How To Be Diplomatically Correct

Posted by Tara Foley
October 30, 2007
Jeddah Fountain, Saudi Arabia

Foreign Affairs Officer Tara Foley works in the Office of WMD Terrorism, Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation. Here Tara shares her impressions of Saudi Arabia... Tara's previous post: Remember the Ladies in Riyadh

One evening last spring, some friends and acquaintances gathered for dinner in Riyadh. After our meal, our small, international group sat and chatted. Some smoked apple flavored sheesha tobacco out of tall hookahs, filling the air with a cotton candy-like aroma, while the rest of us passed around the sticky sweet dates that are native to Saudi Arabia’s palm groves. Amongst the women gathered, the conversation eventually came around to the expat experience: What are the rules of etiquette and interaction when living in a foreign country?

Saudi Arabia is host to any number of expats: European bankers and teachers, American nurses and oil workers, laborers from Southeast Asia, and diplomats from all over the world. Here, in the political and economic hub of Riyadh, all of these people merge, and many must adapt their personal customs to the Saudi way of life. Non-Muslims cannot hold religious services or practice their religion openly, women must alter their mannerisms and dress, and Westerners generally speaking enjoy fewer personal freedoms than they do at home. The difficult question, often, is how to remain true to one’s own values, while also respecting the traditions and standards of one’s host nation.

One acquaintance sparked this conversation when she said, “I don’t understand when people from other places say negative things about living in this country. If they dislike Saudi Arabia, why not go home instead of criticize?” I wondered if that was true. When we are guests in someone else’s homeland, are we supposed to follow the age-old wisdom to say something nice or don’t say anything at all? Or are friends supposed to be honest with one another, both supporting one another’s strengths and working together to improve weakness? I think it’s natural to feel challenged when we encounter such differences; I also think it’s valuable to discuss these challenges with our friends. In the end, how honest should friends and allies be with one another?

The question applies to both friendship and diplomacy. Whether socializing over tea or negotiating across the conference table, diplomats and expats must balance between courtesy and candor. I believe that through encountering lifestyles and values different from our own, we grow as individuals; and it is by discussing these differences openly, with honesty and respect, that we strengthen our relationships with our friends. Often we reach agreement, and if not, we have at least grown in our understanding of one another.



District Of Columbia, USA
October 31, 2007

Joe in Washington, DC writes:

It's great that you're having this discussion openly, candidly and honestly on a U.S. government blog. Given how Saudi Arabia treats non-believers, would such a discussion even be possible in a public forum in that country? Would the Saudis have a public debate on whether Christianity should be allowed in their country? Do the Saudis have freedom of speech like we do?

Dipnote Blogger Tara Foley writes:

@ Joe in Washington –-

Islam is not only the official religion of Saudi Arabia, it is the law. The official title of the King of Saudi Arabia is, after all, the “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques.” Saudi law does not recognize other religions, nor does it protect freedom of religion. While followers of other religions can, and often do, worship as they choose in private, any public worship or expression of any religion other than Islam is strictly prohibited. That said, many individual Saudis are tolerant and accepting of others’ religions and do engage in honest, open-minded dialogue and debate.

Freedom of speech and press also continue to be restricted in Saudi Arabia. Those topics which tend to be most severely restricted are expressions of criticism against Islam or the royal family. Given the religious, legal, and social context, I personally would be very surprised to see an open, public debate on religious freedom in Saudi anytime soon.

Still, there have been advances here, too, in recent years. Media, academic, and other outlets often provide a forum for a diverse variety of opinions. For example, you might enjoy reading the opinion pages on Arab News, a Saudi English-language daily which you can find at

You may also be interested in checking out the State Department’s annual Report on International Religious Freedom. Individual country reports are available at:

Arizona, USA
October 29, 2007

RJ in Arizona writes:

This post hits the nail on the head on cultural understanding. I relate to this post on two levels, the first being from my Navajo/Hopi ancestry and the second as a former embassy intern. It's amazing how much we can all learn about each other by talking and sharing our many cultures, especially as it becomes increasingly important in our globalized world. Sharing of cultures and values can eliminate so much of the hostile attitudes on different cultures. Many locals at my post said the same thing about how some visitors complain about not having familiar amenities - if you don't like it, then you should probably go home.

