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.”) 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.
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!” 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.
 Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, 1st ed (New York: Pantheon Books, 2012).
 Romans 7:19. NET Bible. 1996-2006 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com