Last year, I gave a number of professional writing workshops to non-native English speakers in New York City. During a break at a workshop in Manhattan, one woman said something that threw me off a bit. 

“You have an inner smile when you teach. Is this your teaching style, or is it just your personality?” 

An inner smile. It was a strange phrase, but I knew what she meant. 

She sensed something different about me.

No, she sensed someone different in me.

She sensed Christ. 

“An inner smile… no one’s ever said that before,” I said. “No, it’s not a special teaching style, it’s just my personality I guess.” 

I immediately knew I’d lost an opportunity. She was open, curious, and clearly respected me. All I had to say, was, “What you sense isn’t from me; it’s from Jesus. If you see anything good in me, it’s from him.” It might have opened up a conversation, or she might have thought I was crazy. I’ll never know.

Here’s another story. I was at a workshop in NYC, this time in Harlem. I decided to walk around on my lunch break, and let me tell you, I. was. out. of. place. To say I stuck out like a sore thumb is a cliché, so I’ll say I stuck out like a redhead with a limp (that’s a story for another day) I walked up to one of the Halal food carts I’d been craving (biryani please!), when a tall black man in his late forties approached me. “Miss, can you spare some change for some food, I’m out of work.” I took a few dollars from my purse, planning to hand them off and be on my way, but I stopped when I looked into desperate, jaundiced eyes. 

“Can I pray for you?” I heard myself say. 

“Yes m’aam,” he said, eyes lighting up. “Are you a Jesus person?” I nodded, smiling. “I could tell you were a Jesus person! My name’s Prince.” Prince then started rambling about God and Jesus and the Lord’s plan. After I prayed for him, he gave me a huge, lingering hug. People around us stared, but I didn’t care a bit. I walked away joyful, peaceful, and full of energy. And in Harlem, certainly not one of the safest places for a redhead with a limp, I hadn’t felt an ounce of fear. 

Long before these experiences, I’ve wrestled with why I so boldly share my faith in some situations and am so reticent in others. It seems that for every time I’ve dared to speak the truth, there’s another time I’ve held back. And since I want to grow so badly, I’ve been trying to find the root of the problem, because I know that to just try to treat the symptoms (just talk about Jesus already!), without identifying what’s up in my heart is just going to keep me walking in circles. 

So, what was the difference between Manhattan Hope and Harlem Hope?

I think a big part of the answer can be summed up in one phrase: losing face

But before I dive into this awesome sociolinguistic concept (Don’t leave! It’ll be worth it!), I want to make it clear that I am talking about sharing faith in an American context where there is virtually no risk. 

I am NOT talking about: 

  1. Strategic missions within a closed country

I completely understand that it is often unwise for missionaries hoping to ignite a church-planting movement to go around on the street talking about Jesus to everyone they meet. In persecuted regions, missionaries often have to build trust and build relationships before they can share the gospel in a way that carries weight to the hearer, poses minimal threat to the local church community, and is likely to spark a church planting movement. What might be simply bold in the US could be foolhardy in certain countries. 

2. A one size fits all approach to evangelism 

I believe that much of the evangelism we are called to is within organic relationships. And as each relationship is different, the way that you express and contextualize your faith might be different. Not every conversation calls for a full gospel presentation. And as apologist Randy Newman says, in this day and age, many people “aren’t even spiritually awake.” They don’t often think in terms of the spiritual, so a question that might have resonated to 80% of Americans in the 50s, “Do you know where you’re going when you die?” might not be the best starting point. Rather than leading with that question, seek to first “spiritually wake your friend up” by asking for his thoughts on spiritual things in general. 

What I’m talking about in this article is the heart issue of reluctance to share when you have a green-light opportunity like I did with the “inner smile” lady. It’s a heart issue, but it’s also an issue of culture and language. And man, do I love a good intersection of faith, culture, and language!

Although I couldn’t get a job with my linguistics degree (thanks for the warning, Gordon), what I learned in undergrad continues to connect with the way I live out my faith (so thanks, Gordon, really). My favorite thing to talk about, as my longsuffering roommate can attest, was “Face-Threatening Acts.” I loved talking about FTAs because they seemed to explain a lot of my awkwardness in social interactions and why guys didn’t ask girls out as much as I thought they should. FTAs are: “statements or requests that could make the hearer feel pressured or embarrassed. The seriousness of an FTA is measured by the culturally defined amount of imposition in the request and the social and power distance between the two interlocutors” (Brown & Levinson, 1987, p. 76). 

