"We are not measured by the trials we meet -- only by those we overcome."
- - Spencer W. Kimball
January 10, 2013
No Eye Contact
by Cyndie Swindlehurst

Question:

My husband and I just moved to a new state. We are both Southern, and I expected some things to be different, culturally, now that we live in a western state.

But something at church has me feeling baffled and a little upset. We have attended our new ward for at least a month, and none of the men will make eye contact with us. None! Well, except for the Bishop. But no one else!

I will be talking to a friendly sister, having a pleasant get-to-know-you conversation, while her husband stands right there, not introducing himself, not making eye contact, completely ignoring me, as if I don't exist. It is so weird! 

I thought we Mormons were friendly people. These men are mostly in their twenties and newly married. Is how to introduce yourself not taught in western states to men under thirty? Being well over thirty and having moved a number of times, my husband and I are quite good at introductions.

So what do I do? Their behavior strikes me as hostile. Are we being snubbed?

Answer:

I certainly hope young people of both sexes are being taught how to introduce themselves!

It is a simple skill. To introduce yourself, you simply look at the person and give your first and last name. For example, "Hello. I am John Smith." Or if you are a woman, "Hello. I am Rosa Evans."

So easy. Just make eye contact. Then give your first name, followed by your last. The last name is important. There is an unfortunate tendency for people to omit it, even though it is an important piece of information. It is so much easier to use the ward directory and to learn which people belong to which family when you know surnames.

Introducing oneself is such an elementary skill that I understand why you are baffled and even suspicious when your fellow ward members don’t do it. But I don't think you should be offended or get upset, because there is no point to being upset at these men.  

Being upset will neither help nor change your problem. You will feel worse, and they will remain the same. Remember that the answer to being upset with someone for being rude usually boils down to accepting the person as he is and forgiving him for offending you. Why? Because it is rude to point out the rude behavior of others. (There are exceptions in families, but those do not apply here.) And because you can’t control anyone else’s behavior. You can only control your response to it.

When you are faced with the potentially offensive behavior of others, therefore, it is generally best to assume that no harm was intended. Give the person the same benefit of the doubt that you would want if you were inadvertently discourteous. That means assuming the person would have behaved correctly but for some obstacle or lack of understanding, and freely forgiving his oversight.

Try to imagine generous, plausible explanations for the men’s lack of eye contact. Being deep in thought, for example. Or shyness. Or extreme hunger. Or impatience with wives who like to stay after church and chat instead of heading home for dinner and post-church naps.

Avoid the temptation to attribute their odd behavior to some negative aspect of the state’s culture. It would be unfair to assume all of the men in your new state are unfriendly just because of these men.

You appear to be at least 10 years older than most of your fellow ward members. Perhaps these men have not yet discovered that they can strike up friendships with persons not in their same age group. That’s a shame. One of the best things about being an adult is the opportunity to develop a circle of friends without regard to age. 

Maybe they were badly trained as children, or are uncommonly reserved, or just strange. Maybe your ward is chock full of new people, and they thought you were the established family and they the new family.

The point of this exercise is not to accurately determine why the men don’t make eye contact. The point is to remind yourself that many factors besides active hostility may cause a person to behave discourteously.

Now, it is possible that some of the men were being deliberately rude. Perhaps they are prejudiced against Southerners or people over thirty. Perhaps they are snobs: charming to a select group but rude to everyone else. But ask yourself this: even if that were so, and even if they were purposefully rude, does that change how you should behave? It does not. You should behave well no matter what other people do.

I suggest that you and your husband take the social initiative in your new ward. Introduce yourselves to people warmly. Ask their names. Ask questions about the area. Act confident and comfortable and glad to talk to them. If you are conversing with a wife while her husband lurks nearby, ask, “And is this your husband?” Then turn to him and say, “Hello. I’m Rosa Evans. My husband Carl and I just moved here.” That should jerk him out of his reverie. 

But if it doesn't, I suggest private amusement instead of taking offense. I think you will be much happier if you choose to see this situation as an interesting cultural experience that would be funny if it weren’t so weird.

And one more thing. What were you wearing? If your appearance tends toward the va va voom, that could easily explain any lack of eye contact with you, personally. Perhaps you should double-check your neckline before church next Sunday, just to be sure.

Do you have a quandary, conundrum, or sticky situation in your life? Click this button to drop Cyndie a line, and she’ll be happy to answer your question in a future column. Any topic is welcome!


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About Cyndie Swindlehurst

Cynthia Munk Swindlehurst spent her childhood in New Hampshire and her adolescence in San Diego. She served a mission in Manaus Brazil. She graduated from Brigham Young University with a degree in English and from Duke University with a law degree.

She practiced law until her first child was born. She enjoys reading, tap dancing, and discussing current events. She and her husband live in Greensboro, North Carolina with their two sons.

Cyndie serves as the Sunbeams teacher in her ward.

Visit Cyndie at Dear Cyndie
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