Not long ago, on the way to church one Sunday, my son, recently turned twelve, asked me, “Why do I have to wear a tie to church?” Instead of directly answering that question, which would reveal his parents’ rather curtailed ability to compel behavior in their almost-teenage children much earlier than I’d like and short-circuit the altogether salutary process of his exploring those limits in person, I told him why I wear a tie to church.
“I wear a tie to church,” I explained, “because men have been wearing a tie to church for so long that it has become the expected behavior, at least in any place we’ve ever lived. There’s nothing special about wearing a tie in itself, but because it’s expected, if I didn’t wear a tie, it might cause someone at church to become concerned or disconcerted, which might distract them from their worship or search for comfort or pondering of some momentous spiritual question, or whatever it is that they have come to church for. Now, I think for the most part everyone should ignore other people’s clothing choices, but as members of the church, we’re called on to help one another, and that includes helping those who have trouble ignoring other people’s clothing choices. I don’t particularly enjoy wearing a tie, but eliminating whatever minor physical discomfort it causes me isn’t worth the concern and distraction it might cause somebody else if I didn’t wear a tie.”
My son seemed skeptical, so I tried something else. “Also,” I added, “you’ll notice that we’ve moved a lot. We’ve lived in six different places since you’ve been born. In every ward we’ve lived, the members of the church have been incredibly helpful. They’ve helped us move in and move out. They’ve helped us find a house, brought us furniture to help stock empty apartments, left more plates of cookies on our doorstep than I can count, and helped us load the truck when we leave. The things we wear send signals that other people interpret, and it’s important that there be no misunderstandings, particularly in a new place where people don’t know us well. When we attend church for the first time, I want people to have no reason to ask themselves if I am taking advantage of their generosity. Wearing a tie is one way to signal that I understand what’s customary and expected, that I’m grateful for the couch and the cookies, and that I have experience in the church and a willingness to serve, including teaching Sunday School or delivering plates of cookies or helping other people move in or out when called upon. If I didn’t wear a tie, people might wonder if I plan to take their assistance without ever returning it, which might threaten not only others’ willingness to help us, but weaken in some infinitesimal way the whole system of people helping each other. Compared to how much people have helped us over the years, wearing a tie isn’t a lot to ask.”
My son still didn’t seem convinced, but he has continued to wear a tie to church.