So basically, an FTA is anything that could be considered a.) impolite or b.) awkward. Another way of putting it is that an FTA is anything that makes you or your listener “lose face.” There are two different types of “face” that we have to lose: negative and positive. “Positive face” refers to “the desire…to be approved of,” and “negative face” refers to “the desire to be unimpeded in one’s actions” (Brown & Levinson, 1987, p. 13).

Brown and Levinson (1987) assert that the way we interact with each other is governed by our attempts to meet the others’ face needs when committing potentially “face-threatening acts” (p. 76). The way we avoid causing others to lose face is through the following “politeness strategies.” 

1.Bald-on No effort to mitigate the FTA, e.g. “Go out with me.”
2.Positive PolitenessInformal and friendly, attends to positive face needs, e.g. “Hey, I think you’re a great person, do you want to go out sometime?”
3.Negative PolitenessAvoids pressuring the hearer, e.g. “If you’re not busy on Friday night, there’s a movie I was wondering if you’d like to see with me.”
4. Off-record A hint, e.g. “I sure wish I had someone to go to the movies with Friday night!”

Brown and Levinson (1987) argue that these politeness strategies are universal, but that different cultures value different face needs in conversation (p. 13). This is where U.S. culture and sharing out faith intersects. In the United States at large, it is taboo to ever threaten someone’s “negative face,” or make them feel as though their freedom has been imposed upon. Americans don’t like to be told what to do. And when they are told what to do, they like the person telling them what to do to pretend that they’re not telling them what to do. That’s why American bosses say, “Could you have this in by Friday?” when in reality, they’re telling you “Finish this by Friday, or else.” Also, in today’s culture, tolerance is lauded as one of the cardinal virtues. If you express an opinion about morality, the culture often labels you as immoral. And as Christians, we’re so steeped in the culture that we fall for the illogical argument that to be an effective witness, we have to act according to the culture’s paradigm of morality in order to share Jesus, whose morality is starkly different from the world’s. So, the first reason that we don’t share our faith is because it has been ingrained in us that we must not make others feel pressured or uncomfortable. 

But honestly, I think that our positive face “needs” are more likely to get in the way of sharing our faith than others’ negative face needs. In the US, we’re big on not imposing our beliefs, but we’re even more into how awesome we are as individuals (maintaining our positive face). A defining characteristic of U.S. culture is an individualism that, on one hand, frees us up to pursue our unique dreams, but on the other hand, puts a laser focus on self and how we appear. At their core, positive face needs have to do with our desire for approval. We want to be liked and approved of by others, and sometimes we justify our cowardice as tolerance, as respect for others’ negative face needs, when in reality, we just don’t want to lose face. 

Putting this all together, sharing our faith in Jesus can be one of the biggest potential face-threatening acts in North American culture because we are threatening both our positive face and others’ negative face to a high degree. We threaten people’s negative face by communicating, “I truly believe that if you need to take action on what I’m saying. It’s actually a matter of life and death.” We threaten our positive face by risking being thought of as crazy, irrational, backwards, stupid, or narrow-minded. And that explains the difference between my two interactions: I didn’t care what Prince thought of me, but I was basking in “inner smile’s” approval, and I didn’t want to lose it.

This isn’t just an American struggle though; it’s a human struggle. John tells us about the leaders who believed in Jesus, “but because of the Pharisees they would not openly acknowledge their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue;for they loved human praise more than praise from God.” (John 12: 42b-43). Ouch. From ancient Israel to modern day American, the fear of losing face has been an issue. 

One thing that helps is remembering that Jesus himself was one walking FTA. He was so intent on speaking the truth that others’ negative face needs were irrelevant. It’s how Jesus didn’t attend to his own “positive face needs” though that is most striking, because if anyone deserved approval and admiration, it was him. But when he was accused of blasphemy, he didn’t speak back. He was willing to lose face because his love for us outweighed his desire for approval. 

As Christians, we are called both to be like Christ and to proclaim what he has done. When we sign up to become a Christian, we sign up to committing FTAs! Jesus says, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” (John 15: 18-20a)

I’ve come up with a question to ask myself the next time I have an “inner smile” conversation, one where all I have to lose is my positive face but I’m still holding back: Whose face?

Whose face are you trying to protect? Your own, Hope? Or the face of Christ, the one you’re representing? 

Whose face is on display? Your own, Hope? Or the face of Christ? 

If I ask these questions, I hope that instead of letting my own “face needs” get in the way, I’ll sacrifice them to share the truth. And I pray that I would grow in desiring the approval of God more than the approval of humans. I know I won’t be perfect, I know I’ll fail, but I also know He’ll help me get up again. So let’s get out there and commit some face threatening acts!

Reference: Brown, P., & Levinson, S.C. (1987). Politeness: Some universals in language usage. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

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