Delicate art of being nasty and nice

Delicate art of being nasty and nice

One word we have been subjected to almost on a daily basis recently is "diplomacy" as politicians grapple with the world's woes without much success. A dictionary definition of diplomacy is "tact or skill in dealing with people". Unfortunately it is more complex than that as the world is in such a mess. Perhaps Ambrose Bierce was nearer the mark in his Devil's Dictionary when he described diplomacy as "the patriotic art of lying for one's country".

International diplomacy is a complicated craft and over the years there have been contrasting views of what it involves. However, there is general agreement that it may require some subterfuge to achieve the desired results.

British statesman Winston Churchill did not hide his views on the subject, commenting "Diplomacy is the art of telling people to go to hell in such a way they ask for directions". American journalist Isaac Goldberg had a similar view but expressed it in a more lyrical way with "Diplomacy is to do or say, the nastiest thing in the nicest way".

American author Jim Butcher had an interesting take on diplomacy in his book Turn Coat: "Our idea of diplomacy is showing up with a gun in one hand and a sandwich in the other and asking which you would prefer".

In the 19th century the diplomacy message was sometimes conveyed in a less sophisticated form. According to US president Theodore Roosevelt it was simple: "If you've got them by the balls their hearts and minds will follow".

Playing with words

It is no secret that diplomacy has its own language and that those cautious words of optimism after a crucial meeting might not always be entirely accurate. Here are just a few examples of what is said… and what actually happened:

The signs are definitely encouraging. (Things are looking bleak)

We enjoyed frank discussions. (There was hell of a row)

Our relationship hasn't changed. (We still hate one another)

There is a slight difference in emphasis. (We failed to agree on anything)

Discussions were forthright. (Everybody lied)

There are grounds for optimism. (You'd better start praying now)

The situation is fluid. (We haven't a clue what's going on)

Hands off

Something that goes hand-in-hand with diplomacy is etiquette which has landed quite a few dignitaries in trouble. Touching the Queen of England has always been a no-no apart from a polite handshake.

You may recall at a Buckingham Palace reception in 2009 US first lady Michelle Obama put an affectionate arm around the queen who actually didn't seem to mind and most people thought it a nice gesture. Not the British press however, who gave the first lady a lecture on protocol. She explained later she was enjoying such a friendly chat with the queen her gesture was instinctive.

During Queen Elizabeth's tour of Australia in 1992 prime minister Paul Keating caused a stir when he gently put his hand on her back while introducing her to dignitaries. British tabloids gleefully seized on this breach of protocol and he was quickly dubbed the "Lizard of Oz".

Cold shoulder

George W Bush caught the eye at the G8 summit at St Petersburg, Russia, in 2006. When passing behind a seated Angela Merkel he gave the German Chancellor a brief shoulder massage. Judging from the startled Ms Merkel's reaction it came as quite a surprise although to her credit she laughed off George W's clumsy gesture of friendship.

No immunity

With Songkran fast approaching it might be time for all of us to take cover and move into a diplomatic mode and not do anything foolish in reaction to the water-throwing festivities.

One of the most entertaining examples of "Songkran Rage" took place in Pattaya some years ago. The incident occurred when the wife of a foreign diplomat clipped a Thai youngster around the ear after the nipper had drenched her late at night. It briefly threatened to develop into a diplomatic incident.

While her actions hardly ranked as a "human rights violation" as some claimed at the time, she could have perhaps been a bit more subtle in her reaction. After all it was Songkran and getting wet is what happens at Songkran.

Considering the myriad of misfortunes that could befall a foreigner in Pattaya, she perhaps should have been thankful for just being on the wrong end of a bucket of water, irritating though it might have been.

Purple haze

My thanks to a reader who, following last week's item mentioning a novelty song, sent me the version of "Skin Tight, Pin Striped, Purple Pedal Pushers" for my listening pleasure. It was a 1958 hit written and performed by Sheb Wooley who specialised in novelty songs.

His biggest hit was "The Purple People Eater", a thought-provoking number about a one-eyed, one-horned monster from Space which came to Earth to be a rock star.

The title is a bit ambiguous because it wasn't the monster that was purple but the people it ate. It was a big success in the US and UK and contained the following memorable lines:

"I said Mr Purple People Eater, what's your line?/ He said eating purple people and it sure is fine/ But that's not the reason I came to land/I wanna get a job in a rock 'n roll band."

They don't write lyrics like that any more.

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Roger Crutchley

Bangkok Post columnist

A long time popular Bangkok Post columnist. In 1994 he won the Ayumongkol Literary Award. For many years he was Sports Editor at the Bangkok Post.

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