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Language of the Tribe

By Karen Austin

Photo by LucastheExperience

It was just after dark.  I had parked my rental car at the local Mormon church so that I could talk on the cell phone with my husband back in West Virginia.  I wanted to share with him my house-hunting efforts in Kansas.   I was mid-sentence when someone pointed a flashlight at me through the driver’s side window.   I shielded my eyes from the light.  Squinting, I saw a mature gentleman—tall and thin, sporting a baseball cap, glasses, jean jacket, and plaid shirt.  I rolled down my window and sheepishly bid him “Good evening.”   He then began to interrogate me subtly, trying to determine if I had a legitimate reason for being on church property.

This interrogation happened during conference weekend of 2008.  I was spending the better part of three days scouring the west side of Wichita on a mission to find a new home.  Because all roads lead to BYU, we already knew one family of Wichitans: Russell , Melissa and their four girls, whose ages are sprinkled  near the ages of our two children.  Russell had kept in contact with my husband, Michael, whom he knew from when they both wrote for the off-campus newspaper, Student Review.  While considering neighborhoods in Wichita, I assumed that Melissa’s value system was similar to mine, so why not look for a house in the same boundaries as their ward and their elementary school?

Melissa was very kind to include me at her dinner table each night, but I would leave their home in the late evening in order to give the family space to manage their bedtime routine.  Because they live on the same street as the church, I would drive over there after dark and spend about an hour on the cell phone discussing the day’s events with Michael while sitting in my rental car. Now I found myself face-to-face with Dale, a member of the ward who lived with his wife in the first house just north of the church. He had an unofficial calling to investigate suspicious activity in the parking lot.

“Oh, hello.  My name is Karen Austin. I’m staying with Russell and Melissa up the road.  My family might move here this summer. “ That should have been enough to satisfy Dale. However, I felt an urgency to prove to him that I was connected to him as a Mormon, a member of his tribe, someone deeply acculturated, a person whom he could trust.  I needed to show him some kind of verbal passport. I was surprised to find myself offering additional evidence of my Mormon-ness. “Yes, my husband and I went to BYU.  I went to Jerusalem on Study Abroad as led by Victor Ludlow. I was born in American Fork.” He then shared his own connections to Utah, where he owns a second home.

I continued, “You know, I’m fifth generation Mormon on all four lines.  I’m related to Ephraim Hanks, scout for Brigham Young and founder of Hanksville, Utah. “  I began talking more rapidly, throwing in as many Mormon-coded phrases as possible: “Pioneer Day! Nauvoo! M-Men & Gleaners! Kolob!”   I was hoping that these tribal markers would convince Dale that there was no need to call on Danites, three Nephites or even just some hearty members of the Lord’s Moving Company to help evict me from the property.

As all these words tumbled out of my mouth, Dale’s shoulders relaxed, and he smiled.  I escaped the fate of those outsiders seeking to join the army of the Gileadites, those who could not pronounce “shibboleth” as requested (Judges 12:6).  After Dale walked away from my rental car, I finally saw the humor in my desperate attempts to use Mormon code words.  Perhaps I should have just presented my temple recommend.

I recall a less intense moments of tribal recognition.  Every time I hear a reality television contestant say things like “Oh my heck,” I smugly applaud myself for being acculturated enough to break the code.  Sometimes these moments of recognition happen in person.  My son had been seeing a pediatric endocrinologist from Morgantown for three years before we realized that he was also Mormon. We discovered the connection because my son was singing “Reverently, Quietly” in the examination room.   The doctor asked, “That’s a good song, Porter. Where did you learn it?”  Making that connection brought a little more warmth to the doctor-patient relationship.

There are millions of people in the world, so we use language and other markers to identify ourselves as members of a specific culture or subculture.   I feel the world grow a little smaller when these language markers turn strangers into kin.

Have you ever wondered if someone was Mormon by the way they dressed, talked, decorated their home, or prepared food?  Did you ever confirm your hunch by asking? Have you ever been miscued and incorrectly assumed someone was Mormon? Has a stranger ever asked you, “Are you LDS?” And what prompted them to do so?


About Karen Austin

After living in UT, HI, CA, VA, DC, WI, WV & KS, Karen now lives in Newburgh, IN with her husband and two children. She's been a BYU writing tutor, an English teacher, technical writer, director of academic support services, and aging studies adjunct. She's reinventing herself--again. New role still pending, but mature athlete, thrift store fashionista, and court jester are strong candidates. She maintains the blog The Generation Above Me.

