About Mormonism

Investigating Mormonism from many different angles

Nicety Niceness

Posted by nebula0 on September 26, 2008


Let me state from the outset that my purpose here is not to argue that Mormons are meaner than anyone else.  I don’t think that.  What I am going to argue though is that Mormons aren’t nicer than anyone else either.  I’d say if you could get into the heads of Mormons you’d discover that they are thoroughly human, no nicer or meaner than any other large group of people.

Now if you don’t know about Mormonism, the above might seem trivial to you, but consider this, when people talk about knowing Mormons, what is one of the things they are bound to share?  Probably something like: oh, they are so nice!  Now this was my reaction when I first got involved with the Mormon community, first as an investigator then as a new member.  It wasn’t the primary reason I got involved, but I thought they were some of the nicest people on the planet.  So what changed my mind?  Experience, that’s all, and not even bad, traumatic experience or anything like that.  Just everyday experience with lots of Mormons all over.  This is my discovery: what I call nicety niceness is a cultural element.  It’s like saying please and thank you if you are a polite person.  Mormon culture obligates people to avoid conflict (because, contention is of the devil, after all), and just be nice.  The Fundamentalist Latter-day Saints take this to an extreme with their women whose motto is “keep sweet”, a phrase which helps illuminate the larger Mormon culture.  So, smiling, avoiding contentious topics, a sense of eagerness, all of that are a part of what it is to be polite in Mormonism, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the inner attitudes of those speaking.  Why would I say this, you might ask.  The reason is because I’ve seen people be nicety nice to someone, and whether male or female, turn around and immediately gossip about them.  Actually this happened, well, a lot.  At first it was discouraging to me to realize that Mormons weren’t as nice as I thought, but then it was something of a relief to know that they weren’t robots after all.  Another thing I observed is that if one Mormon wanted to get someone else to do something, or find out why they are inactive, or cover some other potentially contentious ground, they tend to go round and round but never actually touch the topic they wanted to get to or only get there after ten minutes of nicety.  As you can imagine, this tends to lead to plenty of passive aggressiveness.  Mormons who have a problem bottle it up and take it out in bizarre ways, such as the cold shoulder.

In short, if you are going to become a Mormon, one of the best things you can do is be someone not afraid of a little conflict because then you can get away with doing whatever you want.  Chances are, no one will quite know how to deal with that.  I much prefer just coming out and saying whatever it is you mean, even if it isn’t nicety.  I’m certain that this is one of the major reasons Mormons think everyone else is so darned mean because in other Christian cultures (especially the reformed, I’ve noticed) it isn’t considered rude at all to “state things as you see them”.  So you’ll see Mormons and some kind of other Christian apologists going back and forth, the Mormons aghast that someone would be so darned mean, and why are they trying to pull other people down and and… while the Christian apologist starts to accuse the Mormon of being brainwashed because why else would they avoid the topic?  and both sides don’t get it.  In Mormon culture you have to be nicety nice to have effective communication, no matter how distasteful or simply annoying you may personally find it.  If you don’t, the other person assumes you are a rude brute, that doesn’t mean that they are brainwashed or anything else, it means that you are ineffectively communicating with Mormonism.

How did this all come about?  A few things: Mormons are supposed to be really, really happy.  It’s part of the gospel in Mormonism, man is that he might have joy.  If you are not happy, then you aren’t doing something right.  Hence, act happy, all of the time (and plenty of Mormons are not afraid of taking anti depressants either, however you want to interpret the fact, Utah is the anti depressant capital of the country– I don’t think Mormons are any more, or less happy than the average outside person either).  For example, take the saying that goes something like “no outside success can compensate for failure at home”- family harmony and happiness is considered in the complete control of the parents, particularly the father and so if it lacking it is all his fault, so darn it, act happy.   Another element is that there ought to be total harmony amongst the Saints, after all, they are part of the one true church on the face of the planet led by a living prophet.  Contention, any contention, is from Satan.

hmm, if I think of anymore background elements I will add them, feel free to add your input too.

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4 Responses to “Nicety Niceness”

  1. Seth R. said

    Personally, I think you really nailed this one.

    It’s especially bad in Relief Society. At least in Elders Quorum we will, occasionally, mildly disagree with each other.

    If you ever have a chance, listen to the famous Mormon – Marie Osmond about her “happy-act” and later emotional breakdown. It really seems to follow this pattern.

  2. Seth R. said

    One anecdote about the Relief Society. A friend of our family, and smart and rather outspoken young mother, got in something of a row with one of the other women in R.S. a few months ago.

    The lesson was on the Book of Job. Things were going along conventionally enough until our friend made the offhand remark “well, since the book of Job is allegorical…” I don’t think anyone heard whatever the rest of her point was, because one of the older women immediately bristled and said “That’s not true!” And then immediately proceeded to emotionally bear her testimony about Job.

    (“bearing testimony” is often a particularly Mormon last-ditch effort to restore nicety niceness)

    Our friend sat there fuming as others tried to ride to the rescue:

    “But it says so in the class manual!”

    The Relief Society teacher awkwardly admitted that, yes, the manual does say it’s allegorical, but quickly changed the subject.

    There is kind of a gut panic that afflicts Mormons – at least in the Western United States – whenever the harmony of Zion seems threatened.

    This dynamic really, really stands out online, where niceness is often either ignored or seen as weakness. You come to an online debate forum, you better be ready to play and no one is going to have much time for coddling you.

  3. nebula0 said

    Seth,

    You’re absolutely right about that last part. I have little patience for those who appeal to playing nice and not ‘tearing down others’ religions’. Why else come to various debate forums except to debate? But I also understand that the person is sincere and it comes from a particular culture that doesn’t know how to handle conflict.

    THis is also why so many evangelical ‘ministers to Mormons’ do such a crappy job. They often completely ignore this part of Mormon culture and then complain that Mormons don’t listen to them and assume that Mormons are therefore brainwashed when the real story is that the so called anti-cult ministers are too lazy or too dense to figure out how to communicate with not just another religion- but another culture altogether.

    RS is terrible for this, I agree, and unfortunately it’s only gotten worse over time as Utah culture spreads outward. Any ideas on how to counteract it, Seth?

  4. Seth R. said

    Well, the Mormon “bloggernacle” tries to do an end run around dominant Mormon culture entirely. We debate, push hot-button political topics, and hammer away at uncomfortable points of theology all the time. For a while, the community was pretty marginalized. But then Peggy Fletcher Stack at the Salt Lake Tribune started reading Mormon blogs regularly as a source of candid discussion about current Mormon controversies, and suddenly bloggernacle consensus is being seriously reported in major Utah newspapers.

    It’s now gotten to the point where I imagine people in the Church Office Building in Salt Lake have to be hearing about it.

    So, I would say the rise of that alternative community within Mormonism is already making a great deal of progress at the top level of leadership (although I have no real evidence of that other than my own sense of self-importance).

    The problem is that, despite the outward appearances of a strong top-down hierarchy, the attitudes of LDS General Authorities have a hard time reaching the grass-roots level.

    For instance, the long-discredited doctrine of the “Mark of Cain” in reference to those of African descent has been vocally, and fairly clearly rejected by the progressive LDS leadership. But the doctrine persists at the ward level, and you still occasionally hear someone spouting it (usually in an attempt to defend WHY the Priesthood ban was kept for so long).

    So maybe that’s not much help.

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