Friday, May 15, 2015

Those Hoity-Toity Mormon Girls or the Strange Terrain that is Mormon Culture

Looking back, it all seems crazy. There are the things that are now so obvious, I want to kick myself for not seeing it at the time. And then there are the things I still can't quite figure out. Like the guy in the documentary Wordplay who complains he has the solution in front of him but still can't figure out the puzzle.

For example, a long time ago I served as secretary in a ward Young Women's presidency in a suburb of Dallas, Texas. One year the annual YW retreat was switched to a fancy hotel downtown. Usually this Friday/Saturday overnight event was held at the stake center, with food served from the church kitchen and lodging provided on the gymnasium floor. But, thanks to a well connected local church member, the girls were offered a stay at a five-star hotel with a fancy meal included! In the beginning it seemed like a fantastic opportunity for the young ladies to practice their white glove and party manners, as well as enjoy a little pampering.

Only it wasn't. And that's what I still can't figure out.

On a Sunday before the retreat, the lesson in the YW meeting was on proper hotel and restaurant manners. Eager that the local Mormon girls demonstrate their heavenly-appointed poise to the Dallas elite, stake leaders had compiled a list of etiquette no-no's:

 Bring a bathing-suit coverup and wear it to and from the pool - or - If you need service in the restaurant, ask your waiter, not any employee who wanders by - or - Don't walk through the lobby in your bathing-suit, even with the coverup - or - In the restaurant, if you need your waiter, wait until he passes by, don't get up and look for him or call across the room, etc.

Right from the start it became obvious that practically nobody in the room was familiar with half, or even any of the suggestions on the list. It wasn't because they lacked the means or opportunity. This was an upper-middle class group of girls and women who came from families that - while hampered by tithing and LDS gender-specific parenting obligations - had the resources for an occasional dinner out or hotel overnight. Rather, it was that many of the girls had been in upscale hotels and restaurants and seen their parents behave completely differently:

My dad says if they work here they're paid to serve us, doesn't matter if he's not our waiter - or - When they get it wrong my mom never waits for the waiter. She takes her plate straight to the kitchen, etc.

The woman teaching the class, clearly clueless herself, sternly reminded everyone that the assigned etiquette had come from the stake leadership and, by extension, God. Accordingly, she presented the inspired dictates as if they were a list of palace protocol appropriate to the reign of Henry VIII:

If management sees you in the lobby in your swimsuit and cover up you will be asked TO LEAVE - or -  If you hang your wet swimsuit on your guest room balcony you will be asked TO LEAVE - or - If you put your elbows on the dinner table ... Well, you get it.

Upon learning that a dash from the pool to the lobby fruit bowl might lead to their arrest by hotel security, the girls were understandably apprehensive. At this point, the YW president, clearly also clueless, reminded everyone that the stake had made these rules for the girls' protection. After all, they were going out into the world - to a hoity toity hotel - a place akin to the large and spacious building in Lehi's dream. They would be amongst people with lesser beliefs, people with questionable morals, people who are only interested in one thing.

(Like...this afternoon's conference session on profit margins, perhaps?)

At any rate, her point was that even though what "the world" called manners may be hoity toity, we sometimes needed to humor "the world" for the sake of appearances, and, of course, the opportunity to spread the Gospel.

Somehow - and I can't quite figure this out - but in one hour, what might have been a fun stay at a plush hotel had turned into a deployment to a war zone.

In discussing this over dinner the other night, Mark observed that when most people venture into unknown territory, they take their cues from the people around them. But since Mormons are members of the one and only true church, the last thing they want is to take their cues from "the world." How hoity toity would that be! Hence the invention that when our steak isn't cooked enough we just haul our plate to the kitchen, etc.

Sound theory, I guess. But my head's still spinning over this one.

I don't actually know how the retreat went. As the YW secretary, I wasn't hoity toity enough to join the group at the hoity toity hotel. But the following Sunday there was a testimony meeting in the YW meeting. Girl after girl stood to proclaim that, while it was okay staying in a hoity toity hotel and eating hoity toity food, nothing could compare to the special feeling they had being back inside the church.

So...what was the point of this whole hoity toity experience in the first place? So the girls could turn around and ridicule their own activity? Maybe the well connected church member was one of those hoity toity liberal Mormons nobody liked? Even with hindsight, I can't figure this one out. Maybe I'm just too...hoity toity.


  1. Of course they were being deployed into a war zone. The only thing these girls learned from what under normal circumstances would have been a fun outing, was that they did not belong on the "outside"; that they were much more comfortable hanging with members of their own religious group.

    It's a perfect example of isolating adherents and cultivating an ethnocentric worldview. Or in Mormon terms, a spectacular success.

  2. Attending high school as a Mormon is basically daily deployment into a war zone. But at least the rules there are lowbrow enough to be pretty easy to understand.

    Maybe the well-connected member just wanted to do something nice for the young women and the leadership just rolled with it because they didn't want to alienate the guy? Maybe there really wasn't a point.

  3. At that age I would have preferred spending the night on the gym floor and eating microwave popcorn. Just sayin'.

  4. ...that being said; I wish someone would have taught me how to order a proper cocktail. :o)

    1. You can pick up one of those bartender's guides in bookstores or liquor stores. They have huge lists of cocktails for every taste.

    2. Great tip! I have a host of friends who can use it. Thx!

  5. AT - There's always that fear that the girls might like the great and spacious building and want to go back. It's a problem, or in this particular case, a success!

    Alex - High school is a war zone. If you're Mormon, you're there without body armor. And true, maybe there wasn't a point. There often isn't.

    But there is a glaring double standard in Mormon culture. On the one hand, because it's so difficult for the obedient to live on one income and pay tithing, there is a puritanical emphasis on thrift. It's not just impractical to shop at Nordstrom, it's even a little sinful or "hoity toity."

    On the other hand, the Brethren love wealthy and successful members and reward them with the leadership callings. The just built an upscale mall in downtown SLC with Nordstrom as one of its anchors. It's not like they don't want people to shop there. So there is this competing impetus to not only have, but show off your wealth.

    Both extremes are at odds with each other and wrapped inside a protective cocoon. I suppose that explains why ordinary upper middle-class women can't handle a night at the Hilton. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney, while wealthy and educated, couldn't connect with anyone, even fellow Republicans, during his campaign.

    JJ - the biggest interrupt in my social education was my stint at BYU. For most people college, or the otherwise years after high school is when they get to party/act like idiots. If you're in your 30's and don't know how to order a drink, it's painful!

  6. Yeek. If these girls (and their parents) couldn't even adapt to the social norms of a restaurant, how would they adapt to the norms of people who are different from them? No wonder they're so sheltered and insular.

    1. Adapting to "social norms" is code for being worldly. Yet, church PR really loves promoting "hip" members in venues like "Meet the Mormons." It's a strange combination.

  7. That's an odd experience. I'm wracking my brain to think of anything that may have happened like that when I was in YW or served as a YW leader- and I'm coming up short. I honestly hated going anywhere with the mutual as an adult and as a youth and would have dreaded an activity like the one you described.

    I have some great memories of activities tho- and feel badly (not tooo bad) that my kids won't experience things like girls camp or scout camp. I guess my husband and I will have to make that up with family activities then =)

    1. There are tons of great activities for kids outside of church that don't include the accompanying guilt.

      The leaders of that stake we attended in TX were over the top hardliners. I have lots of stories.