I’ve been called diplomatic many times. By friends, by family. And I can tell from their tone that they don’t mean it as a compliment. Though it is not exactly a criticism either.
To them, I am diplomatic the way some people are vegans or Mormons. It is peculiar. And perhaps a tad unfortunate. Why can’t I be “stronger”? Why can’t I “tell it like it is”? So, in their dictionary, diplomacy is synonymous with weakness and deception.
Nothing can be further from the truth. Being diplomatic has nothing to do with weakness or deception. It is about finding common ground. It is about increasing “we-ness”. History shows us it works.
To unite blacks and whites in post-apartheid South Africa, Nelson Mandela did not pontificate from the pulpit. That would have caused the blacks to feel more victimized and the whites to feel alienated. Instead he found common ground: rugby. A game loved by blacks and whites. In mentoring the Springboks, the national rugby team, to win, he used the game to melt differences and unite the country.
Ronald Reagan, Hollywood idol turned president, was an avid capitalist. Gorbachev, on the other hand, was a committed communist who rose through the ranks. But they recognized their common ground: they both wanted to move past tense politics and end a nuclear standoff. Initially, Reagan thought “Gorbachev is a communist and can be expected to act like one.” But after spending time with him, he realized “he is also a man, not that different from me – a national leader who wants the best for his people.” In the language of politics, these leaders were ‘diplomatic’. In the language of human relations, these leaders merely chose more ‘we-ness’ instead of more me-ness.
Even on the personal front, many of us pre-empt arguments and escalations by seeking ‘we-ness’. The spouse who chooses a film that she and her husband can both enjoy. The parent who chooses a restaurant where everyone in the family can find something nice to eat. The sales negotiator who tries to settle on an amount that is ‘neither mine nor yours’ but something in between.
‘We-ness’ keeps things on an even keel. It helps us move forward.
So, why is looking for ‘we-ness’ unpopular in the culture? Instead, why do we associate blunt talk and bravado with strength and ‘we-ness’ with weakness or pussyfooting?
A core reason, of course, could be our primeval tendency to separate, as opposed to unite. To hold on to your beliefs, as opposed to changing them. But a deeper cultural reason could be this: Perhaps because we believe victory, for it to be legitimate, must be total and absolute. Lest we become ‘losers’. “Don’t let people walk all over you” is a common instruction we receive from our elders.
So, we fight for every inch. But we don’t realize that a partial victory where both people are happy is better than a complete victory where one is ecstatic and the other is crushed. The total wellbeing in the system is higher in the first case. And higher total wellbeing keeps things on an even keel, it helps parties move forward. Diplomats understand this social-emotional arithmetic. And they are willing to increase it by trading the absolute with the relative, popularity with balance.
One doesn’t need to be an international diplomat to adopt ‘we-ness’. It can be used in the everyday. For example, your new boyfriend or girlfriend shares a song with you. When you first hear the song, you don’t like it that much. But then you realize the lyrics are interesting. The use of the cello is good. And the emotional longing in the singer’s voice is moving. Though you don’t enjoy the cumulative impact of the song, there are some elements in it that you like. And these elements – meaningful lyrics, unusual instruments, emotional power – are things both you and your boyfriend/girlfriend like.
So, by noticing these things and talking about them you increase the sense of “we-ness” between you and him/her. If people feel a higher sense of ‘we-ness’ in a relationship, they are inspired to be gentler, more patient and more creative.
We live in a world that teaches us to recognize and act on our differences more and more – be it in the macro field of society or in the micro field of family and relationships. We are encouraged to see diplomacy and collaboration as “weak” and decisive, unilateral action as “strong”. But the world today is far more diverse and unpredictable than it used to be. The days of chasing ‘absolute and total victory’ are over. Now is the time to embrace the philosophy of partial victories and partial defeats, to “win some and lose some”. Our future together will be richer for it.
And if friends or family accuse you of being diplomatic, of not taking sides, tell them, “if being diplomatic means I seek common ground so we can move forward, then I am happy to be diplomatic.”