Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Social Norm Canaries

Paul and I went out for pizza today, just to get out of the house. After we had our food served a large group of people were seated at the table next to ours. They were most likely Mormon, based on the conversation, and the men were dressed to the hilt in the full Church uniform. Blond crew cut hair, plain white shirts, tan pants and ties—not business attire but 1950's business attire. Our personal conversation stopped dead. Paul said it was because they were too noisy and too close but for me it was something deeper than that.

What's with the crew cuts and uniform? Why is that the LDS norm?

I tried looking this up on the Internet. I found Mormons who take offense that people like myself view this attire as a uniform. To quote the first site I found: "the mode of dress is a sign of respect to Jesus Christ, our lord."

Wow, that nice Jewish boy, who grew up in the days of long hair and robes, I'm sure is duly impressed!

Seriously, why that uniform?

I kept taking deep breaths during my meal, reminding myself of the really nice Mormon people we have met here. It's a just a hairstyle, it's just a white shirt and tie, it's just old-fashioned conservative-appearing values. It's just not like where I have most recently called home. It's really not that unusual but. . .

Then we went for a drive before going home, going along the country backroads up towards Show Low and then back down again. I feel SO much healthier and happier whenever we get even a little ways out of town. The landscape becomes more diverse as the elevation rises—we get views of mountains and lakes, meadows, more variety in the plants and trees. The peoplescape is significantly more diverse as well. We see more brown faces, more variety in mode of dress, much more variety in things to do.

I've had a bad habit too much of my life of feeling "other." Sometimes that wasn't a habit at all. In my early childhood I had no choice about being an outcast. That was another time and place where I had the experience of being a member of a minority—Jewish in an Italian and Irish Catholic community just south of Boston. I didn't experience overt antisemitism most of the time but my cultural training made me stand out like a sore thumb and I was treated pretty horribly because of it. Now I have a loud alarm bell that goes off internally whenever the closest surrounding environmental norms appear to be too tight, too conforming, too much.

Paul gets those alarm bells pushed for other reasons. He felt shut out of his social group in Santa Cruz when he cut his hair short and adopted more conservative attire. You could say we're like social norm canaries and it doesn't matter whether the norm is a white shirt and tie or bell bottoms and tie-die. Paul put it well today when were discussing this: "I don't care if you look like a hippie if you're acting like a Nazi."

We fear the conformity, the attraction to the one size that doesn't really fit all. But the problem might be me. It's very restimulating to be in a distinct minority.

Hard as it may be to believe, I once witnessed two non-Mormon Christians in this town flinging their arms around each other and greeting each other like long lost souls. "Christians!" they shouted. "Oh, my God, other Christians!"

The Mormon church—the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints—sounds pretty darn Christian to me. But I'm Jewish, what do I know? The other Christians in this community are not so likely to agree. With Mormons making up 51% of the population, all other groups in town wind up feeling like they're in the minority, too. That's a trip from my point of view, believe me!

It dampens the spirit to be around socially enforced and sometimes politically-enforced conformity. It certainly doesn't help with public relations with the greater public, I'll tell you that much. But I think that happens whenever a single group becomes a large enough majority. If you're one of the "different" ones it can be hard to be around.


Paul Hood said...

You forgot to say how good the pizza was.

Sheryl Karas said...

The pizza was excellent! And here's the weird thing, I had been told that this pizza place was awful and to stay away. Small towns can be really weird when it comes to supporting local business. If you're "in" you're in no matter what practically. If you're not...

Melanie said...

Ironically, I am just writing a post on clothing conformity. Great minds...