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

Why I Simply Must Buy New Shoes

Written by: on April 5, 2018

A few years back I was at a conference for American missionaries serving in France. One of the keynote speakers was the Director of the National Council of French Evangelicals (NCFE) and he was asked to teach about how missionaries could best be of service to the Kingdom of God in France—a large topic to be sure. He covered it well, emphasizing the importance of partnerships between nationals and foreigners. But in the middle of his presentation, stepping away from his notes and clearly going “off-script,” he graciously yet passionately identified some of the things that foreign missionaries do (or don’t do) that simply rub French people the wrong way.

One of the things that came out of that unplanned “aside” was that French people notice American shoes. He seemed to suggest that when missionaries from the United States wear American shoes (typically sneakers!) instead of French shoes, it sends the message that French shoes are not good enough. Missionaries who wear American shoes are immediately judged as uncommitted to the French way of doing things.

The following year I returned to the same conference. There was a different speaker and a different topic being addressed, but in one of the larger sessions, a discussion broke out about the “shoe comment” that had been made by the Director of the NCFE the year before. Missionaries were outraged by the idea that something as little as shoes would be used as a measure of their commitment and authenticity. They called the assertion “petty.” It didn’t make sense—missionaries spend years raising support to come to France, they then spend years learning the language and navigating French administration to obtain visas, shouldn’t those things prove a missionary’s devotion?

I was surprised that so many missionaries had been deeply offended by the Director’s words, since they had actually resonated with me. In fact, David and I had already decided that we wanted to “buy French” in everything from home furnishings to clothing. It felt like a way to visibly and concretely reflect the internal adjustments and adaptations we had been making to the French culture. For us, it was even a spiritual act of worship—dying to our American-ness so that a semblance of French-ness might be brought to life in us.

All of the other missionaries in the room would have agreed that cultural adaptation is essential for missionary effectiveness, but most were also convinced that adaptation could be perceived “reasonably”—through a rational comprehension of the enormous efforts that missionaries make in moving abroad. What the Director of the NCEF unwittingly revealed was that cultural biases have an enormous impact on perception, whether or not those biases are “reasonable.”

To understand what might be happening in a French mind when meeting an American missionary, Jonathan Haidt’s analogy of the Elephant and the Rider is apropos. In the book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, Haidt explores the relationship between morality and psychology, explaining that intuition plays a bigger role than reason when determining what humans consider to be “moral.” (He says, “intuition is the best word to describe the dozens or hundreds of rapid, effortless moral judgements and decisions that we all make every day.”)[1] In the Elephant and the Rider analogy, Haidt compares two kinds of cognition and explains their relationship to each other. In his understanding, controlled processes, including reasoning are like a Rider on top of a large Elephant; but automatic processes, like intuition, are the Elephant.[2]

Haidt says that the Rider has some influence, but its main role is to serve the Elephant.  Rationalist don’t like to believe this. Especially Christian rationalists! But perhaps this explains a bit of what Paul was getting at when he said, “For I do not do the good I want, but I do the very evil I do not want!”[3] This is why peoples’ explicit behaviours often contradict their implicit beliefs. According to Haidt, our intuitions have developed through evolution and been influenced by both nurture and nature, and their impact on our behaviour is quick, unconscious, and profound. In other words, before my mind has the time to make a rational decision about whether I like a person or not, the Elephant has already started leaning one direction. The Rider can influence the Elephant—that is to say my reason can try to move the Elephant in a desired direction, but if the Elephant has already started to lean one way, it takes great effort to move the Elephant in the opposite way. More often than not, the Rider simply accepts the direction that the Elephant has chosen and goes to work trying to justify that direction with reason.

So back to the shoes…what the Director of the NCFE had revealed to the group of missionaries was that whether or not it made any sense, when a French person sees a missionary wearing American shoes, their Elephant lunges in negative direction. Evolution and history have created a negative bias towards strangers in the French mind, and foreign shoes send a warning signal to the French subconscious, and the Elephant leans. The French people are NOT trying to be influenced by shoes. Most of them probably don’t even know that they are being influenced by shoes. So the fact that the Director of the NCFE was able to identify this bias was actually quite impessive. Missionaries can argue reason until the cows come home, but it won’t change the Elephant of French cognition.

It seems to me that buying French shoes would be the wiser response.

Haidt’s research is critical to what I am learning about missionary adaptation. Obviously, an American missionary couldn’t skip language school and simply buy French shoes. There is a controlled process involved in cultural adaptation. But we would be remiss to assume that cultural adaptation is only a controlled process. Intuition on both sides is at work. Not only do we need to get to know the French Elephant, we need to understand what our Elephant is doing as well.

[1] Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, 1st ed (New York: Pantheon Books, 2012).

[2] Haidt.

[3] Romans 7:19. NET Bible. 1996-2006 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com

About the Author

Jennifer Williamson

Jenn Williamson is a wife and mother of two adult sons. Before moving to France in 2010, she was the women's pastor at Life Center Foursquare Church in Spokane, WA. As a missionary with Greater Europe Mission, she is involved in church planting and mentoring emerging leaders. Jenn benefitted from French mentors during her transition to the field, and recognizes that cross-cultural ministry success depends on being well integrated into the host culture. Academic research into missionary sustainability and cultural adaptation confirmed her own experience and gave her the vision to create Elan, an organization aimed at helping missionaries transition to the field in France through the participation of French partners.

