I love our culture. I think we’re the most fascinating cross-section of humanity ever to come down the pike, and still can’t believe the famed anthropologist Margaret Mead didn’t write a whole book about us, when she had the chance (she visited Utah when I was a young girl, and my dad had the rare opportunity to tour her around when he was a professor at USU).
Maybe she didn’t get a close enough look. When outsiders study Mormons, they invariably come away with the undeniable observation that we’re healthy, polite, hard-working, happy, generous, and possess dozens of other virtues any mom would love their child to have. As a group we’re clean-cut, cheerful, patriotic, and friendly– as if someone had bottled all the Boy Scout traits and injected them into our DNA. Sure, there are individual exceptions, but not group ones. And maybe this predictable, squeaky-clean image isn’t as intriguing as it would be if we had some glaring flaw that permeated our congregations. Then they’d have something to write about.
Oh, wait. There is that one, small problem that seems to be in every ward: We cannot stop asking the uncomfortable questions.
For years members struggling with infertility have complained that too many people (well meaning, but clueless) keep saying, “So when are you two starting a family?” As if their intimate lives were anyone’s business but their own. It’s as if members assume there is no bubble of privacy around this issue, that the subject is up for discussion at a ward dinner, in a hallway, or anywhere inquiring minds want to know.
Long unmarried members face the same scrutiny. “How’s your love life?” “So who are you dating?” “When you going to get married? You’re not getting any younger!” Single members have writhed under these far-too-personal inquiries for centuries. And I realize it isn’t just LDS people who do this. You find it among any tightly knit group of people who begin to feel like family to each other (and that family caring is a marvelous thing in other ways).
“When are you due?” is the dreaded question for all women who could shed a few pounds, yet who are not actually pregnant. And most people these days know not to ask it unless they are 100% certain the woman is expecting. So we are learning.
But now there’s another question we need to stop asking. It’s brand new, suddenly popping up now that the age for girls to serve missions has dropped to 19. It’s, “So, are you putting in your papers?” Young Mia Maids and Laurels are freezing in a panic in the hallways, pinned against the wall without a prepared answer.
And for some, the answer is an enthusiastic “Yes!” But what about the girls who don’t wish to serve missions? It isn’t expected, as it is for young men, yet the pressure is suddenly on to join the tidal wave of applicants.
And young women are even less equipped to handle awkward questions than those of us who’ve been around the block before. They’re suddenly put on the spot and don’t know if they should feel guilty, angry, frustrated, sad, or just burst into tears. Some find the thought of leaving home scary. Some question their testimonies. Some wonder why they don’t feel a burning desire to do this. Maybe some don’t know if they’re worthy. Others are shy and can’t imagine teaching anything to anyone. Or they want to stay in school. Or they want to get married. They’re praying about it and simply don’t know, yet. They have a dozen reasons why they might not wish to answer that question, and not one of them is our business.
And so we need to add this question to our list of etiquette no-no’s, the same way we’ve recently added “texting at the dinner table.” Many will say the question is innocent, and motivated by sincere love and caring. I don’t doubt that. So are the other questions, usually. But let’s think of a way to rephrase it so the young women don’t feel cornered and pressured. Let’s say, “So what are your plans after high school?” Or some other open-ended question that acknowledges the vast array of good options she has.
And for the young women, how about arming you with some kind responses that let you off the hook, so you’re ready to diffuse those awkward moments? Here are a few ideas:
I’ll let you know just as soon as I decide.
Thanks so much for your vote of confidence in me. I appreciate it.
It’s an exciting time, isn’t it? We’ll have to see what happens.
It’s definitely one of the choices to consider.
And, finally, the one I probably would have used:
Well, at least you didn’t ask me when I’m due!
Yes, we feel like a family in our wards. Yes, we really do care about one another and want to know what’s going on. But we have to bite our tongues sometimes, and err on the side of the loving embrace that doesn’t shove everyone into the same mold, but allows for that thing we fought for in heaven. What was it? Oh, yeah-free agency.
Be sure to read Hilton’s blog at jonihilton.blogspot.com. Her latest three novels, Jungle, Sisters in the Mix, and Pinholes Into Heaven are available at Amazon, www.mormonbooksandauthors.com and in paperback at Createspace.com.
Her most recent LDS comedy is Funeral Potatoes-The Novel (Covenant Communications), available in LDS bookstores. Hilton currently serves as Relief Society President in her ward in northern California.