Have you ever attended a Mormon service? They’re somewhat unusual in that there’s no preacher or pastor. We have leaders that conduct the meetings, but the members speak. I’ve mentioned this before because in some ways it’s great to hear from so many people positioned just like you in the structure of the religion; other times it leads to much eye rolling and fretting over all the crazy (by me, and other less tolerant folks). When you’re addressing the congregation, it’s customary to begin with a lame joke, reference to your fear of public speaking, and then introduce yourself briefly. Sometimes people run with one of these tools for easing your way into a public talk — I’m talking about a joke turned into a stand-up routine or an opus about how you spent weeks avoiding the phone and ducking around corners because you know the Bishop of the ward wants you to give a talk.
In urban wards or college town wards, where people are young and transitory, people like to tell the story of how they came to be standing at the podium on that very day. I prepare myself for eye rolling when the story starts: “I was born in [insert Western state or city with substantial Mormon population].” Not that I’m a geography snob. I myself was born in Provo, Utah and lived the plurality of my life in Arizona. I just can’t help thinking, let’s move things along.
These introductions are all the same and I’m sure people don’t put much thought into them (I know I don’t when I’m the one speaking). But still, word choice matters, and I found one introduction a young married women gave in one of my many young urban/college town wards vaguely disturbing. It went like this: My name is __ and I was born __. I met my husband when I was 18 and I didn’t want to go out with him, but on our first date I found out I was supposed to marry him. We graduated from BYU and found out we were moving here for a job. And then we got here and I found out I was pregnant.
Why am I disturbed by this apparently unremarkable phrasing? Because girl makes herself out to be a passive observer in her own life. I get that we can be inspired or guided to make certain decisions, but the ones she “found out about” are the biggest decisions a person can make, and there’s no way she didn’t have some role in how they played out. I wish she’d given herself a little credit, but my real beef is that she cast her entire life as some divinely inspired bit of playacting. Most people – no, all people – have to work like hell to make their lives the way they want them to and a cultural narrative that says these decisions come easily if you just do the right thing (go on the date with the boy or go to the right school or pray hard enough) – or worse, that women have a limited role in making these decisions – is dangerous.
Here’s my introduction: My name is __ and I moved here from Michigan, but I am originally from Arizona, kind of That’s where my family is, anyway. I met my husband in college and I don’t know if he was the right person for me then. I doubt it. We spent five years building a relationship and tugged and stretched at the edges of our lives until they looked radically different from the way they were when we met. We talked and cried and prayed and argued about getting married until it made sense. We chose to get married. We made ourselves into the right people for each other. We came to Chicago because we wanted to live in a writers’ city, with towers and jobs and crowds to get lost in, and people that don’t make us feel insane, and we got jobs here to make that happen. And no, we don’t have any kids, but we talk about it because we can and that’s what grown ups do, and you can be sure when they come that neither of us will be all that surprised.
In conclusion: Precision of language. It’s a thing.