LDS Social(ity) Services

Going through my email address book, trying to figure out a guest list for a small party, I came to a few conclusions that caused me a bit of consternation. First, as I compared the marrieds and singles columns, I realized that many of my good friends are getting married off. Not that I want this trend to stop. Quite the contrary, but I won’t bore you with those details. Second, I realized that everyone came from an LDS faith tradition. And third, I intuited that if I were indeed to invite someone who was not intimately knowledgeable as to LDS culture, they might feel very excluded in this particular circle of friends.

I was reminded of a conversation with an old friend who was an Air Force officer. We were talking about the plethora of activities in the YSA ward, and how lucky it was that there was something to do almost any night of the week. He said, “You know, the church is a lot like the military when it comes to social circles.” When I quizzed him about this remarkable statement, he clarified by stating, “Both the church and the military are very exclusive worlds. Self-sustained and perpetuated. Officers and their wives generally fulfill all the social needs of their peers, with little need to venture very far.”

Fast forward to three years ago, when I serving penance for past wrongs by being the activities chair in my family ward. Being a newly transplanted YSA ward reject, without a co-chair, I was easy fodder for a ward where the mentality seemed to be that singles had loads and loads of free time because they didn’t have kids. Never mind that I worked full-time, had to be my own “wife”, and was trying my best to date around and be social with people that I didn’t already live with. (Note: I’m not trying to demonize, I’m merely quoting). Anyway, so there I was. An activity once a quarter, then the weekly summer picnics with end-of-summer chili cook-off, and the ward reunion party in December. Doesn’t sound like too much, does it? But getting ward members to come to activities was like pulling teeth. Not that I blamed them … what with church Sundays, FHE on Mondays, boy scouts, YW and YM activities, church sports, primary activities, and Enrichment activities. I felt that the average member was activitied-out. So I was never really suprised when the turnout at activities was abysmal, even when they were tailored to support the talents and abilities of those we were trying to “reactivate.” Most of the time I managed to pad the numbers out to twenty people by pleading with friends to come and support me. (Note: I did learn to find dependable people to delegate certain things to, and was very lucky to get some help from some dynamic ward old-timers who flogged the rest of the ward into helping with the reunion dinner)

So, being concerned that I was getting trapped in an LDS bubble, I decided I’d try to be more social at work, and attend the Critical Care Christmas Party this year. Got dressed up and drove out to a ritzy country club for the Hawaiian luau themed party. And it was fun to see everyone dressed up and on their best behavior, see spouses and significant others, eat some island food and let loose on the dance floor. But as the night grew older and the drinks flowed more liberally, I felt out of place again. By 2300, when the dancing had more grinding than side-stepping (sadly, no swing or salsa dancing in view … and I looked), I’d had enough of trying to socialize and drove home and finished a good book.

So what is this inability to mix two worlds? I’ll be the first to admit that I am an introvert, and like to be approached rather than approach in any social situation. Are LDS people less able to socially interact with non-members because our social needs are more than met with members? Does the Word of Wisdom prohibition on strong drink make us leery of spending time with those who imbibe? Do members show up late to activities and parties late because we don’t drink? Anyone who would refute this has yet to feel the pain of being one of the first five or ten people to a party (sans significant other). Would non-members be as awkward at parties if they didn’t drink?

And I would like to clarify that I do think that a small degree of insularity is a good thing. Especially with children and teens. During formative and tumultuous years, it can be comforting to be surrounded by those who believe and act according to an agreed upon set of cultural constraints. However, even then I would argue that there are amazing opportunities for growth and learning when we’re able to interact and appreciate and learn from those who differ from ourselves. I went to church a handful of times with some of my very good non-member friends, who in turn came with me to countless church youth dances.

So, as much as I appreciate the ward-level social services, I have reservations. Would fewer activities give members a bit of breathing room to enjoy life? Would more interfaith and community-based service projects help integrate LDS congregations into their geographic boundaries, and maybe make missionary work easier? And does anyone have any helpful hints about making small talk?

Jana

Jana is university administrator and History professor. Her soloblog is http://janaremy.com/pilgrimsteps/

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  1. Beijing says:

    My party strategy is not to stay at any one event till the bitter end. Think, “social butterfly.” I make my entrance, put a glass of liquid in my hand, say hello to people, chat briefly, and I’m outta there. It is easier to put myself in a party mood if I’m not dreading an hours-long ordeal. Forcing myself to stick around a boring event trying to make conversation with glassy-eyed boozers doesn’t benefit anyone.

  2. AmyB says:

    I’m not so good at parties, but I like finding other ways to socialize. I attend a discussion group that meets to discuss a philosopher that I like. That way we have the topic of discussion set up for us and I don’t have to stumble awkwardly through small talk. I also meet with a peer supervision group of others in my profession, another comfortable set up for me. The key for me has been gathering with those with similar interests.

    I apologize in advance for this threadjack, but your phrase had to be my own “wife” jumped out at me. Are you referring to the traditional role that wives have of doing the cooking and cleaning? I guess it jumped out because had I been writing the same thing I might have put “husband” instead of “wife” and aligned myself with gender roles. I suppose I’m just bringing it up because it made me think about gender roles and how I percieve them and myself. But this is off the topic of your post, so now back to regularly scheduled programming.

  3. Dora says:

    Beijing ~ A drink in hand does seem to make social situations a bit easier. Something to cling to. Something to occupy oneself during awkward pauses. An empty glass can always be an excuse to leave for a refill.

