national flags, two individuals facing each other

Effective Communication in International Diplomacy

Breakthroughs in efficient travel and the rise of the Internet have made it easy for diplomats to conduct business with their counterparts from all over the world. However, with more opportunities for intercultural communication come to an increased risk of committing cultural or linguistic faux pas. Miscommunication can result in grievous offense or confusion to such an extent that diplomatic initiatives may be compromised. Studying international diplomacy prepares individuals to effectively navigate cultural customs and clearly communicate intent, qualifying them for administrative positions within international branches of American companies, government agencies and financial institutions. Successful diplomacy requires both a deep and abiding advocacy of one’s own interests and an appreciation of another party’s goals and aims in order to devise a mutually beneficial resolution and build a foundation upon which to base future interactions.

The Importance of Studying Culture

In addition to understanding customs, diplomats must possess expansive cultural awareness and a strong grasp of existing cultural biases in the United States and in other countries. Studying country-specific data regarding foreign managerial styles and organizations offers an understanding of a nation’s economic environment and can enhance a diplomat’s ability to work effectively within these parameters. Beyond cultural sensitivity, as it pertains to business, effective intercultural diplomacy requires diplomats to conduct significant social research in order to gain a broader historical context for and cultural knowledge of the nations with which they do business.

The first step in any diplomatic negotiation is to identify the obstacle(s) between the parties, and that can only be accomplished with a thorough understanding of what the opposing party wants from the relationship; more often than not, these desires are directly correlated to pressing sociocultural and economic issues impacting these nations on a local and national scale. It is only through a keen understanding of these issues that each party may determine how to best serve both their own interests and each others. The Foreign Service Institute of the U.S. Department of State offers diplomats a variety of resources designed to help understand host cultures. These resources can include individuals and institutions such as the ambassador’s secretary, the Community Liaison Officer, Foreign Service Nationals (FSNs), Host Country Nationals (HCNs) and the Transition Center’s Overseas Briefing Center; published material on cultural nuances may also supplement diplomats’ research. Understanding and respecting nations’ cultural customs is a crucial part of establishing a sterling reputation while representing the United States.

Knowledge of a region’s history and culture—which can even include an understanding of the United States’ diverse population groups—is imperative for diplomats, and effective communication helps prevent or mitigate conflict in international diplomatic transactions. To wit, the Queen of England’s husband, Prince Philip, has stumbled a few times when dealing with other countries. Most famously, in 2002, he reportedly asked an Australian Aboriginal man, “do you still throw spears at each other?” Though Buckingham Palace was able to mitigate the gaffe, reassuring the broader public that Prince Philip’s comment had been taken out of context, his culturally insensitive question could have damaged the Royal family’s reputation in that part of the world—especially among the Aboriginals, an indigenous group that suffered extensively during British rule of Australia. Similarly, former First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, once hugged the Queen of England— an embrace that was felt around the world. Had the First Lady studied royal protocol, perhaps she could have avoided this minor lapse in etiquette. Successful diplomats will find that developing extensive knowledge of the political, economic and social interests of the nations with which they work is not only efficient and illuminating but courteous.

The Importance of Studying History

Professional diplomats should study both U.S. and foreign history from many perspectives—economic, social and political. They should also have a strong competency in international trade and commerce procedures, as well as a working knowledge of the laws and regulations in specific regions. In international business transactions, professionalism and effective communication can make or break a deal. Studying foreign commerce laws can improve and streamline negotiations and allow diplomats to coordinate human and material resources in order to achieve an international business goal. It is also important for diplomats to be able to adapt their management methods to foreign environments, ensuring these procedures are legal and applicable within the jurisdiction of the country’s laws and regulations.

The Importance of Studying Intercultural Communication

Adaptation is also an important characteristic for diplomats to possess when attempting to communicate and negotiate across cultural, social and linguistic barriers. Author Lorand Szalay’s theory of intercultural communication aptly explains the increased threat of misunderstanding by distinguishing between a message’s form and its content. The “form” in which a message arrives effectively highlights its meaning. In order for the receiver to understand the message correctly, he or she must be able to decode its meaning; this is most easily accomplished when a sender and recipient have a shared frame of reference—for instance, they may speak the same language or share the same set of customs—whereas people from divergent cultures are more likely to have different traditions and points of view and therefore, may assign significantly different meanings to words or gestures.

Today, a majority of international communication is done online and carries with it the risk that intent or meaning may be lost in translation. Diplomats must be able to explain and translate their ideas effectively using emerging communication technologies, such as real-time translation software programs. Diplomats must also emphasize politeness, tact, clarity and—depending on the culture and its communication style—purposeful indirectness.

While rapid developments in technology have increased the ease and efficiency of online communication, the rise of social media has been something of a double-edged sword. For the average citizen, disparaging or inappropriate social media comments often end in public excoriation and personal shame; however, in the world of politics, insensitive and unprofessional use of social media can have dire consequences. A prominent example is President Donald Trump’s controversial utilization of Twitter. In September 2017, Trump tweeted vague threats in reply to the North Korean Foreign Minister’s speech at the United Nations, and these tweets were subsequently interpreted by the North Korean government as a declaration of war. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders later dismissed North Korea’s reaction to Trump’s tweets, stating that the U.S. had not declared war on North Korea. Though the confusion was cleared up, the already precarious relationship between the U.S. and North Korea was further strained by President Trump’s ill-advised use of Twitter as a means of diplomatic communication.

The shifting geopolitical landscape necessitates that diplomats foster strong relations with their counterparts in other countries in order to maintain awareness of current trends, events and policies. However, a rewarding career begins with a quality education. A Master of Arts in Diplomacy can provide students with foundational knowledge of the political, cultural, and geographical complexity of the international environment, as well as the ability to communicate with nations to resolve a conflict. Regardless of an aspiring diplomat’s career goals, individuals should master diplomatic history, theory and best practices in order to learn effective communication skills that will improve their ability to forge cross-cultural relations as professional diplomats.

Learn More

As the nation’s oldest private military college, Norwich University has been a leader in innovative education since 1819. Through its online programs, Norwich delivers relevant and applicable curricula that allow its students to make a positive impact on their places of work and their communities.

Norwich University’s online Master of Arts in Diplomacy program provides working professionals with a broad understanding of global communications protocol and a deep knowledge of the world issues that affect international relations. The program allows you to build on your political, governmental, or business expertise with a solid foundation in the theories and practices that direct international relations and political science within the international system.

Recommended Readings:
Are United Nations’ Peacekeepers Missions Effective?
5 Key Approaches to Foreign Policy Analysis
4 Important Components of Global Corporate Reputation


The Role and Relevance of Multilateral Diplomacy in U.S. Foreign Policy, The Heritage Foundation

Ten Principles of Operational Diplomacy: A Framework, Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training

Prince Philip’s Spear ‘Gaffe’, BBC News

The Key to Henry Kissinger’s Success, The Atlantic

What are the Tools of Diplomacy, Discover Diplomacy

Alternative Options for U.S. Policy Toward the International Order, RAND Corporation

Protocol for the Modern Diplomat, Foreign Service Institute U.S. Department of State

We all Make Mistakes, The Washington Diplomat

Learn More Today

Complete the form on the next page to request more information about our online programs.

Request Info