Week Six – Diplomatic Tradecraft

And so to the last in this series of six blogs which have, very inadequately, tried to give a flavour of participants’ comments and suggestions as they worked their way through the online course Diplomacy in the 21st Century.

Week Six was about protocol, networking and understanding other cultures – skills which very clearly cut across many sectors, and are not the exclusive preserve of diplomacy.  Participants were generous in sharing their personal experiences.

Protocol is about understanding a narrow sense of professional rules, but also about having a good grasp of wider cultural sensitivities.  Participants gave many examples of areas in which expectations and misunderstandings can arise:

  • where people sit at a dinner table, or in a car, or even where they stand in a lift (eg with reference to the Japanese system of protocol known as sekiji)
  • how you use the “to” and “cc” fields in an official email
  • dresscode, including adaptation to local cultural norms when not at work
  • greetings: the appropriate use of handshakes, kisses and bows
  • gifts and flowers
  • expressing agreement and disagreement
  • punctuality.

For more formal answers in the diplomatic context, books by de Froidville and Verheul and Rosalie Rivett were added to the reading list.

The digital age has brought a new set of questions around protocol.  In some senses things have become more complicated – you can find that individuals and organisations, even within the same national culture, differ greatly in their attitudes.  For example some senior officials or politicians would be delighted to share a selfie with you; others not.  Despite the social media guidelines issued by some Foreign Ministries, there is nothing like an agreed codification of behaviour.  You have to judge for yourself – taking local advice – on whether a thank-you should be a handwritten note, a formal email, a quick private text or a public message on Facebook or Twitter.

Participants gave some very helpful tips on networking, and were appreciative of suggestions made in the course, including Kevin McGurgan’s Objective-Message-Standout (OMS) approach to networking events.  Many agreed that personal organisation – such as pre-planning of objectives and post-event recording of contacts – was part of the difference between “amateur” and “professional” networking.  But as participants also commented: sometimes you can allow yourself to go with the flow.  To paraphrase one comment – “I want to meet humans, not sharks” – and as another participant said – “Be memorable, but not for the wrong reasons”.

It was pointed out that extroverts and introverts might have different styles of networking but they could both be effective.

Blogs by Tom Fletcher (former UK Ambassador to Lebanon) were cited as an excellent example of setting out to “get under the skin” of a country – once we’d established that, in ?British usage and certainly in this context, the phrase meant “understanding the culture/seeing beneath the surface” – not “being really annoying”.

These aspects of tradecraft brought the course to an end.  On behalf of the Diplomatic Academy, and with many thanks again to our lead academic educator Dr Simon Rofe from SOAS, this is another chance to say thank you to the thousands of participants who took part and shared their knowledge and experience.  Some have asked whether we plan to make more courses available – and the answer is yes, hopefully so – and once we’ve digested and evaluated this experience, we’ll be in a position to say more (including via our Twitter feed @UKDipAcademy).

All the very best for your future learning!


Jonathan Marshall


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