Ambassador Harriet Elam-Thomas: Diversity in Diplomacy

We must remember that we never touch people so lightly that we do not leave a trace.
— Ambassador Elam-Thomas

There are countless great things about being back in school: the friends, the learning, the crippling knowledge that you’ll be in debt forever, and the opportunity to meet influential figures who speak on campus. Last week, I had the pleasure of meeting one such inspiration figure: Ambassador Harriet Elam Thomas. Thomas is currently on tour promoting her new book, Diversifying Diplomacy: My Journey from Roxbury to Dakar. The book follows her time growing up in a working-class neighborhood of Boston (woo!), to her early career as a secretary and one of the first black women in the Foreign Service, up through her time as the United States Ambassador to Senegal. A career diplomat, Elam-Thomas argues for the necessity of civility, cultural awareness, and diversity in the foreign service.

The first thing I noticed about the ambassador was the way she took the time to walk around to every person present to introduce herself, ask for their name, and have a quick little chat. This simple act of,” Hello, handshake, how are you?” may seem small to some but spoke volumes about her decorum and professionalism as a communicator. We were all there to see her; she didn’t have to give us the time of day, as speakers often don’t, but instead, she put forth the effort to make everyone feel seen, even if only for a moment.

As she began her talk, obviously prepared but still peppered with extemporaneous thoughts, Elam-Thomas candidly spoke about many of the challenges facing diplomats of the current era.

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 Diplomats, especially those working in public affairs, are being asked to do continuously more with ever fewer resources. As such, it is more important than ever that these Public Diplomacy officers learn to effectively communicate, speak in a host nation’s language, and listen carefully. Elam-Thomas, who is fluent in French, Greek, Turkish, and probably more, made sure to emphasize the necessity of language skills, even if only basic. Speaking another person’s language breaks down barriers and allows you to connect on a personal level. Even a few phrases here and there can make a difference. I myself have seen this in my limited travel abroad. Exhibiting any language ability conveys to the native that you have done at least some homework and have a greater respect for their home and culture. Seriously, next time you’re abroad, walk into a store and (assuming it’s the cultural norm) say, “Hello, good morning” to the person working. They’ll know the second you open your mouth you’re not [insert nationality], but they’ll still be more attentive to you all the same.

Another key point of Elam-Thomas’ talk revolved around the idea of imposing American norms and values up on the cultures in which diplomats find themselves. Her argument was not to say that American values are “bad,” (she’d be a pretty awful diplomat if she believed that) but rather that what we may consider “good” in the United States may not translate. She spoke of missteps made in her youth, including trying to use a driver to inform a diplomat from another nation on information as they drove from the airport to a meeting with Elam-Thomas. Though her intention was to help and inform the foreign diplomat, it was seen as an insult and disrespectful of the roles people played in that society. The foreign diplomat, annoyed, told Elam-Thomas that Americans constantly try to democratize everything, and in this country, that’s just not how things were done.

Another example was that relinquishing agency is often a point of contention between American diplomats and their foreign counterparts. As Americans, we are often taught that we can control everything through hard work and determination, whereas in other cultures, they accept that the world will happen regardless of their struggle. Not exactly the philosophy of the Founding Fathers and that’s fine.

The moral? Different values are deeply ingrained in folks around the world and as diplomats, especially Public Diplomacy Officers, we must come to terms with and appreciate that gap.

Ambassador Elam-Thomas and I during the book signing portion. We mostly reminisced about Boston.

Ambassador Elam-Thomas and I during the book signing portion. We mostly reminisced about Boston.

I could go on about Ambassador Elam-Thomas, the lunch my Public Diplomacy classmates and I had with her the next day, and her random connection to a mentor of mine at Boston University, but for now I recommend this: pick up her book and give it a read. The Ambassador is a wealth of knowledge earned through years of hard experience, especially for women of color interested in the Foreign Service.

Diversifying Diplomacy: My Journey from Roxbury to Dakar is available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.