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Letter from a Nonmember: When Mormon Lingo Causes Problems

In Utah County it happens frequently—use of The Lingo. If a person looks remotely Mormon (appropriate skin coverage, no obvious consumption of contraband) the assumption is they’re LDS. I almost always fall into that category.

A grocery store cashier, with whom I have zero history, will comfortably assess my purchases and happily share, “Those are the best jelly beans—so colorful! I just used them in Primary last Sunday. But not as a food reward.”

Ten years ago I wouldn’t have known what she meant. Today I consider myself partially bilingual, or at a minimum, able to understand and sling most of the lingo. I still get lost with some of the language surrounding priesthood hierarchy, but I recognize what’s being discussed on a macro level.

Calling, Young Women, Young Men, Deacons, Mutual, Relief Society, seminary, priesthood, general conference, stake, fast Sunday, sealing ceremony, temple work or . . . dun dun dun . . . baptisms for the dead. All common words for members, but for non-members, these words truly are foreign and can conjure images that are far from their actual meaning.

Fast Sunday? Sure! Let’s push the pace on our four-mile loop. Stake? I think we have an extra one in the garage you can have. Sealing ceremony? We’re happy to stand around and clap while you caulk those windows. Different strokes!

When I first moved to Utah, I was mostly exposed to Mormon vernacular because people assumed I was LDS. This still happens. But friends and neighbors who knew I wasn’t a member usually took the time to explain an unfamiliar word or phrase, and they always answered my questions. I’ve never felt like someone was using The Lingo in an attempt to exclude me or entice me to learn the language in a more formal setting—Sacrament Meeting (although I know I’m welcome). But, one late afternoon shortly after moving into our new home in 2002, I knocked on a neighbor’s door to see if the kids could come over to play.

“Oh, we’re getting ready to eat. It’s our family home evening,” she said with a smile I couldn’t read.

I perceived her reply as patronizing—she knew we weren’t LDS—although I doubt she intended for me to feel that way. I wasn’t exactly sure what family home evening meant, but it sounded church-y. I was moving through my paranoid (I’m only a missionary opportunity!) and irritated (I’m surrounded by Mormons!) phase of culture shock, so my reply was snippy, and a little manic.

“Okay. Every night is family home evening at our house.” Which it kind of was, but my intentions were rooted in one-upmanship, wanting to prove I was worthy of friendship and that I spoke Mormon even if I wasn’t one.

Eventually, I learned what family home evening was and avoided telephoning neighbors on Monday nights unless I was in dire need of something. At least I knew to politely apologize if I was interrupting FHE. (I can even sling acronyms now. Look at me go!)

When LDS people use Church-specific language, it’s like any other jargon. Unless you know for a fact that everyone involved in the conversation is either LDS or is familiar with the topic, kindly offer to translate. Ideally, a nonmember will out him or herself and ask questions, but sometimes fear that a member will pounce on a missionary opportunity inhibits healthy dialogue. (I sincerely believe this is rapidly changing. I know that friendship and love are the desired outcome whether a person embraces Church teachings or not.)

It’s difficult to compare Utah or The Lingo that is common here to any other place. In Texas, for example, when someone uses a southern word or phrase, it feels light-hearted and fun to explore the regional dialect. There’s no discomfort in asking someone to define his or her terms. Religious context creates the appropriate need for all involved to be respectful. But there’s nothing disrespectful about politely asking someone, “What does that mean?” Some people are inexperienced in direct communication surrounding religion, and others simply aren’t interested.

I don’t believe it’s rude to use words that are descriptive of life experiences when speaking with nonmember friends. Mormons go to sacrament meeting, mission calls arrive, people receive priesthood blessings and are set apart for callings. I’d feel hurt if my LDS friends edited the bulk of their lives because they feared offending me. However, I do believe it’s important and kind to ensure that all in the conversation speak the language—which can take time for a nonmember to learn, understand, and trust the intentions of its use.

LDS Lingo is similar to my husband’s marketing jargon. Over the years I’ve learned about SERP, affiliate network, gross impressions, and reputation management. He refrains from engaging in marketers-only discussions when I’m the only non-marketing professional in the group. He has patiently answered my questions and educated me so we can communicate about things that are happening and relevant when we’re apart. And? I’m not a CMO (Chief Marketing Officer), but I love one deeply.

So, I offer to my LDS friends the same advice my husband offers to me when I need to be aware of my word choice. Know your audience. Or? Know thy audience.

Watch more LDS and non-LDS people, including Chrisy, weigh in on the lingo topic at studio5.ksl.com, or read more of Chrisy's blog at ]chrisyross.com.