23 thoughts on “Language of the Tribe”

  1. Living outside of Utah the two questions that give away most Mormons are: "Where did you go to college?" and "Where does your family live?" If BYU or Utah comes up in a conversation with someone who knows about the church my Mormon identity hangs in the air, waiting for one of us to say it. Other than that, my daughter singing 'Book of Mormon Stories' at the top of her lungs is a giveaway.

    When I think someone is Mormon it doesn't foster an instant trust, too many negative experiences with members I guess. Knowing that someone claims their Mormonism is only one piece of who they are, I wait for them to show me the rest in their actions.

  2. We recently just purchased a home. While house hunting, I noticed a "Families are Forever"plaque hanging upstairs and wondered if they were LDS. Upon further viewing of the home, there was a Bartenders Bible on the basement by the bar. I decided they must not be members but liked the plaque. Another home very definitely was by the papers on the fridge to remind them of activity days and the amount off good storage in their basement.

  3. This kinda leaves converts out in the cold, though, since we don't have the connections nor know the codewords.

    This explains why I felt like an outsider during my years at BYU, and only felt like I "belonged" when we moved far away. I finally fit in.

    Also, where I currently live a lot of Christians say, "Oh my heck," so I am not sure it is a uniquely LDS thing.

  4. Here in mid Calif, we can usually tell just by looking at them. We will see a family at Costco, or out to dinner, or even walking down the street and either my husband or I will often say, "There's an LDS family if I ever saw one!" We don't even need to see what they eat or how they decorate their home…Mormon is just written all over them.

  5. I was thinking what if you weren't LDS, just a woman talking to her husband in the parking lot. What's the big deal? Have they had vandalism? Couldn't he see that you meant no harm without questioning your religion? What was his authority to question you?

    People park in our church parking lot all the time. I noticed last week a suburban with a trailer in tow which held a washer/dryer. Had a big "For Sale" sign. Well, that crossed a line. I don't know if it's still there.

  6. We had a guy come to our house to estimate how much stuff we had before movers came to move us. When he noticed all our #10 cans, he asked if we were Mormons. He wasn't one, but had moved a lot of them, and knew we had a lot of food storage.

  7. Yeah, Naismith, the convert thing is a whole other world.

    My sister and I converted in California as youth. Our ward knew us and it was fine, but at a stake activity, a nice leader from the stake tried to get to know me. After learning my name (Layton, which sounds Mormon), she asked something like, "And who are you related to?"

    "My sister Nikki," I said.

    "Oh……and who is _she_ related to?"

    "She is related to me." 😉

  8. We went on a cruise once with my (very) less-active brother and my non-member sis-in-law. They were amazed by our ability to pick out all the other LDS folks and asked me how I did it. "Easy," I said. "Happy Smile, Long Shorts, Bad Haircuts"

  9. Visitors to my (non-Mormon)pantry have often said that I have more food storage than they do. What can I say? I think it's the Girl Scout in me. Visiting Elders also wonder if I'm just inactive 'cause I have a "real" Book of Mormon, complete with highlighting, D&C and the Pearl of Great Price, instead of the one that they give out.

  10. I worked as a home health nurse for years. One of the other nurses who knew I was LDS said that she always knew she was visitng a Mormon house because there was always a jobs chart and a piano.

  11. I like that we can use these markers to find each other, but I also completely agree with Naismith. If you don't know the language, it's easy to feel like you don't fit in. It also can be too easy to accept someone who says the right things, but to be wary or at least a little less warm toward someone who doesn't quite seem like a tribe member.

    My husband is good at picking out other members, but I'm not- it doesn't even cross my mind. I automatically assume everyone around me isn't a Mormon (even when I've lived in Utah, which is not normal).

  12. Karen, I spent many years in Wichita, and I know the church, and I know Dale! He's a dear man. I even dated his oldest son years ago! Living right next to the church, not a common thing for an LDS person so far from Utah, he was the unofficial lockup guy and tree protector (from kids climbing). I have many fond memories of that building.

    I agree that common language bonds us and bequeaths to us a sense of surprise belonging, especially when we are not accustomed to finding other people like us. My parents, who were converts, embraced learning this language in the Ozarks of Missouri, bonding deeply with other families spread thinly across the forested hills.

    When I moved to Utah 6 years ago I found this even more often – LDS books in Walmart, CTR rings everywhere, people who smiled at the DMV and asked politely how they could help. I still can't quite bring myself to say, "Oh my heck," but I enjoy the common language, even if I am careful to realize that not everyone is LDS.

