You glance down at those fresh chocolate covered doughnuts in the Bakery isle and begin to lick your lips. Then you feel something tug at your arm and you turn around in surprise. “You know those are no good for you,” the man tells you with a chuckle. Your heart sinks at his words. You aren’t disappointed because of the bad news. You already knew those doughnuts would ruin your delicate, apple-shaped figure. You recognize the man from your days as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. You know his smile is just a way of getting you to drop your guard in his presence. It isn’t working. “So,” he continues nonchalantly, “I haven’t heard from you in quite a while. Glad I caught you here today. You know, Jehovah loves you and…” Yeah, this isn’t a good day to be an ex-Jehovah’s Witness in the grocery store. That’s because Elder Overbearing here is about to get Medieval on your a*s and embarrass you in front of all of these shoppers. If you let him.
So … now what? Can you do anything except stand there and take it while he reads you the riot act? Or should you push him into the frozen yogurt case behind him and make a run for it?
Thankfully, your friendly neighborhood Atheist Geek has been there. You don’t have to let this awkward situation give him the upper hand, which is really what he wanted in the first place. Here are some tips you might find useful.
To avoid a scene without losing your dignity:
1. Just look at him (without smiling) and say one of the following as you turn to walk away:
“Hello. I’m really sorry, but I have to get going right away. Maybe next time. All right?”
“Hi. I’m sorry, but I can’t talk to you right now. Have a good day, though.” Or you could also end with, “Best of luck, though.” This will give it an extra note of finality.
“Sorry, but I can’t talk religion or anything like that right now. I have other things to do.”
These are just attempts to let him know you already suspect he’s here to preach at you (which really is justified no matter how innocent he acts) and to let him know that contact of this sort isn’t welcome. It will work with some Witnesses, but the more aggressive “always in full salesman mode” or “always in self righteous mode” Witnesses won’t be so easily deflected. You’ll have to get a little braver with them.
2. Has it been a while since you saw him last? Was he one of those Witnesses you never knew all that well to begin with? Then pretend to go stupid and act like you don’t recognize him. Sound crazy? Maybe. But it will take some of the wind out of his sails. Then, if he still finds it necessary to harass you about your beliefs, tell him, “I don’t talk religion with strangers any more. Certainly not in a public place.” Then shake your head as if you’ve just passed judgment over his decisions while you walk away if you want to. This will give him a small taste of his own medicine. Only the most aggressive Elders will chase after you. If this happens, either keep walking and ignore him (which make him look like the heel for hassling you) or try taking him by the arm and whispering your desire to be left alone when shopping. I mean, come on – you can’t even shop for food without getting hassled? Sheesh. He should be the one who feels bad, not you! This will certainly let him know that further contact is unwelcome.
3. Try to avoid any behavior that tells him that his attempt to surprise you had any real impact. A lot of ex-Witnesses will literally freeze for a few seconds as they try to quickly think of a place to run to, but that just tells him that he’s got you and now’s his time to strike. Instead, you want to project an air of preparedness as if you anticipated such an encounter and you’re ready for it. Avoid giving him the fake “let’s be friends” smile (he’ll only sense weakness) and simply give him a cold nod to acknowledge his presence. Then stand up straight and dare him to talk religion with your eyes. He’s likely to ramble on for a moment and ask you about people he couldn’t care less about in an attempt to maintain contact with you while he thinks of another approach. Just say “fine” and stroll away with a firm “excuse me” before he comes up with anything. Chances are that he’ll let you go and pretend like he never spoke to you at all. Don’t look back at him! Just remember that you’re bluffing here (if you really don’t want to risk a scene, that is). So make sure to put some distance between the two of you right away.
4. Try catching him off-guard for a change and just blurt out that you’re not coming back to the Kingdom Hall no matter what he says. Then, if you really want to sell it, give him an authoritative, “Okay?” If he’s struck speechless by your directness (“Hey! I was supposed to be the one who gets to surprise you!”) take this chance to simply turn around and leave. Note that this strategy is probably the riskiest because it could create a scene. But he’s the one representing Jehovah’s Witnesses, not you, and Witnesses are taught to avoid anything that might give the public a bad impression. In any case, you might shock him enough to let you get away and discourage any future attempts altogether. That’s a big reward when all you want to do is finish your shopping and go home.
One thing to keep in mind here is the fact that family, Elders, and Ministerial Servants who think they’re Elders are probably the most likely to confront you in this way. Aggressive elderly Witnesses and pioneers are probably the next most likely. There’s a good chance that other Witnesses are simply trying to make a good impression on you and hoping that Jehovah will magically create an opportunity for them to preach. Don’t give it to them and you’re liable to be fine.
Finally, if all else fails, lean in close and whisper to them that you don’t appreciate their attempt to embarrass you in a public place this way. Once they know the jig is up, they’re far more likely to retreat. Or, at the very least, they’re less likely to yell or raise their voice when they respond to this because you were whispering to them when you said it. And if they do get loud, don’t be afraid to mention – at a volume equal to their own – that you don’t want to be one of Jehovah’s Witnesses and that you just want to be left alone. Don’t get too aggressive as this might alert the manager on duty that there’s a problem and make them feel like throwing you out. Which is really bad. But this informs any potential audience members in that isle who the real aggressor is. You’ll get some looks, but you won’t be the one they blame for the encounter. No one likes being preached at against their will. And the announcement might embarrass your attacker enough to get them to back down.
Remember, you have the same rights as everybody else. There are no laws that say you have to stand there and take it just because they think they have to try. So why should you? Don’t be afraid of Elder Overbearing any more. He’s counting on that fear. Don’t make it that easy.
-the Atheist Geek-