“We could’ve really freaked her out”

For those of you experienced with budget travelling, the hostel culture should be familiar. Most dorm rooms have 4 + beds and the polite and friendly thing to do is introduce yourself to nearby bunk-mates. Introductions include obligatory answers to the following: where are you from, where have you been, where are you going, how long have you been here… and when things are really friendly bunkmates will often share tales of the things they’ve seen in town or good tours they went on.

My first night staying in an hostel last week, (I’m travelling) three boisterous dyed blond college girls checked themselves into my room. Usually I find these girls annoying. They tend to talk to much and be too loud in their vacuous blatherings. These girls did fit that stereotype and had a long discusssion on Britney Spears new boyfriend. BUT, they were sweet. When they told me they were all from Nevada, Reno or Las Vegas and then I looked at them with their sweet smiling blond selves, I thought, ‘they could be mormon.’ So I asked, ‘You guys aren’t mormon are you?’ They laughed and said ‘no’, but told me they know lots of mormons.

Then, and this was my fault for asking the question in a negative way, one of the girls said “Hey, we could’ve really freaked her out by telling her yes!” Ha ha ha. That’s when I knew it was time to share, so I said, “Oh, I am mormon, that’s why I know there are so many in Nevada.” They got quiet for 2 seconds then were over it. I felt the urge to say, ‘don’t worry, I’m not like the rest.’ But I restrained myself, I’m glad I did. But why did I feel like saying that? I wondered what it is about us that makes girls like this think we are freaky, and that made me apologetic and almost shameful of my own kind? The whole episode disturbed me. I’m ashamed that I had that reaction. What is it about us that makes us so freaky? How sad. Here we were, on the other side of the Atlantic, and we both brought this negative view of mormons with us. Discuss.

(P.S. I’m having a fabulous time, it wasn’t disturbing enough to tarnish my trip.)
Jennifer J


  1. Glad the trip’s a winner. Learn to riverdance while you’re there.

    On the “freaky” issue, I think one should first distinguish teenage perceptions (Mormons are the kids who don’t do drugs and sex but they are often good friends) from whatever adult stereotypes there are. Scattered feedback I get is that Mormon kids generally get along pretty well in high school (and I’m thinking of outside-the-Corridor high school).

    I think the “freaky” label comes from adult Mormons who overapply the legalistic rule-driven approach to Church membership, and the people most sensitive to them are US, the non-legalistic Mormons. Personally, I think the whole “freaky feeling” is becoming a non-issue as being Mormon becomes accepted and even complimentary in “the real world,” at least in the United States and Canada. Well, I’m not so sure about Canada, actually.

    Finally, any religious person who self-identifies in public is subject to the same framing. I think that “Oh, did I mention I’m a practicing Lutheran and I take my religion seriously?” has the same effect as “Oh, did I mention I’m a Mormon?” (by implication, practicing and serious).

  2. I recently was feeling kind of “freaky” or at least as if I was being lumped in “with the freaks.”

    There is a really nice couple that lives in our court and in the process of getting to know them I found out that they were members of the church. The husband had even asked me at one point what time church was at. So I thought I was dealing with some marginally inactive LDS people who might be re-activited with a little bit of sincere friendshipping.

    Well, at one point recently I approached the wife and asked her if they’d be interested in having some hometeachers. I guess the way I approached this was a mistake and/or I didn’t really realize what her feelings about the church were. I thought that we had established a degree of trust and that this type of a request wouldn’t be a big deal. I guess I was wrong.

    Her first reponse was: “Well, I’m a JackMormon you know.” She told me that yes she and her husband had both been baptized when they were eight years old, but that they hadn’t really been active after that. She said that she and her husband had tried attending church when they were first married, but that the members weren’t friendly to them at all; how a comment had been made in class that “men go to the celestial kingdom to have more than one wife.” She then said: “If my husband wants to have more than one wife, he can leave!”

    Then she started talking about how her grandma (who must be a Mormon) had this thing for Bo Gritz. And finally she just said to me: “I don’t like garments either.”

    She did intersperse this with a one or two comments such as “I really like Mormon people, they’re really nice.” But she definitely wasn’t interested in being hometaught.

    Needless to say, I didn’t really know what to say at that point. We were in a semi-public place and the points/concerns she had raised all at once were a bit much for me to handle.

    All I can say is that I felt sad that members of the church had made them feel unwelcome and that some LDS people are so quick to embrace eccentric and weird political figures/beliefs. This sort of stuff certainly can have a negative effect on how people perceive the church in general.

    I guess it’s time to go bake some cookies or something. :)

  3. I think mormons don’t often realize how freakish they can seem, which is why the girls thought they could freak you out. It’s funny — to mormons, all we see are the sweet, blond girls, etc., but for an outsider there is a LOT more to the equation, apparently.

  4. I wasn’t there (don’t we all wish we were?) but the girls’ reaction as you described it didn’t strike me as necessarily negative. Let’ s face it, outside the Homeland (for example in places like New York or Ireland) Mormons are a pretty exotic minority (all that polygamy and everything). And it is awkward being an outsider oddball, even if everyone is nice about it. Could this incident be a case of the college girls thinking that they had a chance to freak out their temp roomie who actually didn’t know anything about Mormons so would believe whatever they concocted — a sophomoric prank rather than a negative view of Mormons? And could your reaction be the chagrin of having to explain yourself as a Mormon rather than a human being for the umpteenth time?

