Negotiating Mormon Identity – In the Airport

My wife and I just flew to Utah with our 2 year-old son to spend the holidays with family. Having lived the last 10 years outside of Utah, we’re quite familiar with traveling to Utah for the holidays. The many trips over the last 10 years have developed what is probably a stereotype, but as a sociologist, I’d like to believe it is a “generalization” based on my “participant observations”: planes flying to Salt Lake City just before the holidays are largely filled with Mormons and typically have lots of kids. I don’t mean to imply anything negative about the Mormons traveling back to see family over the holidays, I’m just pointing out that these individuals – if, indeed, they are Mormon – tend to have lots of kids.

This year we had an interesting experience. At our origination airport, which is my favorite airport ever, there are play areas in every terminal for kids. And they aren’t like the really crappy play area in the Salt Lake City terminal. We’re talking padded slides, cars, planes, and tunnels in massive glass enclosures with plenty of seating around the edges for parents. They are really, really nice!

Never knowing how long it will take to get through security with our son in tow, we arrived almost 2 1/2 hours before our flight, which left us with lots of time to for him to play in the play area. We’d been in there maybe half an hour when another young couple arrived with a child about our son’s age – right around 2. As we were the only people in the enormous play area and our kids started interacting, we struck up a conversation. One of the first questions was where we were traveling. It turns out the other couple was going to Utah, too, and we were going to be on the same two flights. They live in Utah (Lehi; they are BYU alums, which is where they met) and were in our neck of the woods for a wedding. Once we told them we were from Utah and visiting family there, the negotiation of Mormon identity began.

I don’t mean to come across as either arrogant or demeaning, so bear with me if I do. But what ensued was fascinating. They started dropping hints and using language that is only understandable by Mormons. They mentioned their ward. We acknowledged that we knew what a ward was by nodding our understanding and asking for details. They mentioned their nursery and noted that there were 5 nurseries in their ward, but virtually no young womens – all the people in the ward were young couples like they are. Again, we illustrated our “insider” status by commenting on how remarkable 5 nurseries and no young women was in a ward. We even prompted them with several questions that reflected our “insider” status by asking about how many “old” men were in the High Priest Quorum and asking about various other aspects of their ward.

But here’s where things got weird: We didn’t reciprocate. They talked about their callings. We nodded our understanding and asked the appropriate questions, but we didn’t do what they were expecting – talk about our callings. They talked about the oddities of their ward. Again, we expressed our understanding and asked the appropriate questions, but we didn’t describe the oddities of our ward.

It took the other couple a little while, but they eventually realized that there was something different about us. Since we didn’t come right out and tell them that we are former Mormons, they had to try to figure it out. Our lack of reciprocation gave them a clue. But we don’t think they quite figured it out. We think they eventually concluded that we were inactive Mormons. And once they arrived at that conclusion, the conversation became even more interesting.

As we continued chatting with them in the first airport, on our flight (they were in the seats directly behind us), in the next airport, and finally in Salt Lake City waiting for our bags, various topics came up. One was the TV shows we watch. We mentioned that our current favorite is Dexter. They had heard about it, but obviously didn’t watch it – it’s on Showtime and clearly R-rated, but they didn’t say that. Since they believed we were inactive Mormons, they simply said, “Yeah, that one seems a little too gory and violent for us.” When the husband volunteered that they like Modern Family, here’s how he said it, “We love Modern Family. It took us a while to get into it. The hardest part was the homosexual couple. We have a hard time with homosexuality…” At that point, the husband looked at us to see how we would respond. By this time, my wife and I were having so much fun with this that we just stared at them blankly, waiting to see what he would say. We gave him no indication of where we stand on homosexuality (obviously we are sympathetic and advocates for equality). He continued, “I mean, given my beliefs about homosexuality, that was hard. But we eventually got over it and now we think they are the funniest couple on the show.” Since we haven’t seen the show, we really couldn’t comment, but we loved how he extended us an invitation to indicate our beliefs but floundered when we didn’t accept the invitation and do so.