Pennsylvania, USA
October 29, 2007

Thomas in Pennsylvania writes:

Courtesy and respect must be two way streets. It is indeed essential to show respect for one's host and his or her customs. But it is equally the responsibility of a host to show at least a modicum of courtesy or respect for his or her guests and their customs and needs.

How are the Saudi's adapting their expectations to meet the needs of the expats in their country. I would not expect too much at the official level, but I would hope some flexibility on a personal level. Do the people show you the courtesy and respect that you are showing them?

This is not meant as a condemnation. I expect they they are bending to meet the demands of hospitality. I just wonder how.

Colorado, USA
October 29, 2007

Brian in Colorado writes:

I just read an AP report that the State Department granted immunity to all of the Blackwater mercenaries involved in the 16 September massacre at Nisour Square.


If Secretary Rice doesn't resign over this, we may as well shut down the State Department until January 2009.

October 29, 2007

Ralph in Greece writes:

Hi Tara, How is the food in Saudi Arabia? Do they have a special dish?

October 29, 2007

Rick in Canada writes:

I agree that encountering lifestyles different from our own we grow as individuals. However, it is a dangerous line to walk when discussing lifestyle, and values differences. Venturing into that area is an art. Many expats are not artists. Better I think to just live and experience life in other countries as a local. When a foreigner starts to speak to you as a visitor about lifestyle and value differences in his country - then I think you have been given permission to venture into his home, and into his heart. If he doesn't bring it up...treat it as politics and religion - don't bring it up. Until then "vive la difference!".

October 30, 2007

Ross in Canada writes:

As a Canadian who has lived and worked in the U.S. from time to time. The sanctions placed upon Iran has now raised its head in Canada. The F14 fighter jets employed by the Iranian Air Force are very old and basically out of date. The problem lies that Canada is the prime resource for replacement parts. I guess we hold the trump card in the sanction process. It will be very difficult to police this situation as the underground supplying of military parts and equipment is very prolific both in Canada and worldwide. It will be a diplomatic juggling game for a while. It seems like we are cherry picking what countries are allowed to develop a nuclear program. If Egypt is being allowed to develop a comprehensive atomic energy program, why is Iran excluded. Most countries are becoming dependent on nuclear energy for the production of electrical power. We in North America are becoming extremely paranoid about the whole issue. Not every nation in the Middle East is a threat to bomb North America. The U.S. and Canadian foreign diplomacy is at an all time low. Why can`t we work with the regimes who wish to utilize nuclear power. One gets more with a handshake than a sword.

United States
October 29, 2007

Kashif in America writes:

Hey like I have commented before in your previous blogs you might feel you are honest, for example, but it still might come out as rude. I mean if I suggested to you that maybe you should wear a head scarf or I told more American women to wear it they might get offended yet I still feel like I am not offending American women by suggesting to them to wear it. I mean I meet a lot of pretty good looking Christian girls like every day and they are so tempting that I don't know what I should do. Sometimes they ruin my concentration that I can't even study when I am sitting in class and they think no one is looking at them when they wear their attractive clothing; arggggghhhhh I am getting frustrated just thinking about it. What should I do Tara? Why do you American women love to tempt us guys? I just want to study and get a good job and good wife that is all. Is that too much to ask for?

Arkansas, USA
October 29, 2007

Janice in Arkansas writes:

While it may be appropriate for people of different cultures/countries to thoughtfully discuss differences and serious issues that arise, there is also such a thing--too often forgetten--as simply exercising common courtesy, being respectful of a host people and their beliefs and mores and by not unnecessarily giving offense. More people, whether government, military, or everyday citizens (on a job or there as a tourist) should remember that whenever they appear in public or in someone's home abroad, they are representing the U.S.A. and telling (even just by dress, speech, or behavior) what "Americans" (read that "all Americans") are all about. It's worth remembering as well that something we may take for granted back in the U.S. (as, a particular style of dress, or a way of talking) may be greatly offensive to many others in the world. To moderate out of respect is not being unfaithful to self or home nation. And no, if an individual just plain does not like a host country or the people in it, and is not inclined to discover and learn more, then they should just go home.

