The perils of context collapse in diplomatic messaging

December 27, 2023 09:30
Photo: Reuters

There’s a story I very much enjoyed telling some of my debating students – back when I was an active coach.

Consider a close circle of friends, Bob, Mary, Sue, and Thornton. Through years of fraternisation and growing up together, they have come to develop a shared language of their own. This language is no different from the language spoken by those around them, but for the fact that the trading of apparent barbs and what would otherwise be perceived as insults, are in fact used and viewed as terms of affection by the group of friends.

For instance, “Idiot!” is used in place of a complimentary “Brilliant!”, and “You’re an awfully rude person”, is a codified way of saying, “You’re fantastically kind – thank you.”

One day, a gentleman Tom – for the first time in ten years – makes the case for his being accepted into this close circle of friends. He has previously made several attempts at joining this group, and finally succeeds in convincing Bob, Mary, Sue, and Thornton, impressing them with his sincerity and persistence. Upon admission, he is greeted with, “You are an awfully rude idiot!”. The beaming faces and warmth of the pre-existing members stand in stark contrast against Tom’s vexed frown – he clearly did not expect the insult. Enraged, Tom punches one of the group members, and is thus swiftly kicked out of the group, with Bob and Thornton slapping him in retaliation.

As farcical as this hypothetical example (or parable) is, there’s some grain of relevance to the events featured in this narrative. It is apparent that there had been a serious miscommunication between Tom and the four ‘originals’. Additionally, the said miscommunication takes place due to what the original company of friends has come to internalise and naturally rationalise as a harmless compliment, and its infuriating the newcomer, who is clearly neither familiar with the actual intended meanings of the words spoken, nor cognizant of the distinctive discursive norms attached to this group of friends.

Now, it would be tempting to reduce the moral of the story to: be wary of miscommunication across disparate contexts, or, be careful of the way one’s words are perceived by others, especially those who do not share one’s background. Yet we can easily tweak the hypothetical story slightly, to come up with the following version: it is customary – and indeed rather harmless and widely accepted – that Bob, Mary, Sue, and Thornton, would talk behind one another’s backs. Within the specific group setting, doing so is not only not viewed as an act of discourtesy or offense, but in fact a sign of respect: after all, precisely because they do not want the subject in question to feel upset, this is why whoever is trash-talking another group member would conceal their misgivings from the subject of their criticism.

Suppose Tom inadvertently overhears the existing group commenting on his vulnerabilities. He thus proceeds to lash out at the group. Here, the issue becomes more complex: it is apparent that there is no mistranslation or miscommunication here. The group obviously believes that he possesses crucial flaws. For the original four members, trash-talking is a sign of respect for Tom. To Tom, however, the internal conversations between the four friends are hurtful, damaging, and fundamentally disrespectful. What we’re witnessing here is more than just the controversial and often perniciously undermining nature of incessant gossip – it’s the phenomenon of context collapse that is increasingly ubiquitous amongst certain countries’ diplomatic corps.

Diplomats bear the primary responsibilities of communicating – and defending with passion and sensibility – their countries’ interests and official stances to the world. It is their mantle to liaise and engage in an efficacious manner with critical stakeholders in other countries, including governments, diplomats, and key politicians and intellectual leaders. Diplomats are, first and foremost, required to be debonair and urbane in their mannerisms, whilst forceful and uncompromising in their defense of their country’s interests. At the very least, this is what the ideal archetype of a diplomat should look like – in a world where diplomats’ remit consists solely of inter-national and inter-governmental dealings. We do not fault or punish diplomats for coming across as sincere, deferential, and genuinely interested in learning from or responding to the cultural norms, traditions, and values of other countries.

Yet in an ever-changing world with an increasingly complex diplomatic environment, where it is substantially easier for citizens within a country to track the movements, rhetoric, and actions of their diplomats, and where all it takes for one to opine with confidence on one’s country’s foreign policy is for one to have a TikTok or Twitter account, it is all but understandable that diplomats are engaging with more than one set of standards and contexts. The first context may be the key political and economic stakeholders in their states of postings. The second context would then be the public and masses in their target states. The third context to cater to, in turn, would be the domestic public – and the political forces that are beholden to popular opinion.

It is for this reason that diplomats across the world, including those representing purportedly large and regionally significant powers, must navigate an increasingly fine line. Indeed, the Bob, Mary, Sue, and Thornton of this world are precipitously caught between a hard place and a rock. On one hand, they must seek to preserve the ‘engrained norms’ concerning how they deliberate, discuss, and debate over particular matters – talking behind others’ backs, calling one another idiots, is evidently something that works, and has worked for them, internally; on the other hand, they must bear in mind that Tom does not, and has yet to develop the capacity to, understand the way they speak as intended. When contexts collide, when the boundaries defining the separation between contexts collapse, how are diplomats to speak?

For me, as a relatively uninvolved and unimportant observer, the answer is ever so obvious. The priority should be in placating and courting the hearts and minds of those who are ‘new’ to the concept, to the culture, and to the community that the diplomats have sought for decades to stake out – diplomats must please the crowds of where they are posted, first and foremost, in exchange for practical concessions and breakthroughs. Yet such logic is not necessarily shared by the Toms of this world, who may choose to appraise the rhetoric and actions of diplomats harshly, perhaps unfairly, and most certainly in a way that distorts or misrepresents what they are doing. There is hence no easy answer or choice to make for the mid-ranking diplomat – who is likely to be seeking a promotion, a reshuffle, or a career-making opportunity to rise above the fray, and to be offered a leg up in the never-ending jockeying for power and influence. The perils of the resultant context collapse are as clear as the writing on the wall – more bellicosity, more estrangement and distance between the public in the country to which the diplomat is posted and the diplomat, and a growing sense of frustration held by many who find engagement with the said diplomat a futile and unrewarding exercise.

It is one thing to play to domestic supporters back home. It is another to have one’s diplomatic repertoire completely dictated and determined by such domestic sentiments. Diplomats deserve better than Toms (or Bobs) that breathe down their necks and twist their words into lies.

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Assistant Professor, HKU