Working with a partner across a cultural divide – for example, in a negotiation – we may face a request or an action that we must refuse. In that difficult moment, we should look first for the motive behind the action and frame a response that helps our partner retain his or her honor and thus sustains mutual respect. A vital start can be our acknowledgment of the history of the other person and his or her culture.
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And his staff pulled me aside who I knew well said, “John, this is from the president you can't say no.” And she hands me an envelope and I open it up and it was $15,000 in cash, in hundred dollar bills.
How does one walk the line between showing respect for another’s culture and traditions and staying true to one’s own values, even when there’s a conflict of interest?
I’m Dominic Kiraly, and our guest today is Johnny Walsh, who has served in the U.S. government in a range of foreign policy roles, including as a former U.S. diplomat with the Department of State. Johnny demonstrates how to show respect across cultures, even when competing protocols and customs are at play.
Well, one of my more unusual experiences during the year I spent serving as a diplomat in Baghdad, really at the height of our troop surge, was the president of Iraq had to have pretty serious open-heart surgery. This was Jalal Talabani, someone who I genuinely respected as a peacemaker. And he had, the Mayo Clinic was one of the only places in the world that was really equipped to handle all the contingencies that could come from an older guy who wasn't in the best of shape and who was very important.
And so that left me in the position as kind of the embassy’s liaison to Talabani of having to escort him to Rochester, Minnesota, suburban USA, along with about 25 or 30 paramilitary fighters who served as his personal bodyguard. So this was already strange on the plane ride over because the US military provided a C1-30 and they, the way they move dignitaries around is they insert a luxury capsule in the back of the plane that Talabani and his wife slept in. And then the rest of us, me and my 25 closest paramilitary buddies, all slept on the floor, kind of spooning each other. So that was the first 30 hours of the adventure. When we get out, we land in a town that might as well be my town. And that was surreal enough. We escorted all of these folks to a kind of cheesy Mexican restaurant for their first dinner. We were all a little bit mortified as Talabani ordered kind of bottomless Margaritas and burritos for everyone the night before he goes into open heart surgery. He was really a character who reveled in this.
But where, it became awkward was the next morning Talabani goes into the operating room. Parenthetically, I will say that he was fine and remained president for years after that. And his staff pulled me aside. And one of the woman who worked for him, who I knew well said, “John, this is from the president you can't say no.” And she hands me an envelope. And I'm saying, “Oh God, I know it's in there.” And I open it up and it was $15,000 in cash, in a hundred dollar bills. And so it should go without saying that an American diplomat must not accept such a thing under no circumstances. But I would also hasten to add that this was not a bribe. This was gratitude. This was a form of hospitality as an old warlord plucked from the high 20th century understood it. And it was meant as sincere appreciation. In fact, I think it was specifically targeted at an off-hand remark I had made that I was going to visit the Mall of America after I was finally released from this duty.
So there was no giving it back to her or to the president himself. There was one member of the entourage with the president who had served in Washington in the past and kind of understood the ethical principles that we are, as we understand them in the United States and to whom I could say, I simply can't accept this. It would and should be the end of my career. And so he quietly made it go away. I suppose there's an interesting question of what actually became of the $15,000, it would not have been well spent on me.
But I think the important play there was to not allow this awkward situation to more deeply undermine a relationship, which in its own way could have if the American in that interaction had given real offense or for that matter, tried to report it as a, I did report it as something that had happened, but I tried to counter attack the president for doing so. So I think it de-escalated reasonably in the end.
We asked Johnny how he interpreted this gesture. What was the intention behind the gift?
It's absolutely meant to deepen a relationship. It's an attempt to show respect and an opportunity for the person on the other side to show respect in return. There's an already deep, if complicated relationship between the United States and the Kurds and the leadership of Iraq. This was just a drop in the ocean in that larger relationship. But it's important and that moment repeats itself all the time for the casual traveler. Gestures like this happen all the time and are meant to build relationships maybe to overcome some of the things that hold us apart. And even if we come into them with different understandings of what a discreet gesture means, if we can identify on both sides the quest for mutual respect and for mutual affection maybe that helps us to step above some of the differences in this case in the rules that govern our jobs.
In addition to honoring rituals and customs, what’s another way to show respect and build relationships? Johnny suggests learning about the local history and also acknowledging the personal story of the individuals you meet.
So one of the tools that I have always tried to use in building relationships in initially unfamiliar places is to connect with people over their history. And some of it’s admittedly selfish because I love the study of history. I'm totally fascinated by the history of the place I'm in and I'm already going to be pretty interested in learning what's happened in this place and what larger arc are we traveling upon when we're there.