    It's like a block party with an open invite.

  13. when look for a home we found the traditional plastic grapes stored in a closet full of food. Most be Mormon.

    Those underwear smiles and knee fold are a clear indicator too.

  14. The conversation in the parking lot seems very off to me. Did you really spout all that stuff? It seems as off as telling him about your sex life or how much money you make.
    It is fun to find church members in surprising places. My daughter who thought she was the only active LDS girl in her school recently found another Mormon girl (lives in another stake and school district but comes to this school). They found each other in their shared class because of a BYU reference, I believe.

  15. Thank you all for taking the time to read and comment. You are very kind to do so.

    jks: No, I really did say all that. If you knew me in person, you wouldn't be surprised. I am very manic in mannerisms and rate of talking speed. And I'm super confessional, often offering "TMI" as the texters call it these days. In chakra theory, I have way too much energy in the throat chakra. I was amused that I "spilled my guts," which is why I thought it might make an interesting story to share.

    rae keck, Sally, christine, Richelle F, Grandma Honey, Cindy — those are interesting stories about the quirks of LDS home decor and dress/grooming. (And the miscue story part in Cindy's comment.) This is a miscue in another direction: An assumed LDS feature that was just a middle class feature. My cousin Kay in McLean, VA had a non-member housekeeper who cleaned for several women in the same ward in the 1980s. Theses sisters all had art and knick-knacks with hunting ducks (in vogue in that decade), so the maid asked if they were some kind of religious symbol for Mormons!

    Naismith, LeeAnn & Amira: I am sorry that my post was alienating. When drafting, I asked my husband if I came off as too braggardly about these cultural markers. He assured me, "No, you come off primarily as a little bit nuts." He saw that I was poking fun at myself for the desperate (and probably pathetic) need to prove myself as legit–so I forged ahead. Also, I taught college English for 25 years, so I am super attentive to language issues and like to discuss with others how language functions. (When I was a teen in So. Cal., I wrote up a lexicon and analysis of Valley girl language features well before Moon Zappa's song.)

    Jess: Miscueing people can be fun! My studies of deconstruction in grad school made me braver about this. Home repair guys are always shocked that I listen to country music but I have abstract art on the walls and drive a foreign car. When in Milwaukee, a convert who was also in my school asked why I dressed like a republican when I held views of a democrat. Where were my birkenstocks? Keep 'em guessing with your Mormon cultural objects.

    Jendoop: Yes, there shouldn't be a total trust just because you find a fellow Mormon (or fellow American or fellow nurse or fellow Dixie Chicks fan). In fact, con (wo)men and some sales people will fake common ground to gain (misplaced) trust. But it's interesting to watch strangers hunt for common ground and then watch them relax a bit when they find it. I think it's part of the reason people wear concert t-shirts or why they put bumper stickers on their cars. We want to make the world smaller.

    annegb: When I travel, I often use LDS parking lots as little rest stops, and this is the first time I've been asked why I was there. Now that I attend that church, I can see that the brother who lives bordering the property has a "guard and protect" personality, and he's putting that gift on the alter. It did make me a little jumpy, as you can see!

    bonnieblythe: Oh, you've lived here! Dale is a very earnest guy, and I appreciate all that he and his wife do for the ward. He's been kind to help my son in scouts. And he's been very nice not to mention how he first met me as "that crazy, chatty lady" from the church parking lot.

  16. I'm living in Saudi Arabia right now and was looking for a tutor for my son. I got a response from a man that sounded great. When I asked him for references, he listed several LDS families that I knew. I immediately thought he was probably LDS and kind of sent out little clues of my own. (You have to be a bit careful here.) Anyhow, he didn't pick up on my clues but finally did when we met. It was funny. And he was LDS.

  17. I grew up in WA in a small town. My Dad's family was very prolific (we're scattered around the country now). My fellow school mates new I was Mormon because of my last name. It was a very Christian community so there was a lot of people living good lives. Some of the common physical markers didn't apply to only the LDS community. I had a friend that I worked with that was telling me about a sweatshirt she made for her to wear at church to entertain her son. I wasn't getting it. I finally asked her if she wore it over her dress. She informed me that she just wore her jeans and sweatshirt and was shocked that I dressed up (in a dress!) to go to church. We had a good laugh at our cultural differences.

