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Story Publication logo July 19, 2010

How to Talk to Diplomats

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Burundi, Sierra Leone, Guinea Bissau and the Central Africa Republic were the targets of a UN...

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When I was in journalism school, I had an internship with a wire service covering UN headquarters. I was, at best, unremarkable at this, and I was constantly confounded by the quasi-English being used around me.

A world body of 177 countries, which represent considerably more native tongues, and a choice of five official languages, and yet every single diplomat I ever came across seemed to know how to use the nuances of English to craft a sentence that meant nothing at all, and sometimes, the exact opposite of what you thought they were saying.

Sometimes, this was because of the British-American English problem. For example, to table something in American English means to stop talking about it and come back to it later; in British English, it means precisely to put it on the agenda. More often than not, though, this problem had nothing to do with multiple Englishes and everything to do with a strain of the language most of us aren't taught in schools.

Call it what you like – diplomish? UNese? – but it's everywhere. Diplomats come out of meetings and tell journalists, "We had a useful exchange of views." This is UN code, one ex-UN spokesman told me, for, "We couldn't agree on anything at all." If you're a UN ambassador and you want to float an idea without freaking anyone out too much, you can draft it up in a memo, print it out and stamp it "non-paper."

Development has a similarly bizarre language. Development workers are constantly telling me that they "sensitize the population" to this, that or the other issue. When an agency, say, teaches project officers how to keep clear budgetary records, it "is capacitating local staff." I actually had one person tell me this week that one of the peacebuilding projects here will "concretize the healing." This kind of language makes my head spin after awhile. And I have a proposal – call it Lessons Learned – for the UN. At the risk of dating myself, I'll offer it here: Not so very long ago, although before the Internet, there was a cable music video channel called VH1 and this channel would insert cartoon-like dialogue bubbles into the week's popular videos. They were often cheeky, and sometimes full of interesting trivia, but the truth is, they added value. Those videos became more interesting for the dose of the human to the gossamer productions we'd already seen and heard.

UN, I think you could use a dose of Pop-Up Video. But I'm not sure you're capacitated for equipping diplomats with video decks above their heads to make the translation. How about a compromise? Maybe refrain turning nouns into verbs, drop the passive voice, and let words go back to meaning something, in any of the thousands of languages that are tossed around along the East River. At that point, I might even be out of work.


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