Why You Think Pennsylvanians Are Stuck-Up (and Why You’re Wrong)

I love how you clicked on this link almost like, “What obnoxious thing is she going to say next?”

You know as well as I do that conservative Mennonites who are not from Lancaster (and even some who are) think that Lancaster Mennonites are snobby and stuck-up. I have finally figured out why this stereotype exists! (It is for unjustifiably unfair reasons, I might add.)

One of my favorite things is to talk about cultural differences, and since I’ve had the privilege of living in four distinct Mennonite communities across the United States as an adult, I consider myself a bit of an authority on the subject. In the past eleven months, I’ve had plenty of time to test this theory of “stuck-up” Mennonites.

I recently moved to Ephrata, Pennsylvania, quite leery of the Lancaster County location of my new home.

Lanc

However, you’ll be disappointed to know that on the “Culture Shock” timeline, I’ve moved past the Honeymoon stage (in which I gush about Amish produce stands, discount grocery stores, and modest clothing stores) and the Negotiation stage (in which the Transition shock behaviors of anger, homesickness, irritability, and withdrawal promote snarky posts about dating & marriage rituals, along with more serious critiques of the community-wide “saving face” phenomenon and its effects on spirituality). Currently, I’m in the Adaptation stage, where I’m developing positive attitudes about Lancaster culture and learning what to expect in social situations. But I’m a long way off from Adaptation. Because seriously, I’ve never even been to “the cabin.” For one thing, I have to write this post “awhile.” Haha.

So why do people think that Pennsylvanians are stuck-up? This is my theory—they don’t introduce themselves to newcomers.

Menno women1

In fact, I was talking to a friend who just moved to Lancaster County, and this was her first impression: “Do you notice that people don’t introduce themselves to you here?”

“Yes!” I agreed. “It’s strange!”

We talked about experiences at weddings, work, and church.

Me: “Sometimes I get the odd sense that people here don’t like me! But I realize that (1) those people have never talked to me, and (2) they haven’t introduced themselves to me. And I ask myself, why not?”

 

Interestingly, I kept finding myself in new situations where I was surrounded by strangers, and no one introduced themselves! I visited a new church once, was ignored, introduced myself to a woman whose eyes were downcast, then scurried out the door in awkward shame. As I settled into the church visiting cycle, I grew weary of approaching strangers and explaining that I just moved to Lancaster County. At work, a friend struggled to connect with co-workers who seemed to care little about her “transplanting” story. (Another very common thread is people living in Lancaster their entire lives. Unimaginable to me, the hyperactive state-switcher. Similarly, the story of my endless moving, to communities where I know absolutely no one, is unimaginable to Lancaster locals, often met by blank stares.) On one occasion, I had to schedule a meeting with a woman I saw nearly every day, and I was convinced that she disliked me because she had never introduced herself to me.

After a while, it started to become a joke, where my friend and I delivered the next new story of failing to be introduced at a social function. Once I attended a banquet where I sat at a table with old and new acquaintances. I was the last one to arrive, and as I sat down with my appetizer, I waited to be introduced to the Lancaster residents who I hadn’t yet met. The introduction never came. In fact, no one acknowledged my presence at the table for a full fifteen minutes!

Now before you label this post as another dig at Lancaster County, let me be clear. I do not think that the people in each of these instances were snobby, stuck-up, rude, unkind, or unfeeling, nor do I think that you should judge my expectation to be introduced as unrealistic. In truth, I found the woman who had never introduced herself to be a sweet and gentle person the very day I met with her! And the time of being “ignored” at the banquet table ended up being a night where I received some very kind encouragement from new friends.

These experiences instead clarify that cultural differences exist among geographically diverse Mennonite communities, specifically in relation to initial socialization. The behavior from both cultures makes perfect sense, but viewed from the other culture is off-putting. Both I (the Midwesterner) and Lancaster Mennonites were acting according to our respective cultures, which obviously have vastly different expectations regarding the behavior toward strangers.

In the Midwest, it’s expected to introduce yourself to a newcomer. A “proper” way to do this might even be to play the Mennonite game.