New Mexico, USA
October 29, 2007

Eric in New Mexico writes:

Hi Tara, I'm not well known for my political correctness...(chuckle), but at least if I have complaint, you can bet I'll offer a solution along with. Seems only fair, and a fair way of putting it to voice generally fosters debate rather than hurt feelings.

I second RJ's comments, the cultural diversity of the American Southwest is long established in peace, trade, and the cross pollination of peoples. Home to nations within nation, and immigrant communities from across the globe. Might as well be the crossroads of the universe, considering all the international tourists that come every year.

Come to think of it, perhaps this would be an ideal place to host the (and/or future) upcoming regional peace conference on Palestinian/Israeli issues. The parties could see for themselves what peaceful coexistance looks like in practical application.

Kansas, USA
October 30, 2007

Ron in Kansas writes:

This is always a hard topic, but especially when it involves Americans "ideals" or ideas. The reasons we feel like it is important to share our "wisdom " with others seems to be largely based in the fact that we can.

Growing up in the states we have many opportunities to experience and see things that many in other parts of the world may not. I think it is important that we remember this is not always a good thing. One thing that seems to be common among our youth is that they always feel they have to experience the mistakes themselves in order to learn and/or grow from them. Exactly where in history has this been the right mindset.

For many countries/societies the "wisdom" associated with the older generations is accounted greater import than the guidance of the leaders in their perspective communities. If we look at this what can we find.

If one where to seek to define intelligence vs wisdom it might be seen in this manner:

Intelligence- The intelligence of an individual or a society is seen through it's decisions

Wisdom- The wisdom of said entities would be found in the results of those decisions

For countries where we go that have so many restrictions we must consider how they percieve the wisdom of our "ideals" vs their own.

Consider crime, divorce rates, children out of wedlock, family structures, honesty, integrity, faith, fortune, and goals just to start with. I think if you do an internal comparative analysis of just these you would very quickly be able to determine which battles to fight idealisticly vs which are better left to time and interaction to overcome.

Just my take on it for what little its worth>>>

United States
October 30, 2007

Eliza in U.S.A. writes:

I think being "true to one's own values" doesn't hold when you're traveling abroad. You travel to experience other cultures and values and to try to do things like the locals - which means you dress and behave like a local. This should be the goal and it should be FUN. If it's not then it just means you should maybe just go back home early if you can... I've had some people tell me if they travel to a Muslim country, why should they change their ways and dress... as an example one person said when Muslims come to his country they bring their customs and don't adapt to the English way of life and so he said why should I? That's the thing, in a country like the U.S. or any country that the culture is freedom of speech and religion, then the people should be free to express these rights. Because that's the cultures of these countries. If you travel to a Muslim country, then you have to respect their cultures. Maybe you say it's not fair, when tourists and immigrants come to our countries they have many freedoms... That's what culture, and "traveling" is all about - adapting to the rules and culture of wherever you are. If you're not traveling and instead going to a country to do "business", your feelings/experiences may be different when staying in a 5 star hotel or just mingling with expat friends... I've worked abroad a lot and don't expect a firm handshake but I'm sure wherever Ms. Rice goes she gets a firm handshake!!! So I see how you diplomats can look at things differently...

-I enjoyed reading your blog. Nice work!

New York, USA
October 30, 2007

Ronald in New York writes:

Diplomatic correctness requires both parties to maintain mutually accepted social expressions and values. We spend too much time focused on idiomatics of language, gesture, and religious norms. it is the underlying moral foundation of humanness which must be conveyed and shared.

Our differences have been over-determined by contentious dealings at the highest (lowest) levels of state. Most people in the world want to live in peace and understanding. It is governments who often harm relations by corrupting the normal interactions between nations.

California, USA
October 30, 2007

DS in California writes:

Codes, neat. Like PC in DC! I wouldn't have thought to move a comment from one post to another. I wonder, are you related to Tom, Alan, Laurence or Axel? Didn't Plame work in counterproliferation?

