The importance of civility in diplomacy

by Jewél Jackson

October 1, 2018

Retired U.S. Ambassador Harriet Lee Elam-Thomas shares her experiences as a U.S. diplomat and the importance of having effective communication skills

Ambassador Harriet Elam-Thomas shaking hands with an audience member.
Ambassador Harriet Elam-Thomas practices diplomacy by greeting audience members personally at her talk on Sept. 26. Kai Nguyen

“The foreign services is very much like a family,” said retired U.S. Ambassador Harriet Lee Elam-Thomas in her talk Sept. 26 at the Newhouse School. “It’s not just a profession and certainly is not all cocktail parties and receptions. We believe in creating relationships.”

Elam-Thomas did more than talk about what it takes to be a diplomat; she demonstrated. Before her speech, she shook every audience member’s hand and asked for their name, creating personal relationships within seconds.

Elan-Thomas, whose diplomatic career spans 42 years, came to Syracuse as part of her conversation series, “Civility Strategies: Healing Approaches That Unite People and Strengthen Democracy.”

As technological advancements make people around the globe more connected than ever, civility is “one of the main ingredients for effective diplomacy,” said Elam-Thomas. She added that civility has affected both her work as a diplomat and the international image of America.

“Part of being civil is giving respect to whom you’re communicating with,” she said.

One of Elam-Thomas’ many secrets to becoming not just a great diplomat, but also a better person and friend, lies with having sincere communication.

“We live in a culture that speaks rather than listens,” she said. She suggested that if we want to establish sincere communication skills we need to give people our undivided attention and learn how to listen before responding.

But with modern technology in the mix, this practice gets complicated. “How do you change someone’s view of America [when they are] only looking at a face or image on the internet?”

Elam-Thomas emphasized the need for in-person interactions. “You can’t accurately judge my expressions and body language over a screen in comparison to seeing me face to face,” she said.

Fluency in multiple languages also helps. By speaking in someone else’s native tongue, “you give honor to their culture and history,” Elam-Thomas said. She quoted Nelson Mandela: “If you speak to a person in a language they understand, you speak to their head. But if you speak to them in their own language, you speak to their hearts.”

Recalling her experiences as a young junior officer, she admitted that she was sometimes insensitive toward different languages and cultures.

“We Americans feel like we can control events and even stand up to the forces of nature. But other cultures believe that events are out of their control,” she said. While it can be a rarity, Elam-Thomas said we all need more “civility, humility, and respect” when trying to understand others.

Elam-Thomas also spoke about the importance of diversity within the American intelligence agencies, based on her experience as a diplomat interacting with different cultures.

“How are you going to represent America if you don’t look American?” she asked, referencing the wide racial, cultural and socio-economic diversity of the United States, which isn’t reflected adequately in its diplomatic representation. “You have to think about how America is going to be represented if it’s only white men from Yale, Princeton, and Harvard." 

A black woman hired in 1962 during the height of the civil rights movement, Elam-Thomas noted that diversity is just as important now as it was then.

As her speech came to an end she reminded the audience that “it is the behind-the-scenes human relationships that make a difference within diplomacy.”

Jewél Jackson is sophomore communication and rhetorical studies major in the College of Visual and Performing Arts.