Several years ago, I needed a part-time job and so I applied for a sales position at a car dealership in Toronto. To say the interview went differently from expected would be a vast understatement. Instead of the normal one-on-one exchange, I was instructed to sit around an L-shaped table with a dozen other applicants. It would be a “group interview.” Terrific.
As soon as the last individual sat down, the sales manager rose and walked to the front of the room. He was a short guy, bald, and carried an ego that weighed more than the average ten men combined. What unfolded next was one of the strangest, quirkiest, and most thought-provoking exchanges I ever encountered.
“You know what I hate,” he said, “I hate it when people Grin-f*** you.”
Really? I thought to myself. This is the type of conversation we’re going to have? It had been a long day, and I had just come to apply for a job to see if I could sell cars. Nothing more. Besides, if I wanted a lesson on profanity, I would have just gone out to play hockey. As if anticipating my inner thoughts, the man continued by defining his term.
“Yup. Grin-f***ers are those people who look you in the face, smile, but then cut you down behind your back.” And for the next fifteen minutes, he went on a bit of a tirade, lambasting other sales companies that interviewed applicants but never told them the truth. To rectify this hiring crisis, for the next hour, he told us the truth or at least told us his truth.
- “Jim, I noticed you were three minutes late. You think I want to hire a guy like that?”
- “Armando, your posture stinks. Sit up straight.”
- “Frank, you’re making $70,000 working for X? Quit your job this week and you’ll make double that with me. I guarantee.”
- “Ezra, what’s a bleeping pastor doing here anyway?” And as if thinking through his words more carefully, he clarified, “I’ll have you know I am a devoted man of God.”
Needless to say, no one fell asleep during the meeting. We left with the promise that those individuals he had hand-selected would receive a call within 48-hours. My phone never rang, but the lesson I learned that day stuck with me.
The Value of Words
I’ll admit, my heart has been heavy this week watching all the developments in Ukraine. I’ve been as turned off by all the political grandstanding and empty promises as many of my friends have. Promises by Prime Minister Putin that he had no intention of keeping. Promises by President Biden to “stand with Ukraine” without offering any real economic sanctions that would deter Putin’s aggression. To avoid the expletive term my salesman friend used, this is what I could call grin-cutting.
Grin-cutting carries the same definition as the more vulgar alternative. It’s smiling at someone while cutting them down behind their back. This happens in many forms.
Just the other day, I sat in the home of one of my neighbors. She attends a local church. After some discussion, she mentioned in an offhand manner that she had not attended this church for the past month. When I asked why, she said, “Well, I was sitting in my chair before service started when I overheard two couples in front of me cutting down someone else in the church. I just thought to myself, this is so wrong.”
The sad reality is it’s unlikely these individuals have any idea what they just did. Barring a moral awakening, they will probably continue to cut others down as they have always done and never know the pain they created in the process.
Over the past year, I’ve received a bit of criticism for some of the guests I’ve invited on The Monday Christian (something I deeply value, by the way, because it shows people care). A guest was too conservative, too liberal, or too provocative. Because of this, David and I have talked about this off-air and had discussions about whether we should offer more disclaimers or even have a segment before and after guests come on the podcast to clarify that “we might not agree with everything they say.”
But I believe we have landed on a better approach. Instead of inviting someone on, nodding our heads in agreement to all they say, and then cutting them down after they’re off the call, we’ve decided to have the conversation with the individual present. And so, before every podcast, I talk with David, and we discuss if there is anything the author has written that differs from our beliefs. If there is we will bring our disagreements to the guest and have a conversation face-to-face, or screen-to-screen. We do this because straightforward conversation beats backdoor slandering every time.
Personally, I don’t have a grand tale of ways I’ve been hurt by the church. I think the church is messy, but I love and have had so many great relationships with people inside the church. I wouldn’t trade them for anything! That said, the few times I have been wounded by someone in the church were always grin-cutting moments. I learned afterward through a third party that someone who smiled and was nice in person said something that cut me down behind my back. I overheard someone saying something they thought I couldn’t hear. Those times sting because they are unexpected. And when those breaks occur, no smile can ever repair the damage.