Meme1

Blanket statement: I might suggest that Midwesterners may also be “used to” newcomers more than Lancaster County residents. That is, many Midwestern Mennonites live in smaller Anabaptist communities than the sprawling, teeming Mennonite metropolis of Lancaster County. Therefore, the arrival of newcomers is more clearly felt. In our small Midwestern towns (excluding Holmes County), we’re very aware of who belongs and who is new. And in my experience, people have gone out of their way to introduce themselves and tell me their name.

Beiber2

It seems that in Lancaster, this is not a cultural expectation, and I’ve had some Lancaster locals help me on this one. For one thing, the sheer number of Mennonites is dizzying. There’s no way to tell who is “new to town,” or simply from the congregation down the street. There’s no need to wave hello to the Mennonite you saw in Walmart because of COURSE you don’t know them. Why would you smile and wave hello?

Another phenomenon unique to Lancaster that’s quite unlike most other Mennonite communities is that people here aren’t friends with people from their own churches. They’re friends with their “group.” Your “group” is whatever family and friends you’ve acquired over the years who have similar interests and/or worldviews as you. (I would contend that this is quite unlike other Mennonite communities. For many of us, our friendships are found inside our local congregations.) However, if you’re from Lancaster, and there’s a newcomer at your church, you may assume that they’re from the County, they’re simply church shopping, and they’re content with their own friends and family outside the church. You therefore feel no need to introduce yourself right away. This has been confirmed to me by more than several locals.

(Southerners, feel free to lend your perspective about what is expected for newcomers in your communities.)

To be sure, people in Lancaster are very busy and have a LOT of friends. One woman who moved here from a rural Midwestern community confided in me, “When I asked someone to go out for coffee, she said, ‘Well let me check my planner first.’ I laughed at her! Why would she need to check her planner just for coffee?! But I get it now. People are so busy. Some women are booked three months out. And so I have the planner now. I have all of it,” she sighed.

You can see, then, why the stereotype of “stuck-up” Lancaster Mennonites exist. The amount of friends and social engagements can get overwhelming, so people aren’t quick to “lend” themselves in this way. But for newcomers, this can feel like snobbery. I wonder, though, if newcomers are selling themselves short by not acknowledging the cultural differences of the realities of living in a large Mennonite community. The lady from the rural Midwest didn’t do this, but instead learned to adapt.

To put a stop to the stereotype, people on both sides need to understand that if you demand that people treat you according to your own cultural expectations, two things may occur:

(1) If you are a non-local, you may not only start agreeing with false stereotypes, but you may also become quite lonely. A few suggestions: stop being bitter about the need to explain that you are a new-comer. Be willing to introduce yourself again, and again, and again. It won’t be long before you’ll buy your own planner (probably at Target, where you’ll ignore a Mennonite woman one aisle over).

(2) If you are a Lancaster local, you may be bothered by the stereotype of snobbery. A suggestion: it may benefit you to visit a small Mennonite community sometime. It also might do you some good to go out of your way to introduce yourself to a Mennonite stranger the next time you see one in church, at Bible study, or even (gasp) at Walmart! You might just meet a new friend, the kind that doesn’t care about planners, and is refreshingly un-busy!

And to those of you who still think I hate Lancaster, I’ll say this: despite the lack of introductions in general in Lancaster County, I’d like to give a shout-out to my local congregation for the outpouring of support I’ve received since moving here, including but not limited to:

  1. Delivering and unloading FOR FREE a piece of furniture I bought
  2. Lending me the “nice” family vehicle, three times, FOR FREE when mine was in the shop
  3. Visiting me when I was sick (bringing me food, cleaning my apartment, and giving me a back rub!)
  4. Dinner invitations, and asking how I’m really doing
  5. A sweet gift and card on Valentine’s Day
  6. A plant on Mother’s Day.

You know who you are. Thank you.

Obviously, Pennsylvanians aren’t snobby. They’re warm and caring just like everybody else. The fact is that we just greet each other differently. So stop stereotyping. And go introduce yourself.

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20 thoughts on “Why You Think Pennsylvanians Are Stuck-Up (and Why You’re Wrong)”

  1. Esther, I had to laugh when I read your title. And, then again while reading your “article.” You are so “point on!” It’s exactly why we wanted Tonya to live out there before “the proposal.” We knew it was very different in multiple ways from our comparatively small community. She had turned into somewhat of a Lancaster County person…planner and all. She’s still a cut-up at times, which gave some people a stretching experience when she first moved out there. I’m not sure that she would choose to move back.