10 responses to “Why I Simply Must Buy New Shoes”

  1. Great post Jenn! I love learning something new about the French culture every time I read your posts (I say the same thing to Greg about China 🙂 ) I also would have to agree with you…go out and shop for those beautiful French shoes so that you can remove any stumbling block from your ministry. I have to say, when we were in Paris we went to the mall called Carrousel du Louvre and were blown away by the one entire floor of the mall devoted to women’s shoes. My wife was in heaven and I was dumbfounded, but we did walk out with a very expensive pair of French shoes for her. I also thought your use of the elephant analogy was brilliant.

  2. M Webb says:

    Thanks for your immersed missionary context about the “shoes.” I can definitely see that as an outward sign to the locals, whether your heart is with them or not, the shoes definitely make a statement until they get to know you.
    I personally did not get too hung up on that when I served and figured it was the drastic differences that made the difference. Color being the biggest one, and then clothes and shoes coming after that. We always hope that if we could get to the “meet” phase, then all our other American faults would soon be forgiven because where we lived, at least in Africa, it was all about the greetings and spending time talking about the weather, family, their health before we ever go into business or ministry. We furnished our rental house with all local stuff, so we did fill that square, and when we moved back to the US, we had an open house for all our staff and it was “help yourself” to the “stuff” the missionaries are leaving behind.
    You are not drinking the Haidt-Darwin “evolution” Kool-Aid I hope, in your comments about how Haidt says our “intuitions have developed through evolution.” I’m not giving him a pass on that. He has not paid his dues for me to give him very much attention for his theological thoughts and ideas.
    It is all about the shoes, but I suggest the “shoes of Peace.” Those are the ones that give us the firm foundation in Christ, sure footedness, and good grip so we can stand our ground in the evil day.
    Stand firm,
    M. Webb

    • Jennifer Williamson says:

      I pray everyday that my feet will be fitted with the readiness of the Gospel of peace. Those lovely feet, that bring Good News….

  3. Greg says:

    Jenn. Interesting discussion on the buying French and the messages it sends. It got me thinking about my own purchases. When we arrived I remember an M saying don’t make your home look like America. That it needs to be comfortable to you but equally comfortable to local people.

    Your topic Jenn is a little scary especially if we are not comfortable with the answers that might arise of local people evaluating foreign workers. We can see ourselves as the saviors of the world-though we’d never admit it-coming from afar to bring the light. It can be hard to hear criticism if we have are blinded by our own service and accomplishments. Not wanting to have the log in my own eye knock someone over, I realize I too am tempted to over inflate my own self worth and importance. Appreciate the thought provoking and self evaluation that this blog has brought.

    • Jennifer Williamson says:

      Greg, my topic is more than scary. Missionaries here seem to feel “attacked” by some of my research. They want to just be accepted and appreciated because they are ministers of the Gospel, and they want to attribute any hostility towards them as evidence of the same. They know their intentions are right and holy and good and so they don’t feel like they should have to justify their means. There was a point when my husband said, “Wow, I think you’re in the ‘piss everyone off’ phase of your project!”

  4. Chris Pritchett says:

    Interesting way to apply Haidt’s work, by considering the American missionary adapting to French culture in light of Haidt’s moral psychology. I’m not sure I was fully able to make the connection, but I see how a French person being offended by American sneakers is like the elephant moving first. I wonder also if an American’s decision to buy sneakers as a missionary in France is similar, especially if that person knew in advance. But, it sounds like you chose the righteous path to go all-in on French culture.

  5. Jason Turbeville says:

    Great insight, I have to admit I was drawn to your post because of your title, not sure what I was expecting but once again great insight. I hear Paul saying I become all things to all men so that by all means I might save some. Buying French seems becoming all things and a great way to remove a barrier.

  6. Jean Ollis says:

    Jenn, I find your story of the shoes fascinating. This is the same theme I found with Haidt’s application of morality to refugee work. The big question is obviously…how much assimilation? Where is the line? I’m on board with getting new shoes though!

  7. Trisha Welstad says:

    My guess is the French probably have better taste in shoes anyway. I focused on a similar part of the text Jenn but loved how you incorporated it into your work. How are people responding to your project? I am so excited for what you are doing, even if you may make some people mad as your husband put it. 🙂

  8. Shawn Hart says:

    Jennifer…great analogy tied into your own mission work in France. I suppose my question is…was the problem the shoes or the American? Had the shoes been made in France, would it have been all the credibility the missionary needed, or would it have been the clothing next? Now the point, I guess the problem most Christians probably have with this is that they have worked diligently to not follow the elephant. Like the missionary, all the time, energy, and money invested, and all they noticed was the shoes…how frustrating. As Christians, the argument is not that there may be an elephant there…the problem is insinuating that they will be more likely to follow the elephant, rather than Jesus who they have worked so hard to follow instead.

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