When Debriefing, Leave Your Shoes—and Socks—at the Door

by Craig Thompson on February 28, 2018

When we first moved to Asia, one of the customs we needed to learn was not wearing shoes in someone’s home. It’s one of those cultural things. But starting out, we had our reasons for wanting to leave our shoes on. It’s convenient. What about the holes in my socks? I don’t want you to smell my feet—and I don’t want to smell yours! It just doesn’t feel right.

But It didn’t take long for going shoeless inside to become our habit, and even our preference. Then we’d fly back to the West and upon landing we’d again be in the land of most-people-wear-shoes-in-the-house. Of course, we still could take ours off, and we often did. But sometimes it was easier just to leave them on. Then it was back on the plane (where, a recent headline proclaims, you should never take your shoes off), and we’d start to reset our minds about a whole range of things.

Back and forth. Back and forth. It can all get pretty confusing. Sometimes we need help sorting things out—things much bigger and deeper than clothing choices. A great opportunity for processing on those issues, whether you’re finishing a term, or a lifetime, overseas, is a set-aside time for in-depth, personal debriefing. And for that kind of debriefing, regardless of the location, shoes, and socks, don’t belong.

OK. Now I’ve moved to speaking figuratively, so let me continue in that vein and talk a little about feet. Most of us aren’t that crazy about how ours look. There are crooked toes, calluses, bunions, blisters, unclipped or ingrown toenails, and pasty-white skin. And then there’s that smell. Yes, missionaries may have the beautiful feet of Romans 10:15, but they don’t always seem that way to the ones who own them—thus the socks and shoes. Debriefing, though, should be about openness and trust, showing your feet, so to speak, as they truly are. But that’s not always easy.

Maybe you’d like to keep your running shoes on. Debriefing is just another mile marker in your race from agency to church to summer camp to appointment. You’re on a tight schedule, and while you’re tired and thirsty, the most you can do is grab a paper cup of water as you run by. Even when you stand still, you’re jogging in place.

Or maybe you don’t want to take off your work boots. You come to debriefing only reluctantly. This is your spouse’s idea or your team suggested it or maybe your agency told you you had to come. So you make phone calls during the breaks and answer emails until late at night. Mental multitasking keeps your thoughts half a world away.

Or maybe it’s your dress shoes that you don’t want to take off. You’re ready for the debriefing questions the same way you’d be ready for a job interview or performance evaluation. It’s like when your boss asks you “What’s your greatest weakness?” The trick is to come up with something that sounds honest but doesn’t reveal too much, maybe even sneaking in a strength, all the while avoiding the too obvious “I struggle with being a perfectionist” or “Sometimes I just care too much.” When you’re asked how you are, you say “fine” and tell how well your ministry is going.

That’s not the way debriefing should be. Effective debriefing requires barefoot honesty and vulnerability. But I do need to add here that that’s not solely on you (no pun intended). You need to be in the right environment, the right culture, to bare your feet. Not everyone can offer that.

You probably don’t share everything with your agency, church, supporters, or family, because they’re, well, your agency, church, supporters, or family. And that’s what makes the debriefings offered by independent member-care individuals and organizations so valuable. Yes, debriefing can cost money and time that you could spend elsewhere, but it also has so much to give in return.

It has experienced facilitators who know the right questions to ask and who know how to listen, even to words unsaid. They see beyond your status as a missionary, knowing how much your vocation impacts you, yet knowing that there is much more to your identity. They won’t decide your future but can help you figure out the path ahead. They are safe. They are encouraging. They won’t report to others what you tell them but, if needed, can guide you to those who can give you more care.

And if you join with a group of other missionaries for debriefing, you get the extra blessing of forming a community that speaks the same language (and I’m not talking about English here), that can relax around each other, that can laugh at shared jokes and cry over shared losses, that can find comfort in each other’s quiet presence.

No one can demand your trust, but your trust can be earned. No one can make you take off your shoes, but when the ground below you becomes holy, removing your shoes becomes a natural response. And it will invite those around you to a deeper level of honesty.

When you travel abroad, pick up on the cues where you are and follow their shoe-wearing customs. When you fly, you should strongly consider leaving your shoes on (seriously, here’s another article on that topic). When you go to debriefing—and I encourage you to do so—I hope you’ll be able to leave your shoes, and socks, at the door. It’s one of those cultural things.

[photo: “Shoes,” by Long Road Photography, used under a Creative Commons license]

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About Craig Thompson

Craig and his wife, Karen, along with their five children, served as missionaries in Taipei, Taiwan, for ten years before returning to southwest Missouri. His experiences, as well as conversations with other cross-cultural workers, have made him more and more interested in member care and the process of transitioning between cultures. Craig blogs at ClearingCustoms.net.

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