Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Put My Big Foot Right In My Mouth

Written by: on January 31, 2019

Put my big foot right in my mouth I did, and you all were there to witness it. We were de-briefing from our Sunday church worship attendance in Hong Kong. At the big Baptist church (the largest church in Hong Kong), I noticed the Pastor was working so very hard to teach the congregation. He said some great things, a couple I thought were funny. But, not a single person in his church did so much as break a smile or even nod. No one person! Stone faced and straight laced all service long. I thought it was strange, and foolishly I said so in response to a question from Dr. Jase—right in front of every cohort member! Silly me…ignorant me.

Then Stu Cocanougher stood up and showed me the error of my ways. Right in front of every cohort member! He explained that for a Chinese/Hong Konger, to nod or laugh out loud would be to single oneself out in their culture, and they don’t do that. And just because us knucklehead Westerners like to be entertained and we express ourselves publicly, it doesn’t mean their congregation will act like I expected or want them to. Bam! I felt like a heel, and Stu was right.

Obviously, my mind went back to an earlier book we had read, Leading with Cultural Intelligence: The New Secret to Successby David Livermore. I knew better. We had already learned what cultural intelligence was, termed CQ [1], and how to avoid cultural mishaps like the one I just jumped in. Silly me…ignorant me.

Erin Meyer, in The Culture Map: Decoding How People Think, Lead, and Get Things Done Across Cultures, said it best when stating the communication scale, where people in the United States are low-context communicators, and people in places like China and Japan are high-context communicators. [2]

Let’s use this YouTube “Funny Culture Ads” video from HSCB Bank to illustrate the point,

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GOHvMz7dl2A [3]

As Erin Meyer wonderfully stated,

“The moral of the story is clear, you may be considered a top-flight communicator in your home culture, but what works at home may not work so well with people from other cultures.” [4]

I liked this quote even better from Bo’s mother in our book,

“You have two eyes, two ears, and one mouth and you should use them accordingly” [5]

I wish I would have remembered that quote before going on all those mission trips. How was I supposed to know in Kenya it was considered very appropriate that two friends of the same gender walk around holding hands, especially the males. It was not a sign of their sexuality, rather it was a sign of friendship and care. Should have kept my mouth closed in commenting about it.

Likewise, in Iceland, our waiter almost got vitriol when we asked how much tip was appropriate after our meal. Who knew we just offended him greatly? There was no recovering from that one, as he asked that we not return to his restaurant. Stupid Americans!

Even in Bolivia and Guatemala, our perception of time is completely the opposite. I thought when they said church started at 11am, that we actually started at 11am. Silly me. My family and the Pastor were the only persons there. About noon other people showed up, at 1pm the service really kind of began with singing and fellowshipping, and at 2pm I preached the message. Ignorant me.

Would have helped to have the chapter from Meyer titled, “How Late is Late: Scheduling and Cross-Cultural Perceptions of Time.” [6]

I admit I am a linear scheduler [7], and being on time is important to me, especially since it may be considered rude to be late while 4 other people have been “wasting their time” waiting for me. The problem is, I am sure us type A personalities have more stress, higher blood pressure, and die at an earlier age. I should be more flexible…and so should church people in the West when the service goes one-minute past noon (ha ha).

The old adage in my college was a professor could be up to 10 minutes late, with extra time allotted for higher degrees of education. That means Dr. Jase could be up to 25 minutes late, no problem, with his brilliance in education (yes, I am kidding, that was a joke, I just wanted to see if anyone was still reading this).

By the way, I have been trying to connect my Dissertation research to the books we have been reading but have not felt a great connection. For this week’s book, I was reminded that Dave Ramsey does not ship Financial Peace University outside our United States borders. Recently, while visiting Ramsey Solution Headquarters, they stated it is because of the cultural differences. No duh, folks in Africa aren’t setting aside monies in a 401K Roth Ira retirement account…

[1] Livermore, David A. Leading with Cultural Intelligence: The Real Secret to Success Ed. 2. Amacom, 2015.

[2] Meyer, Erin. The Culture Map: Decoding How People Think, Lead, and Get Things Done across Cultures. New York: BBS Public Affairs, 2015. 39.

[3}. HSBC Funny Culture Ads. Tuoxie208. Youtube.com, 2012. Assessed January 30, 2019.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GOHvMz7dl2A

[4] Meyer. 43.