South Carolina, USA
October 30, 2007

Mike in South Carolina writes:

Excellent points. I recall my years in the U.S. Navy when I visited several countries in Southeast Asia. Each port call we made required us to sit through a short briefing on what to do or not to do while visiting our host nation. Most of it was very good advice. After all despite the fact that we were part of the U.S. military, we are still guests in their country. I think we would expect the same from anyone visiting the United States. Although we did have fun talking about some of the customs and traditions with the native people.

I never realized what a great country we have until you go somewhere else. Sure it's a wonderful experience and I wouldn't trade my experience for anything. But it's great to be back home!

Syrian P.
October 31, 2007

SNP in Syria writes:

Well we learned very important diplomacy lesson from the United States, shock and awe bomb them, radiate them with depleted uranium, threaten them with nuke as a diplomatic way of saying to countries we want all your oil and gas. Is not the Diplomacy diet fad is out and fascism is in and hip way.

October 31, 2007

Alexi in Australia writes:

All cultures are different therefore friendship and diplomacy are accepted differently. But overall interesting article.

October 31, 2007

Faisal in Yemen writes:


Every country has its positive and negative points and we have to be just.


October 31, 2007

Aldendeshe in Syria writes:

The U.S State Department is more about inaction and complacency by very low achievers who will protest on the first instance of being presented with a challenge or even a small change.

Look at the Middle East for the past 60 years, how much time and effort spent by U.S. Diplomats, were Diplomacy of the U.S. State Department in any measure effective in bringing peace and security to the region? Has it been minutely successful in using diplomatic means to introduce Democracy, or minimizing the gross Human Rights violations, trafficking in persons, sex slavery, child slave-labor.

The U.S. Diplomatic Corp, did not fail the Middle Easterner, they failed in the duty the Americans trusted in them, they let America down.

New Mexico, USA
November 1, 2007

Eric in New Mexico writes:


Regarding your comments to Joe, As what you describe is true and applicable, and Saudi society is part of the family of nations as a "given", then Sharia law logicly must intersect with the Universal Declaration of Human rights in a way that strengthens both, rather than intersect in violation of one or the other.

Discussion and debate to seek a perfect intersection of understanding is essential to peaceful change within societies, the welfare of the people's spirits, and the honoring of traditional values has been going on for millenia among religious leaders. They too ultimately answer to the people, as well as Allah.

While a society may be by nature resistant to change, as it follows beliefs that are seemingly permanent in nature, all things evolve, as change is inevitable. The planet we were given to be good stewards of (perhaps by default)is not static in nature, nor is the human spirit and its relationship to the universe.

Among people I've gotten to know from around the world ( living on or about the crosroads of the universe ), devout Muslims have a bit of an internal struggle in keeping with their beliefs as practice, when the world they've stepped into here seems to lack dicipline.

What works for them is not redily understood by us, and what works for us blows their minds....IE:culture shock.

Imagine if you will, such a conversation as you think will be a long time coming, is already happening...amongst themselves. The essential question, "Where do we fit in?" is pretty universal.

Just as it is human nature to talk about it.

Thanks for giving folks a chance. Regards,

November 1, 2007

Steve in Thailand writes:

I'm Steve, a "Brit" working in Thailand for a website called

I'd just like to say that my co-worker James from Texas is extremely diplomatically correct and a credit to his country.

Please take a look at our site if you get a moment and learn a bit more about Thailand and Thai ways (customs and culture).

United States
November 1, 2007

NewsSophisticate in U.S. writes:

In response to your email..Dipnote bloggers..I will definitely give "Dipnote" a chance. By far I am not against the Department of State or anyone else. The concept of the Department of State entering the blogosphere is slightly disturbing, though.. considering the rash of "fake news" coming out of the administration.

I believe in the Department of State. I even thought of trying to get a job at Dipnote. Diplomacy will always be the answer. Until the DoS begins to get the "lions share" of the defense budget the United States will always be on the "hunt". Please, bare with me. I love foreign policy, I love Condi Rice...I thought of Condi as an inspiration during my days at college. I just want her brilliance to shine and I believe she is being held back. She is a woman of peace and I admire it to the fullest. Condi's specialty is Russian Affairs..Let her use her brilliance where she is needed. Please, Dipnote, make a difference.

