Lessons from a Life of Cultural Diplomacy

By Elizabeth Fierman

I’m an expat in Chile. After starting my career in dispute resolution at CBI in the United States, where I was born, I moved to Chile—first to Valparaíso, a gritty yet artsy port town and UNESCO world heritage site, and then to Quilpué, a quiet town not far from the coast. I’ve built my family and my career here, and in doing so, have become a cultural diplomat. This life of cultural diplomacy has not only helped me work with people across great differences—essential in the field of dispute resolution—but it has also opened doors to conversations with people from all walks of life, and helped me navigate tricky dialogues with deeper understanding, nuance, and empathy.  

Cultural diplomacy was, as UNESCO explains, originally used by diplomats as part of strategic efforts to “win hearts and minds” of foreign publics. Traditionally conceived of as a soft power tool of governments, today all kinds of organizations use—and need—cultural diplomacy to help build bridges. Universities facilitate study abroad programs. Private companies and non-profits build international teams. Multinational organizations navigate a web of cultural and substantive differences.

Cultural diplomacy becomes even more relevant if we define culture broadly as the behaviors, norms, and values of a particular group. Then we find cultural differences well beyond multinational settings. Cultures vary among groups within national borders, which makes cultural diplomacy relevant for promoting diversity and inclusion. Organizational cultures vary, too, and this needs to be addressed in mergers and collaborative enterprises. And professional cultures differ, which can pose challenges, say, when communities need to work closely with companies, lawyers, or scientists. Facilitators and mediators like me increasingly engage in intercultural dialogue during negotiation processes in a wide range of settings.

For those who find themselves in a cultural diplomat role, here are a few things that I’ve found helpful as an expat dispute-resolution practitioner over the years:

  • Share a bit about yourself and your capacity to be a cultural diplomat. I almost invariably introduce myself to stakeholders as an American who has lived for many years in Chile and is the mom of three Chilean-Americans. I do this for a few reasons. First, it immediately alerts participants to my bicultural perspective. Second, sharing that my children are binational helps participants understand that I’m a cultural bridge not just professionally, but also personally, which helps me understand interculturality more deeply. Third, it helps create personal connection with participants, which is important in many non-American professional cultures. I’d suggest to anyone leading an intercultural conversation that they say something genuine to help explain why they can act as a cultural bridge.
  • Be transparent about what you don’t know. I’ve been in numerous situations in which I wanted to act as a cultural bridge but didn’t have enough knowledge of the other culture. A few years ago, I facilitated a dialogue between salmon companies and artisanal fishermen, and I immediately recognized that the fishermen had a unique culture that I knew nothing about. Rather than mask this, I told the group’s leader directly that I hadn’t previously worked much with fishermen and would probably make a lot of mistakes. I also asked him to help me get things right. That transparency didn’t make me weaker or less credible in his eyes. Instead, he became both more open to working with me and more tolerant of cultural missteps I made.
  • Find cultural informants. It’s your job as a cultural diplomat to learn more about the culture you’re working with. I make it a habit to find a “cultural informant”—someone with knowledge of the culture I’m working with who is willing to help me understand how they do things. In the case of the fishermen, for example, one of the company representatives who had worked with artisanal fishers for many years became my advisor, helping me understand how this fishing organization worked. His help was instrumental, for example, in framing and vetting proposals during the dialogue process.
  • Name cultural differences and use humor to do it. There are times when it is helpful or necessary to name cultural differences that are getting in the way, but it’s not always easy. The trick is to name those differences in a way that is non-offensive and non-threatening. For me, humor is the best tool for doing this. For example, recently I worked with an international non-profit organization whose United States and Chile-based teams needed to collaborate on implementing a major new project. The teams had tried to collaborate before and encountered friction, which I quickly identified as having more to do with culture than with substance. During our two-day meeting, a Chilean colleague and I prepared a funny presentation about challenges we had faced working across cultures, which reflected the challenges we saw the teams facing: mishaps around the Chilean tendency to say no non-verbally; misunderstandings stemming from American directness and hyper-focus on efficiency. As we made jokes about our own experiences, we could see the teams realizing that these dynamics were creating challenges for them, too. This allowed us to start addressing them explicitly and collegially as the meeting went on.
  • Create opportunities to share and experience of different cultural perspectives. When groups are explicitly intercultural, it can be helpful to take a step back and educate each other about cultural differences and perspectives. For example, I’m working with a Europe-based non-profit organization and Chilean indigenous leaders who need to discuss indigenous consultation and consent around extractive projects. As we started working together, the indigenous leaders proposed an “induction” workshop to teach us about their worldview and history, and then to hear some of the European organization’s worldview and focus. Taking the time to do this perhaps “slowed down” the process, but it fostered better understanding and personal connection among the participants.
  • Be open to doing it “their” way. Finally, being a cultural diplomat requires flexibility, an openness to doing things in new ways. Those of us who are facilitators, mediators, or leaders are often used to putting forward ideas about how things should be done. But sometimes the best step as a leader or facilitator is to ask someone else to propose the way forward. This offers you a chance to learn about how other groups do things and incorporate those preferences or traditions into a process that works across cultures. After all, being a cultural bridge means having one foot on both sides of a divide, getting to know how both sides do things, and finding a path forward that incorporates and accommodates differences.