Conformity and Mission-ese

I recently watched the Mind Field episode on conformity. Michael Stevens performs, films, and narrates classic psychological experiments exploring human conformity. In one experiment, a person is put in a waiting room for a psychological experiment they signed up for. They don’t realise that everyone else in the room are actors and that the experiment actually occurs in the “waiting room”. One person tells a real joke and the actors and participant laugh. Later another person tells a fake joke. It’s hard to explain what a joke is, let alone a fake joke, so I have included the fake joke used below.

A giraffe is at the airport going through the TSA line. And the security agent says, “Hey, is this your laptop?” And the giraffe says, “I thought you’d never ask.”

Not funny at all, right? But participants still laughed along with the actors. Not only that, when the experiment was exposed and Michael Stevens confronts them about it, what they said indicated that they laughed genuinely. They remembered their experience of the joke as being funny. This reminded me of an experience on my mission through the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in South Korea.

I studied Korean during the measly 1-hour designated for daily language study for the whole duration of my mission. I learned Korean well for someone who had been learning it for such a short time, and achieved a level of fluency, but I was never anywhere near native fluency. None of us were. At some stage, I was with a group of people and one of them told a joke. Everyone laughed, including me. A man sitting next to me noticed. He seemed excited that my Korean was that good and asked if I got the joke. I replied instantly, that I did not get the joke. I had not understood even half of the joke. He looked confused and asked why I laughed. I wasn’t sure. I was a bit confused and self-conscious about it. I later noticed that I smiled and laughed at a lot of stuff I didn’t understand. I didn’t do it on purpose. I just did it reflexively. I wasn’t really sure why I did it, and tried not to. I didn’t want to laugh at things I didn’t understand. I might accidentally show support for some kind of mean joke at someone’s expense or dirty joke or something. That wouldn’t do for a representative of Jesus Christ, now, would it.

Michael Stevens took care to assure participants that their reflexive laughter was typical human behaviour. It seems like he didn’t want them to feel stupid, self-conscious, or like they got caught doing something dishonest. As social creatures, there are lots of advantages to conforming to the group, and we do it reflexively. Canned laughter, he explains, works on this principle. It makes us think jokes are funnier. We might laugh at jokes that we wouldn’t have without the cue. I can think of times I watched a movie with friends and we all thought it was hilarious. Then when I go to share it with another group, and no-one laughs, I don’t even find it funny anymore.

We mightn’t usually think of ourselves as readily conforming. Other people might be, but not us. Most people are, and apparently I am. However, many of us can think of times where we deliberately resist conforming and walk our own way. When I arrived in the Provo Missionary Training Center (MTC), and again in Korea, missionaries spoke a sort of sociolect; mission-ese if you will. They spoke a non-standard English/Korean with unique meanings for various terms and phrases. In the MTC they called anything outside the MTC ‘Babylon’, in Korea, missionaries had weird terms for all sorts of things; a trainer and trainee was ‘father’ and ‘son’, returning home was ‘dying’, serving as the companion of someone going home was ‘killing them’, time spent or left on the mission was measured in “transfers” (six weeks), the list goes on.

As a foreigner in both the United States and in Korea, I resisted speaking mission-ese or an American dialect. My accent and distinctive vocabulary marked me apart from others, it was part of my identity. It made me unique, an individual. It seemed that while Americans didn’t always understand me, they generally thought it was fun to have someone with my particular accent around, so I was generally rewarded for speaking with my accent and vocabulary. It annoyed people sometimes though. When people asked how long I had spent on my mission or had left, I told them in months. If they wanted to work out what that was in transfers, I let them do it.

Young missionaries go out into the world, and want to both fit in with a group and also assert their individuality. No doubt mission-ese served many missionaries well, as they joined new groups in the MTC and their mission field. It probably helped them feel part of the group, to feel some camaraderie. They also want to assert their individuality, which they may struggle to do with missionary dress and grooming codes. While it wasn’t my cup of tea, mission-ese seems to have met a lot of missionaries needs to fit into a group and to be unique.

If you were ever a full-time missionary, what did you think of your mission’s mission-ese? Have you ever heard missionaries use mission-ese as an outsider? Did you feel inside or outside the group as a result? Please comment below.