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