Tact as a talent

In this day and age when authenticity is held at such a premium, are we given a free pass to just say what we want, even if it hurts?

I love a good diplomatic line. After all, there’s this quote often attributed to Winston Churchill that sums it up pretty well: “Diplomacy is telling someone to go to hell in such a way that they ask you for directions.” Some of the most solid and stealthy burns I’ve ever heard came from diplomats and I love being a spectator during such instances.

I first got acquainted with diplomatic life as a journalist. Covering the diplomatic beat, reporters were either friends or foes depending on the country represented and the current political climate. One thing I found out pretty quickly was that these people I’m covering have a language of their own.

One reporter once used the term “bluster” while asking a high ranking diplomat a question. It was referring to a country’s policy and the question was asked at a press conference, putting the diplomat on a truly unflattering spot in front of hundreds of people.

The diplomat froze for a few seconds before giving her an answer best described as benign. I still remember how the room fell silent. My eyes, as wide as dinner plates, met that of my best friend’s (also a journalist) while I mouthed “She really used ‘bluster’?”

Later, the diplomat bumped into the reporter as he left the event. He smiled at her and told her she’s “got a particular way of phrasing questions.” She thought it was praise.

Borrowing from Carrie Bradshaw, I couldn’t help but wonder (at least back then): Was the same level of tact and diplomacy expected from us? Up until then, I thought the rules didn’t apply to me. I thought I could just keep making people squirm with how direct I was, as long as I had my press badge. It was humbling and it made me realize that tact wasn’t just for diplomats. It’s for everyone.

In this day and age when authenticity is held at such a premium, are we given a free pass to just say what we want—even if it hurts—as long as it’s someone’s “truth”?

“So does that mean you never really tell people what you’re thinking anymore?” A friend from university once asked me while I was visiting Manila. I was new into the whole diplomat’s wife thing in Kuala Lumpur and it was my first visit back home. “I can still be honest, you know. I just have to say it in a nicer way.”

“But you’re not good at that,” he said with a devious smile. I feigned a look of shock, then we both laughed. Thankfully, there have been no major problems with my honesty especially after I learned that it was not about the message but the way it was said.

If someone shows you a photo of a dress they like that you find hideous, tact doesn’t dictate that you lie. “That’s a really vibrant color but it’s not my style,” is a better way of saying that you don’t like it. Tact keeps the peace while allowing honesty. It’s such a useful skill for everyone trying to make it in any industry. Yes, colleagues value honesty but they prefer that honesty is packaged in a pretty, diplomatic pouch.

In 2015, I found myself having coffee with two other diplomatic spouses—let’s call them Betty and Rose. Our conversation gradually shifted to the recent elections in Rose’s home country. Betty, the rather vocal type, then proceeded to tell Rose how she didn’t like their new president. The words used were pretty unkind.

I literally choked on my coffee, spraying a little bit of it in the air. Bad form for me but at least that saved Rose from having to respond to that. I got a thank you later on for having a gag reflex that knew how to time its malfunction.

Diplomacy is telling someone to go to hell in such a way that they ask you for directions.—Winston Churchill

Words often get people into trouble. Lesson number one for most diplomatic spouses is to never insult the country you’re posted in and its people. Betty was lucky we were in neutral territory and that Rose secretly agreed with her but was too diplomatic to admit it.

I interviewed an ambassador once who always knew exactly what to say and when to laugh. Journalists found his answers boring, nothing juicy whatsoever. That, however, is him being good at his job. To be fair, he sometimes gives really good quotes. While it’s always in line with policy, you can unearth a diplomatic dig in there. You just need to read between the lines.

I won’t call myself completely fluent in diplomatese. Tact is something I often say I have but I know I’m still in a “fake it 'til you make it”’ phase. In the last decade, I’ve noticed that people in diplomacy are starting to become a lot more candid, especially the younger ones. It’s rather brave, especially for people who take hardline stances, people who share their negative opinions on social media. But it makes me wonder if there’s enough wiggle room for them to backtrack should—uh—excrement hit the fan.

But that’s just me, wondering as a former foreign affairs journalist and not as a diplomat’s wife, at least for this particular column. Wink, wink.