People’s identities are multi-layered—giving us various possible points of connection with another person. Stereotypes obscure those possibilities, as Afghan Taliban negotiators found when they talked with an Indian-American Muslim diplomat named Tamanna Salikuddin. Tamanna tells how she seeks individuals’ identities to build the trust for negotiations.
How can we work effectively across our world’s cultural divides? USIP and Burning Man Project travel to that frontier, hearing stories and practical lessons for working in unfamiliar cultures. The Culturally Attuned podcast complements USIP’s online, self-paced course on Cultural Synergy. Both help us cultivate the skills we need to do good work in a diverse world.
What box do strangers try to put you in? Is it based on the way you look? Your accent? Maybe a job you have? We have a habit of classifying people by race, nationality, gender and an array of other things, as if these categories reflect something essential about us. But what happens when we turn those expectations to our advantage and find our common humanity?
I’m David Yang, and today on Culturally Attuned we’re going to hear from Tamanna Salikuddin. She’s an American diplomat and negotiator with a multicultural background. She has a habit of throwing all kinds of people for a loop – including the Taliban. Tamanna’s got some tips for navigating American stereotypes and finding common ground that we can all learn from.
I think often we think of cross-cultural environments we think of one defining cultural characteristic that defines an environment but I would, my life as an example, I think none of us are really monoliths of culture or identity. So, myself, I think I identify in a lot of different ways. I have a layered identity. I'm a child of Indian immigrants. I'm a Muslim American. I was born in Atlanta, Georgia, you could say I'm a southern peach, but I actually grew up in Ohio. I'm a big, Ohio State Buckeyes fan. So all of those things are part of my identity. I'm a lawyer. I'm a mom. I've been a bureaucrat most of my life. So, you know, all of these different things make up who I am and what I've been. I've been lucky enough to travel all over the world and be in a lot of different conflict zones. I think it's sometimes confuses, throws off people I'm interacting with trying, people especially in post-modern times, we try to peg everyone into their little box and think of you as one identity defining you. But I think embracing the multitude of identities we have helps us actually connect with people.
And for me, that's definitely been the case. When I'm overseas, in a conflict zone, trying to connect with, whether it’s victims of the conflict, or perpetrators even they're often confused. They're like, how are you American? You sound American, but you don't look American. And different parts of my identity have really helped, I think, make connections and I don't think you have to be any certain identity but we can often make connections.
Sometimes, how other people perceive us differs greatly from the cultural identity we claim as our own. People notice and respond to tangible identity markers, like a person’s nationality or accent. And that can have unexpected consequences when we’re interacting with others.
For example, I spent a long time pursuing U.S.-Taliban talks with the Afghan Taliban.
The Afghan Taliban is a domestic Afghan group, really an insurgency that ruled the country, ruled Afghanistan before 9/11. And they gave some safe haven to al Qaeda. So the U.S. government wasn't necessarily directly at war with them, but because of their safe haven, the U.S. government deposed the Afghan Taliban when we, in 2001. And said that time the Taliban has grown as an insurgency. And so we, on behalf of our partners, the Afghan government have been at war with them. It's fairly clear both sides understand that there is not a military victory in the offing for either side. And so over the last 10 years or so people have been really working to find some sort of political settlement.
And it was really interesting. Many times rather than actually talk about the issue at hand, they were very curious as to what to them seem like this little girl who doesn't look American, how is she the American interlocutor in the room and they found my background very interesting. Many of them had either studied or they loved Bollywood movies, which you wouldn't think about from, you know, international terrorist group. But the Taliban watch movies just like the rest of us, but especially Indian movies and songs, they would take my first name, Tamanna, is actually in a lot of Bollywood songs. And so even the Taliban would start singing songs with my name in it and they would ask me if I was Indian because they had this fondness from their childhood, remembering Indian movies and songs.
At the same time, learning that I was actually Muslim, they felt some sort of connection that maybe they could make their connection to me to prove to me that they weren't all evil and that they weren't you know, they weren't these Boogie men that they were looking that they had some political goals. Obviously, as a U.S. diplomat, I had my own national security interests and political goals, but it did give us space by connecting and understanding that none of us have a singular identity. That we have different interests and we have different facets to our identity, we were able to open up a space for conversation that I think may not have been there if we hadn't explored those. Also, I think it really lowered the tension and maybe some of the inhibitions we come in with. Oftentimes, when you enter negotiations with a non-state armed group, they are very high, there are very high risks and people are very risk averse. There are sort of the barriers to entry, are very high. And so you need to reduce the tension and sort of open the space to build trust, to build confidence before you can actually negotiate any of the hard items in a conflict.
And one of the best ways to build confidence and trust is to actually talk about one another and the viewpoints, worldviews. And while our worldviews might be very, very different, the fact that we could understand some of our starting points and our backgrounds helped.
Since 2008, the U.S. government in fits and starts has tried to pursue a political, a political settlement with the Afghan Taliban in Afghanistan. There have been periods where we've been engaged actively and there have been periods where we really haven't. So in 2015, talks weren't going well and we weren't directly engaged with the Taliban. And so we were in Norway and had a facilitated, let's say dinner with representatives of the Taliban. I was there as one of the U.S. government representatives and representatives of the Afghan government. It was a very quiet, private secret dinner. We as USG people, we're not actually allowed to negotiate. We were not there to negotiate or engage on any substantive parts of conflict. But we could sit and listen to them and we can talk to them. And so I was sitting next to a Taliban, a representative of the Taliban, who in his previous life had been the Deputy Chief of Mission in Islamabad. So he thought of himself as a Taliban diplomat and I was a U.S. diplomat. And so it was really interesting. We really couldn't talk about any issues of substance. So what do you do over a two hour dinner? Well, one thing we could bond over was not knowing what any of this food that we were being served was, you know, assortment of very Norwegian dishes.
