We’re in the early stages of potty training our toddler. If you walk past our house, you’re likely to hear our daughter saying, “I go pee!” Or you’ll hear her mispronounce particular body parts at the top of her voice while I try not to laugh.
We live in the Dominican Republic as Christian missionaries, and the term people use here for “potty training” is control de esfínteres, or literally “sphincter control.”
That term cracks me up. We Americans use a cute, euphemistic term because adults are uncomfortable using bathroom language in public. Dominicans just call it what it is.
But it makes sense why the two cultures use their respective terms. In the US, we assume everyone has a toilet in their home. Here in the DR, and in many other parts of the world, that’s not the case.
Assumptions and Cultural Expectations
In 2019, before our daughter was born, my husband and I went on a short-term mission trip to Guatemala. Our team replaced a roof and held a health clinic for students at an elementary school.
A handful of the students lived in a landfill. They were smart and playful and polite, and very clean. I wouldn’t have known they lived in a landfill if someone hadn’t told me. My biases or assumptions tell me that someone living in a landfill would look, act, and smell a certain way, but these children looked no different than any of the other students at the school.
The woman who ran the school program that cared for the kids said it wasn’t always that way.
When the kids first started going to the school, some of them had to learn how to use a toilet. She wasn’t talking about sphincter control; they had that down. She meant that the kids didn’t have toilets in the landfill, so they didn’t know how to use them. One of the kids was so afraid of toilets that he would just go on the floor next to them instead of in them.
So a term such as “potty training” wouldn’t make sense in this context. Control de esfínteres is more appropriate because it doesn’t assume that people have toilets.
Maybe this is a strange story to use to highlight my point, but this same issue of assumption can apply in how we talk about faith. Our language doesn’t always fit the people we talk to. Our assumptions can create communication gaps rather than build bridges. In digital spaces, this issue is especially complex.
Recognizing Our Assumptions
Language is full of assumptions. As I write this, I’m assuming you, the reader, are a Christian who has some familiarity with the Bible and Jesus and who has some digital proficiency. If I wanted this blog to be for people who aren’t familiar with Christianity and aren’t in online spaces, I would write a completely different article and publish it somewhere else.
Making assumptions about you helps me figure out what to say and how to say it.
But say my assumptions are way off. Maybe you’re not a Christian. Maybe you don’t partake in any faith or religion. The connection I’m trying to make with you has already broken and the assumptions haven’t served me, or our relationship.
In digital spaces, we are accustomed to seeing argumentative and sometimes hateful language. We have automatic reactions to people who write such things; we assume they aren’t open to listening to people who disagree. If I post something about faith without carefully considering my language, you might get angry and think, “Great, she’s one of those people.”
We’re definitely not going to have a constructive conversation about faith.
If I want to build bridges of communication we can both walk across, I need to recognize that my words carry assumptions, and I need to understand what those assumptions are. In digital spaces, which have their own customs and about which we carry assumptions too, I need to work especially hard at this.
Adjusting Our Language
Once I identify my assumptions, I can start figuring out whether those assumptions are helpful, and I can think about how to change my language to avoid unhelpful assumptions. I also must take into account the purposes and challenges of each digital space I am using.
One way I can adjust my language is by acknowledging that you may have differing opinions. This shows that I am humble, which you may interpret as approachable.
I also can invite you to share your opinions to show that I value your perspective and therefore you as a person. I leave room for faith to be discussed—but later in the conversation, after I listen to you.
If used thoughtfully, online spaces can be great places for conversations to happen. Thoughtful language can open a respectful dialogue by creating a space in which you feel seen and accepted.
In digital spaces, communicating about faith is especially tricky. I need to be aware of how my assumptions affect you and be willing to change my language to help you be more comfortable. I also need to understand how each digital space is naturally isolating and carefully navigate those spaces to invite you in instead of leaving you out.
When you talk to people about faith, what words do you use that carry assumptions about those people? How can you navigate those assumptions to foster respectful faith conversations in digital spaces?