    Spraoi a dheanamh (or smething like that)

  5. Kingsley says:

    In the case of Church members making visitors feel unwelcome, I wonder how much of it is due to the fact that it takes a certain amount of time to stop feeling weird in a new place, no matter how friendly the locals. I always feel “unwelcome” in new wards, in the sense that I’m uncomfortable at first due to shyness (feeling vulnerable), misinterpreting people because I’m unfamiliar with their idiosyncrasies, etc. There’s *always* that one person in Sunday School who just has to make deranged comments, just like there’s *always* that one person in philosophy class who monopolizes the discussion with his own banal thoughts on why (e.g.) William James really isn’t that smart. To really feel welcome in a ward (or anywhere), I have to do at least as much work as the ward members; otherwise I’ll become one more Jack Mormon with funny/bitter stories to tell.

  6. Jennifer’s story reminded me of a reality check I had last summer. I was living in the Hague clerking at a court there, and was sharing an apartment with several other lawyers, law-students–from around the world–they were all working at the Yugoslavia war crimes tribunal. Needless to say, they were a fascinating group, and fortunately, we got along really well. They were totally familiar with my religious beliefs, had asked a lot of questions, and were supportive when we went to dinner/bars together and I didn’t drink. (It helped that one of the other roommates was Muslim and we had a support group….)

    One time at a restaurant I ordered something like chicken marsala, and my roommate Matt from Canada told me, “you know that’s cooked in wine, right?” I replied “I know, but the alcohol cooks out…I’m not totally wacky about this no-alcohol thing.” Which was a stupid thing to say, (for many reasons) because he thought I was really wacky about the no alcohol thing, and had no idea that in my crazy culture I was declaring myself to be an enlightened, on the edge, liberal mormon who cooks with wine, and eats tiramisu. I think I’m cool and cutting edge. :o) He just gave me a look and changed the subject.

  7. Aaron Brown says:

    Karen, you’re alive?

    Aaron B

  8. Oh, how I miss my Youth Hostel days! Never met anyone from Nevada, but I’ve shot the breeze with more drunk Canadians and Australians in hostels abroad than I could possibly count.

    Like you, I have often felt the need to distinguish myself from “those other” Mormons. I’m unsure what that says about me. But I think I know…

    A few weeks ago, I was taking the Trax from SLC to Provo, and I sat across from a 19-year old guy on his way to Midvale. I figured he was LDS (since this was Utah) and he was dressed in all black, so I assumed he was on his way back from a club in SLC. We started talking and I learned that he was a gay, non-LDS aspiring drama student that had been in Utah for 5 months as part of an acting troupe. We spent most of our time talking about his plans to go to Juliard and why I was travelling to Provo. At one point I asked him what he thought of Utah. He said he loathed it, particularly the people. He couldn’t wait to get away. In his mind, everybody disapproved of everything about him (being gay, his drama career, etc.) He had had an absolutely horrible experience. At one point, I pointed out that I was Mormon, but I tried to distinguish myself from his perception of Mormons from saying something like “We’re not all like _____, you know” and smiling. We didn’t pursue that part of the conversation, and when we arrived at his stop, we parted on friendly terms.

    It occurs to me that I could have handled my conversation with him in any number of ways, and others would probably have handled it differently. That is, I could have vigorously defended the Mormon people, arguing that his perceptions were overblown stereotypes. Or, I could have defended the values of the Mormon people by voicing support for the values he found repugnant and offensive. Or, any number of things. But my thoughts were these: Here’s a guy who, rightly or wrongly, has a certain perception of LDS people. Here’s a guy whose values obviously are not in synch with mainstream LDS values, and who believes he’s being judged as evil and worthless as a result. This is a short train ride. Thus, the best thing to do is just to leave him with the impression that there are some LDS who are inclined to treat him differently than how he’s been treated, and hope that his monolithically negative assessment of Mormonism might now have a small crack in it. Handling it any other way probably wouldn’t have accomplished anything.

    My point — The two most common perceptions of Mormons that I have run across is that (1) we’re really, really nice; and (2) we’re really, really judgmental. To the extent that I run into (2), I feel like the best way to handle the situation is to subtlely undermine the perception by refusing fit the bill.

    Of course, whenever I run across (1), I act like an ass, just to ruin that perception as well. :)

    Aaron B

  9. On my way to work this morning I passed two teenagers wearing bright yellow t-shirts that said “Scientology Minister” on the back. They looked friendly enough, but in my mind I thought “wow, freaky.” So it was funny to read this post this morning. It’s hard to know how to react to people that believe and do for religious reasons things that you think are totally wacky. If a celebrity is way too into some weird new diet I can think “she is a kook” without feeling too guilty. If I heard about a Jehovah’s Witness not celebrating her birthday and my first thought was “wow, she is a kook,” I would feel somewhat guilty. We are constantly told, including in church, that we should respect other people’s religious beliefs.

  10. well, if I’m not, then this is a very freaky beyond the grave communication. Someone should blog about it…Maybe the guy who is obsessed with Mormons and their fascination with the occult…. :o)

    Yes, alive, well…

  11. You mean you weren’t carrying an extra Book of Mormon to share with them? :)

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