    I live in UT now. I have found that the Utah Mormon community has some of their own cultural markers. In a very small way I felt like the convert. One example is a kind of easy scalloped potato recipe called Funeral Potatoes. It really is served at a lot of funerals around here. I had never heard of it until I moved here. My friend, who is a convert, was put in charge of the ward Christmas party one year. Someone suggested funeral potatoes. She didn't have a clue what they were but went with it. She was surprised that the rest of the room knew what it was and they loved it! They have become a favorite in my family. They are usually requested to go with the ham at Easter. We've taken to calling them resurrection potatoes.

    It is surprising to many that here in Salt Lake County I have a very small ward (I should qualify and say a very small active ward). It was surprising to me when I went to my daughters Kindergarten graduation at her school. My husband and I were one of the few who were not tatooed, pierced in every imaginable place, and generally looking like they have had some hard living. It was a small cultural shock for me. I think that I thought it should have been a room full of people in dresses and ties waiting for the Primary program to start. I'm still smiling at my own awkward moment and my search for the familiar in a room full of the unfamiliar.

  18. Karen, I didn't think your post was alienating. It's the tribalism itself that can be problematic. I think this is an entirely appropriate and enjoyable discussion for a blog post. It only gets to be a problem when the assumptions are brought into church, and those who don't fit the mold or don't know the codewords are less welcomed.

    In my BYU ward, they regularly sang Primary songs with no words provided "because everyone knows them." I had no clue. Sunday school teachers would say, "Well, you all studied this in seminary…." Um, no. I couldn't figure out who "the brethren" were; for a long time I thought they were the sons of King Mosiah. And I missed my first General Conference because I didn't realize that it was broadcast to the entire membership; I thought people actually drove up to SLC and I didn't have a car.

    But I don't want to interfere with anyone's celebration of their cultural heritage. If it works for you, great. Just realize that not all members speak that same code.

  19. Just want to say congratulations on your move to Wichita! I spent my childhood there and have not been back for about 25 years. I am hoping to take a cross-country trip (we live in the Boston area now) to show my children where I grew up. I'm so curious to see how it's changed and if I can still find my way around. It was a great place to grow up!

  20. Karen, you're still living there? Too interesting. My mom and sister still live in the Auburn Hills ward where I spent my teens (it was called the 4th ward then). Dale is a committed scouter, it's true. I have such good friends in that area! What a great place to raise your family!

  21. I know your story isn't about church parking lots, but that is the best I can do. It was nearly 11:00 pm when we got to the parking lot. Our plan was to go inside to practice for half an hour and then leave. We noticed a van pulled up to the curb. As we approached we could see a an electrical cord running from the outlet the landscapers use, through a window and into the darkened car. There was no one around. Once we got inside we noticed the materials center was open, but everything seemed in order.

    No we didn't make contact or get the license number. Rumor has it it was someone from another stake who wanted to charge up a lap top computer.

    We are much too trusting of people we don't know and who may or may not have good intentions.

  22. Almost without exception, people are surprised to learn that I am Mormon. I guess I don't fit the mold, but I'm not sure exactly what it is about me doesn't seem Mormon. I guess I should do one of those "I'm a Mormon" videos

  23. Those who made additional comments. Thank you. Sorry to be so late in responding. (I was taking finals for my gerontology program, and I am now coming up for air.)

    Tiffany: You win the prize for finding a connection the furthest from church HQs! That's amazing. Although I hear that Mormons are overrepresented in foreign service, so maybe it's not that weird?

    Becky: I've never lived anywhere close to my "clan," so it's interesting to read about being known by clan (last name) affiliation. I love the redubbing of funeral potatoes to resurrection potatoes. They are popular in KS for Easter, and I had to scramble to find a generic corn flake cereal for the topping.

    Naismith: Good reminder to all to not assume that everyone went to primary or in other ways knows minutia about the culture. It's hard not to conflate culture and gospel principles, but it's vital to focus more on the latter.

    Yvonne S: That's a wild story about the computer hook up. Clearly, I see church buildings as a home away from home, but I don't know if I would do that. Maybe if I was recharging in order to do church business on my laptop?

    Angie: You go, girl! Break that mold. People are way more dynamic than categories can express, and it's delightful to see people defy expectation. It's a procrustean bed to think we can jam people into categories by force. (I did my master's thesis on the problems of forcing definition and classification categories-specifically in the canon wars of Am. Lit., but I observe this tension everywhere.)

    Thanks again for "playing along," all. Karen


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