our emotionally-charged personal relationships demand clear communication even more than other, more casual exchanges.

Let me give you another example.

I’m in a relationship with someone and an issue came up where he wanted me to change a certain detail of my behavior around him. I won’t bore you with the gory details except to say that I’m pretty sure he delayed for months before he actually told me what he wanted.

Last night, we were talking on video chat and I asked if he wanted me to do that particular thing always. He spent a long, long time getting around to saying that, yes, this was his personal preference.

I then explained to him in a few short, rational, direct sentences that children raised in cults grow up under a system of rules and conventions that is completely irrelevant to reality and society at large. I explained to him that, when we leave the cult, we basically get dropped onto another planet where we have to start over from zero and learn everything for the first time. I explained that, because of this, I still often feel confused and uncertain about how I’m supposed to act in the world. I told him that, the more direction he could give me about things like that, especially when it came to his preferences in our relationship, the happier I would be.

Simple. Direct. To the point.

I used this moment to transmit information to him about my internal process. This was information that he did not previously have. It explained why I act the way I do at certain times. I made it clear to him what I needed from him and why without turning it into a massive, messy emotional drama.

Being confused and uncertain how to act in the world doesn’t make me a bad person. It doesn’t mean I’m stupid. It doesn’t mean I’m a social buffoon. There is a very good reason for it.

I am smart. I am socially capable and very competent in many, many areas of my life. Being confused or uncertain in certain situations doesn’t change that.

When we interact with other grownups, they have every right to expect us to communicate effectively. They expect us to provide them with the information they need to make the interaction work properly. We can’t expect them to just KNOW. How could they possibly know what we’re thinking and feeling? How could this man possibly know what it’s like for someone who has grown up in a cult when he doesn’t share that experience? He wouldn’t know if I didn’t explain it to him.

I have a friend here in Dunedin who is Japanese. She’s married to an Englishman and they’re raising two children in New Zealand. This woman studied English in high school in Japan and also spent years in the United States before coming here. She speaks very good English and she’s very socially outgoing and friendly.

She told me that, even after twelve years of living in New Zealand, she struggles to express herself in English and she often feels awkward and uncertain in English-speaking situations.

I’m in exactly the same situation she is except that I don’t look or sound different from the rest of the population to show everybody why I act the way I do. They need it explained to them.

When we clarify things like this to other grownups, we’re doing them a favor by providing them with critical information. They need this information about our thoughts and feelings and motivations so they aren’t laboring under a misunderstanding about our actions and coming to the wrong conclusion. They want accurate intelligence about our inner state so they know the truth and they don’t believe a lie about us.

When this man told me what he wanted from our interactions with each other, he was doing me a favor by clarifying what he needed and wanted. I want him to tell me these things so I’m not laboring under the nagging doubt that he’s sitting on something or hiding something he’s too uncertain to divulge. I want to know what he’s thinking and feeling so our relationship works as effectively as possible.

This is what grownup interactions look like.

It doesn’t mean he doesn’t like me. Telling me what he wants and likes and needs doesn’t mean he’s trying to control me or that he’s telling me to change myself. He wouldn’t be with me if he didn’t want ME the way I am.

We can see from this that people who manipulate, blackmail, and distort the communication process are really behaving like children. They are too insecure to rely on facts and respectful, effective communication so they descend to arm-twisting and dodges to get what they want.

These tactics always backfire. They undermine what might have been a healthy interaction that benefits both parties. They act this way because they haven’t grown up into functioning, effective adults who know how to behave around other functioning, effective adults.

In his classic book, I’m Okay, You’re Okay, author Thomas Anthony Harris outlines what he calls, “transactional analysis’. He breaks down his system into three communication styles that people use during interpersonal “transactions”.

In his system, the Child is fitful, emotionally volatile, dramatic, and dependent. The Adult is rational, direct, and impartial. The Parent, on the other hand, is judgmental, superior, and controlling. The Parent puts themselves in a position of knowing better than the person they are talking to, of being more capable of making the right decision.

I would argue that the Parent style in this system is, in fact, childish. This is a person who, for whatever reason, can’t communicate effectively using reason and respect. They rely on manipulation, put-downs, and subterfuge to force the interaction away from a straightforward, grownup exchange.

This kind of behavior is a sign of weakness, immaturity, and insecurity. When we see this kind of behavior from someone, we need to remember that this is a person behaving like a petulant toddler.

We should NOT, under any circumstances, match the person’s communication style. Grownups don’t do that. Grownups stick to the facts. They stay rational and rooted in their own position, unmoved by smoke and mirrors.

If the person kicks and screams and pounds the carpet with their fists, they’re only announcing to the world how truly weak and underdeveloped they are as a human being. Remembering this will help us to maintain our own integrity so we don’t get mired down by their antics.

Thank you for reading today. I hope this helps someone out there. If you need help right now, leave me a comment here or click the chatbot button at the bottom of this screen. We’ll get started solving your most pressing issues so you can live a better quality of life. You don’t have to do this alone anymore.