In terms of diplomatic interactions or policy interactions, it can be so useful and such a sign of respect to simply discuss the history of a given place with a person you're getting to know and ideally to discuss their own personal role in the events that have swept a given area.
So an example from Iraq is that you do not have to scratch the surface very far to uncover the extraordinary, often sadly horrifying experiences that people had in the Iran-Iraq war, which was a whole of society conflict and virtually certainly every prominent Iraqi and the leadership lived through that period. And the simple willingness to ask about that, to situate a person in whatever province they came from, it opens them up. Or it can open them up. Just as for them to be aware of things about me would open me up.
The ability to show that you're more than just a dilettante, a sort of one year adventure tourist in the country. If you show a knowledge of, or even a curiosity about the history of the place and that you want to have a serious discussion of a person's role in it because people lived it. That can forge a connection that I think they don't get from many foreigners. And it will never be the whole answer to building a relationship in a far off place, but it is so valuable in showing respect for some of the far corners of the world that may feel like the world doesn't care about their story, their history, their culture.
One example of this is there's a former senior Taliban official who I've come to really respect even if I disagree with him on a huge number of things. He left the Taliban years ago. He's become a quite prominent peace activist behind the scenes mostly. But this is a person who not only because of the nature of the Afghanistan war was at war with many others in his country who now the United States has helped install in power in the 90s, but who in effect tried to surrender to the US early after 9/11 and spent years in Guantanamo under really horrific conditions. And whatever one thinks of Guantanamo, this was not a case where the right person was sent to that base. This was a very, very unfortunate mistake that wasn't righted for several years. However, it is also true that when he got out he did not go back to the insurgency. This is a person who made his peace with the new system in Afghanistan in a very public way, made his peace with the United States and re-dedicated his career to the pursuit of peace in his country. I don't have to agree with him on everything about where Afghanistan should go or who the good guys and bad guys are in Afghanistan. I do think that is an extraordinary person who's in my judgment, whose motives are quite pure.
What is interesting is that this is a person who deals with a great many foreigners, foreign officials and otherwise who have no idea of any of that history. They don't necessarily have to, it wasn't all in the New York Times every day or anything. But, he suffered a lot for his beliefs, both his beliefs that I admire and his beliefs that I admire less. And it's unfathomable to me to have an interaction with a person without acknowledging their suffering to respect what the person emerged as after such suffering. And some of the things that he did go through in Guantanamo I should specify were, it was more than just confinement. I mean, there were some quite unfortunate things that happened. So that at least helps establish a good faith relationship between two people.
The first time I met this person, he invited me to his home with a few others, but it was a meeting between me and him to discuss a piece of business. So it was a sort of, it was formal on one level but I thought it was cool to be in his home. There was a certain amount of opening or welcoming in that that goes above and beyond what's necessarily expected in a meaning. We talked about news of the day. We talked about the proposed project that we wanted to potentially consider. But after we had established some of the business that needed to happen, to me the approach was just to say that I wanted to tell him I appreciated how much he had suffered in this larger conflict and how much I admired that he had emerged from everything a peaceful activist.
But I think that it helped and he knew that I was sincere because I was, and that has been, when we have worked together since then that has been a useful partnership and he's been extremely gracious in a way he didn't necessarily have to be.
The first takeaway is it's always worth your while to know 5% more history and context of a given place than all the rest of the visitors because you will use it over and over again. You will understand what you see much better and people will respond to the extra time that you took to learn their world just a little bit.
And then second is so much the better if you can situate a person you meet their own experience in that larger history and culture and something that you genuinely understand about and are curious about in that place and find some human connection that supersedes that peculiarities of a particular location, history and culture. That's the stuff of a real human connection.
Whether you are offered a small token of gratitude or are honored with a grand gesture, what people communicate through these cultural cues is likely to matter a great deal. It is important to understand the intent of such actions as well as learn how to interpret the message, and respond appropriately.
How might you be curious about the history and culture of others? What are some ways that you can respectfully explore or communicate that interest?
Thanks for listening to this episode of Culturally Attuned, produced by Dominic Kiraly at the United States Institute of Peace, and in collaboration with our partner, Burning Man Project. I’m Dominic Kiraly. If you like what you heard, be sure to tune in to more episodes and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
Culturally Attuned Credits
Produced, engineered and narrated: Dominic Kiraly
Co-Creators: Christopher Breedlove, Kim Cook