    Wishing you the best in your Lancaster experience. Suggestion: Take a friend with you to the Tomato Pie Cafe in Lititiz sometime. We love it!

  2. I’m going to have to respectfully disagree. I’ve got family from PA, friends from there, and I married a man from PA. They are all rude, extremely rude, UNLESS they have seen the culture of rudeness for what it is (sinful- 1 Cor 13)and allowed others to say, “That comment hurt.”

    For example. If you are not in relationship with a PA person, they will make sarcastic, snide jokes about you behind your back. If you do know them, however, the snide is in your face. It’s normal, even seen as funny, to be in a gathering where someone is put down, as a joke.

    It’s a cultural difference, yes, and I don’t believe that they actually want it to hurt as much as it does. But every culture has things in it that are sinful (gluttony and ‘bless your heart’ in the South). For PA people, it’s brutal rudeness, an inability to honor others. Like I said, a few do acknowledge their own tendency to verbal abuse /rudeness and overcome it.

    1. Thinking more…​ This​ is​ not true of the PA individuals who were entirely home schooled. Which brings me to a question- do PA schools have a bullying problem?

  3. Thank you for this insight. I have met people from PA at things like Bible school and gotten to know them fine. But when some guys from my church married transplants, I was taken aback by them. I introduced myself, inquired about their lives etc. They answered me but didn’t seem interested in me. Yet as time goes on, I find them nice girls. I’ve also concluded that in our culture it’s not okay to be an introvert. You are seen as rude. As in all things balance is good.
    Ps. I’m Canadian.

  4. As a born Southerner, anything N of the Mason Dixon line makes me swallow really hard, to try to resist the urge 2 run back home. That being said, I have found a few very good friends up N., but you mostly need a ‘inside track ‘ to find them in the first place.
    I remember the time when my sister n I went with a bus load of folks up to package parcels at CAM. We stopped 2 eat at a fast food restaurant in the Ephrata area. A car went by that had obviously Mennonites in it, so we waved, like we definitely would at home (if we know them or not). They about got a kink in their neck from turning around staring at us. Lucky they didnt clean out the ditch while they were at it!
    My brother went with his good friend to Lancaster when the friend went up to see his girlfriend. All of a sudden, when it was time leave for the night, they realized my brother didnt have a place for the night. The friend had to request his future in laws to find an extra bed. (Here it would be part of the chit chat to find out how long your staying, and where….. oh you need a bed, come on over)
    I do realize that what we would consider friendly chit chat, they might interpret as “noisy”.
    There were visitors in our church, from PA that stopped in on their way somewhere, n didnt know anyone. They were amazed by how many lunch invitations they recieved!
    I think part of the problem is the schedule books (they’re to busy n to booked) you mentioned as well as having to have an inside track. (They don’t see a need, they have to be told about it) Some of it is undoubtly a result of big community where everyone thinks everyone else will take care of the visitors. Or they assume you came to see SOMEBODY. (Had a connection)
    In the South, we will chat you up, even if we don’t know you, or arent sure about you. The term “Southern Hospitality” doesnt exist for nothing!!
    N The North, and PA (and esp Lancaster) definately have their own culture!!! Best wishes on your adjustments!!!

    1. You nailed it here. I grew up in Ephrata, and only realized after living in a new community how I am so oblivious to needs. I don’t notice them until the opportunity is gone. I have been so blessed by others in my new community, and want to learn from them how not to be so self-absorbed.

      I also remember once while back for a visit in Lancaster, after living away for several years, I passed a former classmate, and was so excited to see her and waved excitedly. She looked at me as if she must be missing something, and gave a hesitant wave. I also went back to my home church, and couldn’t believe my friends were gathered in a circle talking and made no effort to come say hi. They knew I was there. So I walked up to them. Hard to believe, I know. It’s those things that remind me how strong the culture is there, and they don’t realize how snobby they appear to others, when in fact, they simply don’t like to be uncomfortable.

