The Importance of Social Behaviour at Work – How to Think in Diplomacy

3 mins read

By Niklas Ylander

In world politics characterised by rising tensions, diplomacy is needed more than ever before. In order to avoid unnecessary conflicts, states need well educated diplomats ready to deal with often complex negotiations. This article will shed light on the vast importance of social behaviour at work in diplomacy.

The traditional view of diplomats is that they prefer to be precise and – diplomatic. For example, using would, will, could or should makes a great difference in diplomatic texts. But  the diplomatic manner includes more than this. In the book Plikten och äventyret (2009) several Swedish senior diplomats emphasize the importance of social behaviour in diplomacy. Basically, the primary goal is to represent your government towards other foreign actors. In this work diplomats report back to the government with information that can be decisive for the decision-making process.

In the role as a diplomat you will experience unexpected situations no matter what. With no instructions to lean back on you have to make a decision while improvising. Therefore you have to be able to use your empathy to see things from others’ perspective in a complex social environment.  

Staffan de Mistura, a senior diplomat in the UN described in a program for Swedish Radio this improvising in practice:

“Learn to observe and study body language. Take notice of all details at your counterpart. When you suddenly end up in a meeting without preparations you have to quickly decide who is in charge here and who is the leader in the group. You have to do that even if there is an informal leader in the margins of the group. Also observe where people are looking. Who are they looking at, and who has the authority? Try to gather as much information as you can about this person.” (my own translation)      

As de Mistura says, awareness of the social dimension is vital to gather information in unknown situations about the counterparts involved. As one of the diplomats in Plikten och äventyret also points out, without mutual trust between the participants in these situations of negotiations it is difficult to succeed. It is less likely to find common ground without it. With no trust, even fair arguments can be seen with suspiciousness, which itself might halt a joint agreement and damage your credibility.   

Having this awareness in mind you might think that you consciously can steer your own appearance. Studying others body language and subtle signals is however often challenging enough. The observations of others must be made with careful manner since no one enjoys being observed too intensively. Hence, while you make your social exercises you have to be yourself towards others. It appears to be easier to signal control and self-secureness the day when a diplomat becomes more experienced and knows her own arguments in depth. This will send signals to the counterparts that you know what you are talking about which will make you trustworthy.

The insights about social behaviour given by senior diplomats are also supported by research in the field. Intentions are possible to hide from your counterpart in negotiations, but on the other hand, face to face meetings will undoubtedly “transmit information” between the actors to some degree.       

How is this important insight about social behaviour present in the work of the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs, the real symbol of diplomacy? 

To work at the Swedish Ministry of Foreign there is a trainee program to apply for, called the diplomat program. In the presentation of the program, the list of required qualifications does not include the social dimension more than that you “easily create connections and cooperate with others”. The principal of the program however states the importance of social knowledge as a representative of the state. “Often it comes with little more experience” as the principal says. 

In contact with the ministry by email they inform that they do not have a specific manual on social behaviour in the diplomatic work, in contrast to the American State Department which has its own manual. Does this mean that other countries are focusing more on social aspects in the professional role? In the ministry’s own podcast UD-podden more general political issues are highlighted in the 25 episodes. Even in the episode on how to become a diplomat, actual social behaviour in diplomatic life mentioned by de Mistura is on the margin.

Why is social behaviour so neglected? Even during my own time as an intern at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs social behaviour was not an usual topic. It rather seems to be seen as something you internalise after years of new experience in a complex international environment, meeting not only state representatives but also experts and people from civil society. The social dimension is always there but seldom explicitly mentioned. It tends not to be seen as something that you actually can learn here and now by practice. 

Finally the role of a diplomat requires numerous skills. Social behaviour is after all only one of these and exposed for high competition. It is also as in the rest of society a phenomenon that is taken for granted. If we rethink this and see the importance of social behaviour we can improve the result of negotiations in diplomacy.   

Illustration: Aina Olsson

Niklas Ylander has a master’s degree in political science with a special interest in Scandinavian politics. After his studies in Denmark, Norway and Sweden, he is constantly wondering about the differences and similarities between the countries.

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