I am socially awkward.
Everyone who knows me knows this. My coworkers mock my awkwardness. My girlfriend tells me that it's her least favorite thing about me. My few friends express frustration when I refuse to join them in the company of people I don't know. I am in a constant struggle to relate to and interact smoothly with every person I meet who I don't know well and many people that I do know well. My awkwardness is almost legendary.
I considered titling this post "How Mormonism Made Me Socially Awkward," but that didn't seem quite right. I believe that the way we develop depends mostly on two things--what happens to us and how we react to what happens to us. With most things concerning Mormonism, I reacted poorly to my circumstances and exacerbated the problems that were thrust upon me. I don't intend to blame Mormonism for every negative aspect of my life, but I do blame it for the circumstances which initiated many of those aspects.
So, instead, here is How Mormonism Stunted My Social Development.
Mormonism Taught Me To Fear My Peers
I grew up in the "mission field," far from Utah and any of the other places in which being a Mormon is commonplace. When I graduated high school, I was the only Mormon in my graduating class of over 600. This meant that, whenever I went to school, I was surrounded by kids that I'd been taught did not have the truth and were more prone to act sinfully than those of us who had the gospel. In church, I was warned repeatedly to not take drugs that the kids in school might offer me and not to join in any sinful activity that they might try to convince me to do.
I learned to recognize signs of sinful behavior in my peers (swearing, immodest clothing, rebellious attitudes, the list goes on forever) and avoid associating with those kids--after all, I didn't want to put myself in the way of all those temptations they'd try to push on me. I feared my peers as agents of temptation--and that was before the girls started dressing immodestly.
Mormonism Taught Me To Make Everything About Mormonism
Even though I feared my peers, I was still taught to reach out to them and impact them positively (hopefully with the end result of those kids joining the church). So I did my best to reinforce good behavior among my elementary school friends. But I slowly learned that most people aren't very receptive to someone correcting their behavior--especially when that person is not an authority figure of any kind. So I tried to take a different approach which involved trying to entertain while I corrected. In fifth grade I had this idiotic habit of making a big deal out of my friends swearing. My reasoning was that, if it was funny, my friends wouldn't be so offended when I tried to get them to not swear. I think the only thing I accomplished was making myself look ridiculous, and it's pretty embarrassing to look back on, even though it's almost fifteen years later.
But anyway, the important thing is that while I could have been spending this time learning to interact normally with the other kids, I was instead spending this time trying to figure out ways to gently nudge them in the direction of Mormonism. Not-so-coincidentally, fifth grade was the last year that I felt like I had lots of friends.
Mormonism Taught Me Naivete
Growing up as an active Mormon usually means having a very sheltered childhood. While I was taught that the kids at school were mostly sinners, I never really understood that kids could also be cruel. Although I had been taught that the world was wicked, I'd never witnessed any of its harshness firsthand. Even though I knew evil existed, I'd never really seen it anywhere other than a television screen.
In the beginning of sixth grade, I was excited to see my friends from the previous year again. I eagerly sat at a lunch table with most of the kids I'd known from fifth grade, and I expected to have the same fun even though there were a few new faces and kids I didn't know. One of these kids took to teasing me. The main focus of the ridicule was accusing me of having a crush on a fat girl sitting at the next table. For middle school, his teasing was pretty lightweight, but I was unprepared for it, and I didn't know how to deal with it. By the end of the lunch period, I was actually crying and I was completely ashamed of myself. I never went back to that table and instead fell in with a few of my other friends who were much less popular and attractive. And from sixth grade on, I was extremely low-profile on the social ladder, extremely suspicious of my peers and extremely hesitant to make new friends.
I definitely reacted poorly in that situation, but I think my head had been filled with too much "eternal happiness in the celestial kingdom" crap to have built much of a foundation in reality.
Mormonism Taught Me To Be Proud To Be Different
By the time I got to high school, I was deeply ingrained in my low-profile social status. I had a very small circle of friends who, for the most part, were just as awkward and low-profile as I was. At church, I was proudly informed of our status as a "peculiar people," and I enjoyed that label. I'd grown resentful of many of my more sociable, more popular and more outgoing peers, and I took comfort in the claim that they were all wayward and sinful and following the crowd and that I was the courageous one to keep to myself and choose my own path.
At this point, I was avoiding people I considered sinful, trying to influence what few friends I had to be more righteous, suspicious of everyone else's motives and proud of my isolation. I guess you could say that I'd given up on developing interpersonal skills.
As far as my problems that stem from Mormonism go, I think this one is probably my most crippling. I work in a customer service industry, but the part I suck at the most is small talk. I'm very good at being polite and pleasant, but I'm not good at having actual conversations with my customers. It frustrates me that every time I try to be charming and go the extra mile to make a customer feel comfortable, I flounder uselessly at more than one point during the conversation.
Maybe if I'd had a normal childhood I would have learned these skills a long time ago (you know, during normal social development) and had plenty of time to polish them. But a Mormon childhood is not a normal childhood.
And that doesn't seem right to me.