A diplomat's choice of words

Shashi Tharoor's World of Words is a weekly column in which the politician, diplomat, writer and wordsmith par excellence dissects words and language

By Shashi Tharoor

Published: Fri 15 Apr 2022, 2:05 PM

After spending 29 years at the United Nations (UN), starting at an impressionable age, I became quite accustomed to diplomatic language. Diplomats, of course, think twice before saying — nothing. But when they have to speak, they are trained to be polite and placatory in their choice of words even when they are expressing the harshest ideas.

An unqualified person, confronted with a lady who, to put it politely, would not win the Miss Dubai contest, might say, “look at that woman! she has a face that would stop a clock”. A diplomat would say, “Ah, that lady! she has a face that would make time stand still”. The consistent desire to avoid giving offence once prompted me to twist an old sexist joke into one about diplomacy: “If he says yes, he means maybe. If he says maybe, he means no. If he says no, he’s no diplomat.”

Rudeness is always avoided. You never say: “the two Prime Ministers disagreed bitterly over an issue”. You say “there was a candid exchange of views”. Instead of saying “the minister intends to do absolutely nothing about a particular problem”, you say “the minister is deeply concerned”. The fact that she is concerned does not, of course, oblige her to actually do anything about this problem, but you leave that unsaid. That’s diplo-speak.

Inevitably, diplomacy acquires its own vocabulary, which might baffle people with a literal familiarity with the English language. One term I discovered at the UN was “non-paper”. This was particularly confusing because it always involved a sheet or more of paper. So what was the “non” doing there? The answer is that the paper existed physically but not officially; a diplomat who submitted a non-paper was putting down his government’s ideas for discussion and writing them on a paper for clarity and ease of comprehension, but the proposal had no official status until the other side (or sides) agreed to it. By calling it a “non-paper” the official submitting it preserved full deniability — the right to disown its contents — until it became politically feasible to acknowledge them.

Of course, if the non-paper misfired and either caused offence or was rejected for its contents, the fact that it was a non-paper could help avoid a loss of face on the proposer’s side. In fact, both parties could agree that the non-paper had been deemed “not to have been received” at all, so that the proposal and its rejection did not become an issue between the parties.

My friend and colleague Alvaro de Soto, an elegant and perfectly trilingual Peruvian diplomat, who served as political adviser to UN Secretary-General Pérez de Cuéllar in the 1980s, recounted a few expressions that were in vogue among diplomats at that time. “That’s an empty pool issue”, for instance, was shorthand for “let’s not get involved in that problem because there just aren’t enough elements available to help us solve it — it would be like diving into an empty pool”. The legendary UN peace-keeper, the late Sir Brian Urquhart, amplified the meaning of the phrase: “Don’t dive into an empty pool. It will create a temporary sensation, but will leave you stunned and incapable of further action”. Wise advice indeed! “It is equally advisable,” Sir Brian added, “to avoid diving into a pool of boiling water”. That refers to a situation in which a conflict is still freshly being fought and an attempt at a peace-making intervention will only scald the would-be peace-maker, rather than solve the problem.

When I was Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information at the UN at the beginning of the century, it was my pleasant duty to chair the press conferences of heads of state and government visiting UN headquarters in New York. On occasion, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, then at the peak of his peace-offensive with India, remarked to the press that he wanted peace with India in the interests of the smaller countries of the sub-continent: “when elephants fight,” he quoted a proverb, “the grass gets trampled”. As we stepped off the podium to a private room behind the stage, I mischievously pointed out, “Mr President, when elephants make love, also, the grass gets trampled”. To his credit, the President responded with a hearty laugh — and didn’t tell me that I wasn’t very diplomatic!


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