    Now, my friends and most of my coworkers know that I am LDS. However, does the visual of me with a glass in my hand (which no one but the bartender knows is alcohol-free) make me seem ever so slightly less peculiar? There are so many ways in which LDS’s are peculiar, but a glass with just about any liquid in it (except for milk) seems to automatically “normalize” one.

    AmyB ~ I also am much more a fan of small group gatherings. Discussion groups, small dinners, Catanning. But there are definitely times when I wish I could navigate the murky waters of social intercourse with more finesse.

    Yes, I am my own wife, and my own husband. Funny, I didn’t really think about aligning with the opposite gender role until you brought it up (And yes, I’m very aware that the gender conceptions that I must most closely monitor are my own).

    What it boils down to is this: I am a grown woman, and I am responsible for myself. I am not resposible for anyone else (except in more tenuous ways to parents, siblings and friends), but I also have no one to share the daily brunt of living with. I saw myself in the “husband” role primarily because I spend more time working and providing a living than just about anything else (except sleeping). Most of the “wifely” things I do (cleaning, cooking, laundry, shopping, etc) fit around the providing role. And as I am responsible for myself, the providing role is not optional … the cooking, cleaning and laundering parts are also not optional, but can generally be put off until more pressing things have been dealt with.

    And, I will acknowledge that there might have been a tendril of latent aggression directed at the woman who thought that single members should be pressed into service doing the busy work of the ward just because the married members have so many more important things to do.

    Which brings us back to activities. Are people happy with the amount of activities in their wards? Do you want more, or less? How big a role do activities play in attempts to reactivate? Have they been successful?

    And, how is the church perceived in your communities? Are members seen as standoff-ish … the kind that communities like because they are innocuous? Or are they seen as integral parts of the community that work well with other groups?

  4. melanie says:

    i feel a lot like you do at traditional parties-out of my element. however, i don’t always like to participate in church activities because i feel as though i am not around real people. (i feel that my fellow church members are on always on their best behavior)

    to meet the need to be social, i volunteer for the local public radio station, red butte garden and other community based non- profits. i get to meet other people with similar interests and i don’t have to worry about feeling uncomfortable with the actions of others

  5. Kristian says:

    When I lived in the midwest, I was envariably the only Mormon in any crowd outside the ward (even my family-I’m a convert). While I used to be quite the drinker, I found myself extremely uncomfortable at get togethers that had alcohol because being the only sober person in a room full of drunks is dull and boring. The things that entertain one who is drunk are stupid when sober.

    One thing that I found very interesting when I moved to Utah was how many people played games of all sorts, all the time. In my “old world” drinking was the larest part of any social entertainment. Out here, people play games and activities and talk, which is much more fun.

  6. Anonymous says:

    On the note about slight aggression towards the idea that single members of the church are often given the busy work – I’ve experienced some of this phenomenon. While many single members of the stake over the years held callings such as Stake RS president and Stake YW, the singles ward was typically responsible for cleaning up after the Women’s and Youth conferences. I discussed this pattern with the Stake YW President, who at the time was single, and said that we are happy to provide that service but would also like to be considered for more substantive roles. This request went unheeded -the idea being that singles had more time for cleaning up after events.

    As Dora suggests, childless singles who work full time (which is most) generally have just as much discretionary time as everyone else.

  7. Anonymous says:

    p.s. Sorry this comment is off topic 🙂

  8. Caroline says:

    I love the idea of doing more interfaith or community based activities. I’m way more likely to attend a community service project than I am a ward party.

  9. jana says:

    One of the problems I have with being chatty at a mostly-Mormon party–even when I know very few people–is that there are huge assumption made about belief and lifestyle simply based on the fact that people know that you’re Mormon. So if they see a young pregnant wife, they fill in the blanks of the rest of the story (temple marriage to RM, BYU grad, etc). It seems that they rarely take time to learn the _real_ story behind the stereotype. Have any of you felt this? Like when I first went back to school and we moved into a university ward everyone invariably asked my spouse what _he_ was studying in school–not asking me because the pattern isn’t that the wives are in school.

    However, when I’m with a group of non-Mos, or a mixed crowd, I feel like there’s a lot more interest in getting to know the person rather than filling in the blanks based on cultural assumptions.

  10. jana says:

    Oh, but I should also mention that I’m not a big fan of alcohol-based parties. I tend to make a quick round and then leave if I can see that the party is more about drinking than about mingling. Not to say that some parties can’t have drinking and mingling, but if the balance is toward the former than it’s usually not very entertaining to be the lone teetotaler.

  11. Eve says:

    Jana, LOL. I’ve had to correct people on that assumption in our university ward as well.

    In general I find the shared assumptions that I don’t share in a given context hard to navigate. For example, at school I sometimes encounter the assumption that only the benighted are religious; at church, it tends to be other assumptions, about politics or gender roles.

    Maybe that’s why mixed groups sometimes force us all a little out of our preconceptions about one another. Of course it doesn’t always happen, but it’s nice when it does.

  12. Beck says:

    I’m an introvert, too. Parties, whether with other members or not, are always excruciating. One thing that has helped me A LOT in social functions is that I learned how to read palms. Isn’t that a weird thing to do? But now I call it my “Party Trick”… if there’s an awkward moment, I just ask someone if I can look at their hand. Pretty soon I’ve got a line of people waiting to talk to me. And it’s great because it’s all about them–their hand, their talents, their fears, their loves– and I don’t have to try to find something interesting about myslef to talk about.
    I highly recommend having a party trick.

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