The Politics of Grin-Cutting
Grin-cutting masks a sharp jibe with a smile. It extends the right hand of friendship while simultaneously thrusting a dagger with the left. It’s church community leaders smiling and saying to,
- Women: “You have God-given speaking abilities, but because you are a woman, there is no meaningful opportunity to ever use your gifts in church.”
- Same-Sex Attracted Men: “Jesus loves you, but until you get a girlfriend, get married, and have some babies, you’re in no position to lead others.”
- Minority Christians: “We are excited you’ve joined our service so long as you conform to our majority culture style of worship.”
- Rescue Shelter Volunteers: “We love the poor, but please do not speak out in our church about social justice.”
- Special Needs Adults and Children: “You are wonderful, but our church structure wasn’t built for people like you.”
- Conservative Fundamentalist Believers: “You are welcome, but your old-school beliefs have little to teach our current, inclusive generation.”
Grin-cutting is and will always be power-driven. If the culture of the church is suits and ties, those who don’t follow suit (a pun) are silently dismissed. If the culture is skinny jeans and a flannel shirt, the dude who walks in with a suit is weird and excluded. If a church is mostly conservative, anyone who raises social justice concerns is woke. If a church is more liberal, any Christian that raises concerns about sexual ethics and morality is seen as a prude from the evil “Purity Culture” era.
At the heart of grin-cutting is contempt. It’s smiling, while inwardly thinking, I am a stronger, more mature, and better Christian than others. It’s stacking our greatest strengths against other people’s greatest areas of weakness and keeping score. It’s saying, “Because you believe X, I have little to learn from you and will never offer you an equal seat at the Christian table of fellowship.”
Unfortunately, it appears Christians sometimes take their lead from politicians and become master conversation navigators. I’ve done this myself. I’ll talk to someone face-to-face but avoid saying what I really think. I’ll dress up my language to say something I know they will like, but after they are gone, I might say what I really think to a friend. “John is a great guy, but I’m worried about him because of X.”
Why do I do this? Why do we do this? I think for a variety of reasons. We might want to protect the relationship. We fear what another person’s response might be, or we create unhealthy bonds with third parties by talking about our grievances.
Like the politician, it’s easy to work a room and know how to say what others want to hear. For example, when I speak with my Canadian friends, it’s easy to talk about the world one way and when I’m with my American friends, talk about the world through a different lens. Some of this isn’t wrong and goes back to what Paul said about being all things to all people.
There is nothing wrong with contextualization, but there is a major problem with being disingenuous and grin-cutting.
The Grocery Store Test
So, what do we do? How do we avoid grin-cutting others? One way is through using what I call the “Grocery Store” Test.
Have you ever stopped by the grocery store (Albertsons in my case) to pick up something for supper, look down the aisle, and see someone you’d rather avoid? [Jeremy Howard, if you’re reading this, I’m thinking of you.] Suddenly, you think little of the vegetables and fruit you were looking at and spend the next ten minutes doing all you can to get out of the store undetected.
This is a practice I have resolved to avoid in my life. Simply put, aside from abusive relationships, I refuse to allow any relationship in my life to sour to the point where I would avoid someone’s presence. Sure, there are some I might not want to spend the holidays with and there is a place for healthy boundaries, but there will not be one relationship where I did not have the guts to look someone in the eyes and be honest. This doesn’t mean I go around telling everyone their flaws, but it does mean I do my best to say to people’s faces what I wouldn’t even say behind their backs.
Again, this is an area I struggle to get right. It’s common I’ll have a conversation with someone, start chatting about someone else, and then feel checked mid-sentence. Sometimes it’s too late and the damage has already been done, but other times I just stop and say, “I’m sorry, what I was about to say was not helpful.”
Unfortunately, the price to be paid for grin-cutting is often one passed on to the watchful eyes of children. They notice everything. Those unresolved, tension-laced family disputes? Yup, they see them. People who we once considered close are now excluded from our inner circle? They understand.
If you, like me, have struggled with grin-cutting, I challenge you to break the cycle. Initiate a conversation. Seek to understand the people you have cut down. Make it an ongoing practice to apologize to friends whenever you find yourself grin-cutting someone else.
Follow the words of Colossians 4:6 and “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.”