Reflection: Always, Always, Never, Never
When my sister and i were kids, my father used to gently lampoon our conversation style as a teaching tool.
He would talk about how no matter the season in Brattleboro, he could always hear the chirping of the "Kweegos."
"Kweego to McDonalds?"
"Kweego to the park?"
"Kweego to the movies?"
"Kweego to the mall?"
He would also identify our tendency to speak in absolutes with the mantra “always, always; never, never.”
It's one of the 12 toxic behaviors listed in Karen Young's article "Toxic People:12 Things They Do and How to Deal with Them."
And one reason it is so effective is that most of us start life communicating this way.
Children, in all their glory, generally lack both perspective and filters. Those things are still in development. And they have nearly limitless imaginations that haven’t yet been dampened by rules. Therefore, they often speak in superlatives. They will let you know that things are the BEST ever, or WORST ever. They know what they LOVE and what they HATE. They also are good for telling, in moments of frustration, what allegedly always or never happens.
“WE NEVER get to stay up!”
“She ALWAYS gets her way.”
“You ALWAYS end the game early!”
It’s the plaintive cry of a tiny soul trying to navigate a huge world.
The problem is when grown-ups, with both perspective and filters, speak in absolutes to manipulate.
Weaponized exaggeration can be crushing.
It allows me to characterize your behavior in absolute terms, branding you as deficient, while my behavior is not up for discussion.
It allows no room for grace or growth.
Young says “Toxic people have a way of drawing on the one time you didn’t or the one time you did as evidence of your shortcomings.” ‘You always …’ ‘You never …’”
It’s effective for several reasons.
First, it’s personal: If you question your value, it offers an answer, and not a good one.
Second, It’s Comprehensive: It brands you as a person who does something. What does a teacher do? They teach. What does a football player do? They play football. What does a “you never listen”-er do? They never listen. So even if you can point to examples of you not doing the bad thing, it can be dismissed as an exception to the rule, the action of a person refusing to take responsibility for their behavior.
Third, to defend yourself, you must adopt the toxic terms of engagement:
They say “You never listen.” You say “I DO, TOO, LISTEN!”
Now the conversation is solely about the quality of your listening. Not about their speaking. Not about your communication patterns together. Not about resolving the particular conflict that has you arguing, and finding common ground. The debate is over you and your flaws. And why are you yelling?
And that is either a confused conversation, or one not held in good faith.
A debate over your worth is pointless and gross. You are attempting to convince someone you have value. They don’t agree. They can demean you, and then check you for being too emotional. And at the end, they get to decide who’s right.
“It’s hard to defend yourself against this form of manipulation,” Young says. “Toxic people have a way of drawing on the one time you didn’t or the one time you did as evidence of your shortcomings. Don’t buy into the argument. You won’t win. And you don’t need to.”
Now, exaggeration may be a holdover from childhood, but in that, it is not unique.
The insidious thing about toxic habits is how many of them pervert normal developmental behaviors. This is how we talked as ten-year-olds, on the playground. So it is familiar, even disarming, when confronted with it in adult form, especially if you never mastered the playground.
Juvenile street smarts are a contemporary adult superpower.
You see people destroying sophisticated argumentation, and dominating a conversation, because their opponent is unprepared to be accused of having cooties, or unprepared to see a grown-up flout commonly accepted rules.
If your conversation has no referee, no-one can call fouls, which means you have to learn how to deal, or not deaL with the rule breaker yourself.
And sometimes, the conversation does have a referee, and they’re just as shocked as you are.
No-one expects the spitball in the courtroom. Or the lawyer who ties the opposing counsel’s shoes together. Or the debater who brazenly refuses to stop speaking when their time is up.
And if you have groups that can penalize noncompliant members, and don’t, or can call fouls, but would rather not influence the game, the noncompliance and fouls will continue.
If the question is “kweego wherever we want?” and the answer is silence, or a stern no, next to money, keys, and an open door, most likely the kids will go wherever they want.
And so, sadly, will too many adults.
It’s what they always do.
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Reflection: The Bad Cut of Meat
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Reflection: The Hats We Wear
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