A little later the husband and I were talking and I asked him about his parents and his wife’s parents. His wife’s parents live in the southeastern U.S. As he started describing them, he made another attempt to gauge our “Mormonosity”. He said, “Well, my wife’s parents aren’t good Mormons… Er… I mean… they are inactive. They are good people, they just aren’t, you know, good… um… They don’t go to church anymore.” I was eating this up. Again, I gave no indication of where I stood on this, but since we hadn’t told them about our callings and ward, they had to assume we were inactive and therefore couldn’t speak to it. So, when he started calling inactive Mormons “bad Mormons” it was all I could do to not laugh my ass off.

In retrospect, we probably should have made their lives a lot easier and simply told them that we are not Mormons. But the opportunity to watch them negotiate Mormon identity – both theirs and ours – was too good to pass up. I’m obviously writing about this here, in part to remember it, but also because it was so interesting. I’m also wondering what they thought of the encounter. Were they as aware of what was happening? And are they going to tell their LDS friends that they met an inactive Mormon family in the airport? I can only imagine how that conversation will go…


I'm a college professor and, well, a professional X-Mormon. Thus, ProfXM. I love my Mormon family, but have issues with LDS Inc. And I'm not afraid to tell LDS Inc. what I really think... anonymously, of course!

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6 Responses

  1. chanson says:

    It’s interesting they didn’t simply ask you directly whether you were Mormon, once you’d indicated knowledge of the dynamics of a Mormon ward. If you talk to the mishies and make comments that demonstrate familiarity with Mormonism, they immediately ask: “Oh, are you a member?” But I guess with the mishies that’s their job…

  2. Parker says:

    This reminds me of an experience my wife and I had at a wedding a couple of years ago. The couple both had an LDS background although neither were “active.” Consequently there were both active LDS as well as Non-LDS present. At the dinner following the wedding my wife and I sat in the middle of a table that seated at least a dozen people. It turned out that on my left were five or six people who were obvious active members of he Church. On my right were about the same number of people who were not LDS (or were disaffected members). I could follow the conversations of both groups. The entire conversation by the ones on the left throughout the dinner was Church related. It never strayed into anything else. The conversation on the right covered a variety of topics, but never once did the Church come up. What does it mean when Mormons are so encapsulated by their religion/culture that they are unable (or so it seems) to venture out, even in conversation. Of course Mormons can talk about things other than the Church, but if you track the conversation of a group of Mormons, every topic has its roots in something to do with Church.

  3. profxm says:

    RE #1: I’m kind of surprised by that, too. Maybe it’s because we never asked them? With them, it was obvious. They talked the talk and were wearing garments. We look young and have a kid (we’re older than most people think when they see us with a 2 year-old). Since they didn’t ask immediately, I’m guessing they just thought it would be too awkward to broach the subject after we’d chatted with them for a few hours.

    RE #2: Sounds very similar. And it is amazing how Mormonism permeates everything Mormons do and say. I was really amazed how often something Mormonish would make its way into their language. Unless you’re really familiar with the culture, you wouldn’t catch it. But if you are, it’s really quite frequently.

  4. Andrew S. says:

    I loved this post! I’ve never had an experience like it (since I don’t think anyone in my area would just “assume” any other random person was Mormon), but I more often have experiences where non-Mormons are talking about Mormonism and don’t realize that I have a lot more familiarity than I let on.

  5. philomytha says:

    I find this fascinating! I had a somewhat similar experience when I met another Mormon in an organization I volunteer with — we were introduced by a mutual friend who had told each of us that the other was LDS and (as I found out later), we both had the reaction “Uh-oh, what will she think of me?”

    So when we met there was this same type of negotiation, trying to figure out where the other stood, the most obvious test being when she mentioned how good she thought the movie “Brokeback Mountain” was, and asked if I’d seen it. I had to say no, but I made a point to include that I had it in my Netflix queue. Didn’t want to give her the wrong idea.

    She ended up being the first person I was able to talk to about my doubts, and vice versa, I believe. It’s probably not a coincidence that we both left the church within a year…

  1. January 17, 2012

    […] day I’ll be courageous enough to play funny social experiments with Mormons in random places by saying Mormon identifying cultural…. Rate this: (Dis)seminate this!EmailFacebookStumbleUponRedditTwitterLike this:LikeBe the first to […]

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