[5] Ibid., 26.

[6] Ibid., 219-240.

[7] Ibid., 227.

About the Author

Jay Forseth

Superintendent of the Western Conference of the Evangelical Church. Blessed with 28 years as the husband of my amazing wife who I can't make it without. Now three of four in our family are attending University, but both my children are way smarter than me.

9 responses to “Put My Big Foot Right In My Mouth”

  1. Chris Pritchett says:

    Jay, you are a humble man and maybe a bit hard on yourself. 🙂 Still, you display keen self-awareness and challenge me to do the same through your example.

  2. M Webb says:

    I laughed quietly in that HK Baptist service you referenced. We are not bound by the fear-shame culture, but we must be sensitive to it nonetheless. I like James 1:19 “quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger” verse. That seems to fit many cross-cultural situations.
    I’m still reading, and I doubt any good Englishperson would ever intentionally be 25 minutes late!
    Nice picture- your hands behind your back in parade rest, and his hands in his pockets. As a cop who studied people and body language, I could tell you a lot about this picture. Lol…
    Foot in mouth disease is only a problem when we do not recognize it, right?
    Stand firm,
    M. Webb

    • Jay Forseth says:


      Please tell me what our body language meant! I am dying to hear it. If I had to guess, mine says “I am not sure if Dave Ramsey wants me to touch him.”

      Tell me more!

  3. Great insight, Jay!

    We’ve all been there. It’s always interesting to see varied reactions that differ from our own. 🙂 I remember visiting family members in North Carolina and getting odd looks from nearby crowds because of my volume. In NJ, we speak quickly and loudly. I’ve learned to curb my volume based upon the culture and regional norms of the area, but I remember thinking it odd how somber everyone was because they spoke more quietly in the south.

    Wow! I never knew that about Dave Ramsey. I wonder if he’s on to something. We believe that everything is culturally relevant, simply because we place it in a different language. However, I wonder how many Christian books remain on the shelves because authors have changed the language and not the context. You mentioned on my post that your area is mostly Caucasian. Do you find that it’s difficult to create a culture that reaches multiple cultures because your context is highly one culture? My culture is highly diversified, so I find it difficult to minister to mostly Caucasian audiences. I definitely have to lean in and try to understand white cultural perceptions.

  4. Dan Kreiss says:


    Your willingness to ask questions that other people are thinking but too afraid of embarrassing themselves means that you gain understanding where many others fail to learn. I’m glad you asked that question in HK. I never would have considered it. So keep on asking.

    I am also glad to know that FPU does not attempt to promote their materially internationally. That is wise on their part. I wonder what that says though about the US culture and our reliance on material things and complete financial security. I like Ramsey’s teaching but again, question whether it would be possible or necessary in a culture that was less materialistic.

  5. Jean Ollis says:

    Jay, you are amazing because you are a humble servant. Your willingness to self reflect and become vulnerable makes all the difference. You cannot be held accountable for something you didn’t know in the moment, but should be held accountable once you do know. Americans struggle to navigate cultures within our own country, let alone cultures outside. How will you approach this cultural gap for future trips or interactions within your own context?

    • Jay Forseth says:

      Jean, Great question! I think I will follow the books advice–“You have two eyes, two ears, and one mouth and you should use them accordingly” (grin).

  6. Shawn Hart says:

    Sorry Jay, I tried to watch that video…determined that I would not smile or chuckle at all. And yet, sitting all alone in my office watching that video by myself, and I still cracked up laughing at the eel clip. Maybe that preacher just wasn’t that funny. LOL.

    It only makes you a heel if you are happy in your ignorance. Believe me when I say, we have all been there.

  7. Kyle Chalko says:

    Nice post Jay. First of all, Dave is short!???? Had no idea. 🙂 5’8″? I’m 5’9″ and I think I stand a little taller to you than he does, not sure though. Love that pic!!! Cant wait to continue to hear more about your meeting with Dave.

    I remember you sharing your comment and was a little frustrated by the sharpness of responses from others, since we are all there in a learning program. And yes I was nodding in agreement with you in your comment about preaching to a still audience, and I just felt lucky I didnt say it. Thanks for your courage to ask, it became a great learning for all of us and we would have missed out on it if you had not asked.

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