  5. Interesting view point. I grew up in the Beachy church in Holmes County, married a Mennonite PA’er and moved here 17 years ago, though we live an hour north of Lancaster. There are a few points here that ring true for this area as well. Especially the idea of not having friends within the church. That made building friendships very hard for me because I knew NO ONE here EXCEPT church people. It is very much a cultural thing and I found if I can look at it as that instead of a personal thing, I was able to move forward. Today I have dear friends within the church, but I also fall back on friendships from my childhood. There’s just nothing like a friend who understands who you are because of where you grew up.

    And not saying HI to every Mennonite? Oh wow. So true. TOO true! I make a point of smiling and at least trying to say “Hi” as I keep walking. I’ve always determined to be a friendly Mennonite in a community where too many don’t even look at each other. Seems so silly to me. That said, I try to do the same to the community people I meet as well.

    I can also relate to the “everyone is so busy” point. I’ve been able to stay out of that rut to a degree. The planner, however, made me laugh, since I, well, design and sell The Time Keeper planner. =) (Should I be blushing?)

    While Holmes County may seem to be a second Lancaster county and will have it’s own issues, it’s a huge culture difference from Lancaster County. Every community creates their own culture in some way.

  6. Interesting hearing your perspective. I grew up in Ephrata, and moved to Central PA 10 years ago. It took about 5 years until I could look at Lancaster Co objectively as an outsider. I sensed a negative attitude (they’re snobby/materialistic/self-absorbed) toward Lancaster, but I thought it was all in their heads or things they heard from others, because I knew many nice people from home who didn’t fit their descriptions. But I came to realize it was because I was in my “group” of people who understood me, and that’s all that mattered to me. I didn’t have a whole lot of concern for those outside my groups.

    I have learned a lot from my new community about having an “outward focus.” I remember feeling unnerved when I first moved up because everybody seemed to know who I was before we had met. And they offered help in many ways. I didn’t want to be indebted. I was conditioned to look out for #1 and “build my own empire.” It’s something I still have to work on, stopping to take time for people, and learning to make those bothersome introductions and talk about the weather before cutting straight to the point.

    Obviously, I love to returning to Lancaster to see my family, but I realized how much I don’t miss, and I have no desire to ever move back. When you grow up in a wealthy community with comfortable friends, it never pushes you outside your comfort zone, and it’s easy to become stale and complacent and begin comparing ourselves among ourselves, and thus becoming self-absorbed, as if all that happens in the world happens in “my town.”

    So I don’t want to disrespect my home area, but they would do well to pull back and get a broader perspective on the world, maybe spend time in other communities or simply with people of differing backgrounds, and see how refreshing a trip to Wal-Mart can be when you don’t have to dress in your best for a trip to town because you just know you’ll run into somebody you know. I explained it to my sister this way…”you know how when you go on a trip and nobody knows you, and you feel you can just relax and be YOU, you can BREATHE!”

  7. Guilty as charged, Esther 😄
    But I must say (in my defense but not making excuses) my husband and I drove the bus for a choir that our son was part of, this past fall. They had 5 programs in 5 different churches in northern PA, Ohio and Indiana. My husband and I did stand around awkwardly after each program without being approached by anyone from the congression. It’s not a nice feeling. But maybe they were scared of us, we do look rather nasty with our fangs and all. 😄

    1. Agreed. 🙂 While making a generalization here about Lancaster, it doesn’t mean that Mennonites in general couldn’t do a better job of making visitors feel welcome, in every community. I have to remind myself of this when I’m home for the holidays in Ohio and don’t always “feel like” talking to a new person at church, instead content to just cuddle my nieces. (Yes, I’m sure the fangs were terrifying, ha ha.)

  8. This is so well said, Esther, and I’m sure my out-of-state husband could resonate with each point. He’s taught me a lot about seeing things more objectively and clearly, since I’m one of those who has lived here my whole life and can succumb to the pitfalls without being aware of it. Thanks for offering an honest but gracious view of the community! And seriously, I know I live an hour away, but why don’t we ever see each other??

  9. Although, please don’t put all PA ppl in that same box. I grew up west of Lancaster in a very small Mennonite community& we were taught acceptance, hospitality, & just plain friendliness. I now live & serve in a small church plant with people who chose to leave their “culture”….even married one!

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