And so it was it was a little bit funny actually, we were, you know, he would ask me, what is this? Can I eat this? Is this good? And so we were, our discussion started off a little shakily, but, you know, after a few minutes, we were laughing over these very interesting dishes, we are being served. And that moved on to hearing more about his family, kids, his background, you know, just a silly discussion over foreign food, actually opened the door to more substantive conversation about someone's background and motivations. And we were able to come to a conversation as to why he ended up in the Taliban, because he didn't seem, he had never been a fighter. He had never, you know, he saw himself as a diplomat. He was quite well spoken and spoke several languages. And so for, from a U.S. perspective, that is not the image that you know, most people have of the Taliban. And so by exploring his own multitude of identity and background, we were able to maybe form a little bit of common understanding. And that helped in future times when we met in actual negotiations.
As we heard in previous episodes, finding low-risk touchpoints - making small talk over a meal, perhaps, as in Tamanna’s experience with the Taliban representative - can help lay a foundation for deeper connection. We asked Tamanna about other ways she’s found to build trust.
In any negotiation, or if you're working in conflict zones, I think identifying the humanity is very important, finding some empathy between the two individuals. And really that's about confidence building. I mean, we talked about big confidence building measures and negotiations, but actually the two negotiators have to find some common basis of trust because you are on two sides of a conflict. If you have no trust, there's no way you can negotiate anything. And so, yeah, it's true. They had their own, you know, they expected a tall white man to walk in as the U.S. diplomat, let's be honest. When they saw me, they're a little bit confused. They're like, are you really a U.S. diplomat? And I had to prove to them that yes, I was that I was delivering messages from Washington. But at the same time, because I defied their stereotype, they were able to, you know, maybe connect with me in different ways. And at the same time, we had been at war with the Taliban for so long, we had built up this image of the other that was an impenetrable enemy. And you really, you know, no group, no country is a monolith. And so you had to break it down, to be actually able to find out where are the negotiating points? Where are the differences of opinion within an organization because that's how you can come to common ground. You have to find that Venn diagram. We're not going to agree with them on everything and we're not going to necessarily change their minds and they're not going to change ours. But I think you can find that modicum of overlap and understanding to at least come to some sort of mutual understanding.
What can we do to move beyond stereotypes when working with people from other cultures? Tamanna has some tips for our listeners who identify as American.
I think the first thing we need to, especially as Americans, we hold this interesting space in the world today, people look to America as this beacon of hope and they're disappointed sometimes and they're happy sometimes. But often our culture, our movies, we sort of our, the hegemonic culture in the world. Everybody knows about America. But often we have maybe stereotypes or perceived notions of other people. I would say that when you are going into a cross cultural environment, the first thing you need to do is check some of your stereotypes at the door, people will surprise you. And while there may be some stereotypes that you think define a people, nobody's a monolith. And so my very first suggestion is to go in with humility and talk to the individual person rather than talking to them as part of a larger group, talk to them as a person. And often you will find you have more in common with them than you thought.
Second of all, really try to listen more than talk. People have histories and identities and backgrounds that they would like to share with you. And sometimes it sounds like a lot of catharsis, but in listening, you actually understand their motivations. And you understand where they're coming from. You might not agree with it, but you will have a better sense of why they are saying what they’re saying, why their viewpoint differs from you.
And I would say, the last piece of advice I would have is try to leave your own cultural baggage at the door. I think we walk in with a lot of judgments that we know how to live in this life. And we, as Americans have the right way to do everything. And that might be true for you. But other people have different circumstances. Other people have different backgrounds and there are multiple ways to live life. I think, don't try to define everything. And don't try to let's be less prescriptive and normative and let people be a little heterodox and let people be a little bit mixed up. It's okay. That's the beauty I think of real life that we don't, we don't always make logical sense but understanding somebody sort of mixed up, different type of life to me is very interesting. And to me helps us find humanity in each other.
I think for people who are peace builders or negotiators working in conflict zones, I would say the basis of so many conflicts are miss, at the base level, are misunderstandings and different interpretations of history and what is right and wrong, right. Every side in a war in a conflict believes they are right, they are justified, they're justified by history, they are justified by trauma. They're justified by culture. Now, if we all stick to our, “I'm right”, we're never going to find any solutions and war will continue. For me as a peace builder, you have to be able to break out of those normative prescriptive boundaries we've set up and try to reach across and understand a little bit about the other perspective. This is not saying you abandon everything you believe in. But if you can't even empathize a little bit with the other side, you're never going to get beyond conflict.
Moving beyond stereotypes, being willing to listen to differing perspectives, and building on shared values are essential cross-cultural skills. While it’s human nature to make assumptions about other cultures, the most successful interactions happen when we set aside preconceived notions about someone and instead look for points of connection between us.
Do other people have preconceptions about your culture? How can you use aspects of your cultural identity or identities to find common ground with other people?
Thanks for listening to this episode of Culturally Attuned. This has been a production by the United States Institute of Peace, with big thanks as always to our partner, Burning Man Project. If you like what you heard, be sure to tune in to more episodes and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
Culturally Attuned Credits
Executive Producer: Dominic Kiraly
Co-Creators: Christopher Breedlove, Kim Cook; and Dominic Kiraly
Audio Engineer and Sound Designer: Tim O’Keefe
Contributors: Honey al-Sayed, Kye Horton, Stuart Mangrum, and Namiko Uno
Narrator: David Yang