Let's get this straight. I am a patriot to the fullest. I believe in the United States and I believe in our leaders, but Washington is becoming much too partisan and that is not good for America or the rest of the world.

We need to plant a larger more diverse "garden of Diplomacy"...lately all we've been reaping is pathetic undersized carrots. Let's show the world how loving, kind, and respectful America is. Not what it once was. Please, put down the stick and offer something nutritious.

Dipnote...I respect your 'mission'. I respect the 'cause'. Bloggers are powerful and I wish the DoS the most power of them all. Ask for my service and I will do what I can. But, please...Help US, too.

Send me updates and I will participate. I urge Dipnote to make the listen to the people. We are you as you are U.S. I am not a U.S. basher like many..I love my COUNTRY.

"United we stand..Divided We Fall". Peace is the ultimate outcome we desire. Let's unite the divide together.

News Sophisticate.

Tennessee, USA
November 2, 2007

Stu in Tennessee writes:

Aw, the poor babies in the Foreign Service don’t want to serve in Iraq. "They may get wounded or killed" so says Jack Croddy their spokesman. What about the 3800 plus troops that have been killed in Iraq. They swore the same oath: "To support and defend the Constitution" that the Foreign Service Officers do. However, Troops dying aren't important to the State Dept. Troops aren't the Elite Foreign Services Officers. After all the Troops didn't go to Fletcher or Wharton.

The names and the faces change but today's Jack Croddys are the same blubbering Foreign Service Officers I served with on Province Advisory Teams in Viet Nam. They were willing to pocket their base pay, hazardous pay differential, housing and food allowances, live in air conditioned comfort with their maids [so called] all the while moaning that they were being treated unfairly. They always had 10,000 reasons why a task could not be completed but never one positive reason to accomplish it. We called this the State Dept. "WAT" [Work Avoidance Technique".

So what’s new.

District Of Columbia, USA
November 2, 2007

Darrin in Washington, DC writes:

Tara, you seem to think that "women must alter their mannerisms and dress". Perhaps you mean "Western women"? Because I can honestly say that I've seen many other visitors from other countries who didn't have to alter their mannerisms and dress (e.g. a Kuwaiti women).

Also, this "age-old wisdom to say something nice or don’t say anything at all"- what makes you think that this is universal wisdom?

Could it be possibly that your friends and acquaintances in Saudi Arabia think a lot like you? Because I wouldn't have made the above assumptions. Same goes for the "working together to improve weakness"- some cultures don't do that.

Rule no. 1 in Diplomacy- start with a blank slate. Work from there.

Dipnote Blogger Tara Foley writes:

@ Darrin in Washington, DC -- Thank you for your thoughts. A few musings of my own follow. Thanks for reading and I hope we hear from you again.

1. I originally had “Western women” in my writing, but then I thought on it for awhile. I thought of my friends and acquaintances from Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, and elsewhere, and I realized that my statement did not apply to Western women only. You are correct that some visitors don’t have to alter their mannerisms and dress. But many women do, including women from other parts of the Arab and Muslim worlds. Many of these women are accustomed to different lifestyles and greater independence than they have in Saudi, and so they must alter their mannerisms while they are there. Additionally, many of these women choose to cover (or not cover) in different ways, yet Saudi law dictates how they must cover (and consequently, how they “should” practice their religion). I’ve often wondered how this feels for Muslim women visiting or living in the Kingdom who are devout in their faith, but may not necessarily choose to cover themselves or express their faith in precisely the way that Saudi law requires.

2. I think working together to improve weaknesses is the foundation of international relations in our globalized world. Globalization allows both assets and threats to cross borders more easily, and a weakness in one place can have far reaching consequences. It’s not a cultural value, but a modern reality. And it’s because we and our partners and allies around the world recognize this that we are able to have such strong, mutually beneficial relationships with countries like Saudi Arabia, even if some aspects of our cultures and world views differ.

3. The blank slate is one approach to diplomacy. I personally don’t think it’s very realistic, nor even desirable. We and our partners and allies around the world (and, yes, our adversaries too) all have various experiences, values, motivations, and objectives. Knowing more about our international partners and what we all bring to the table is what allows us to maintain strong relationships and make progress as an international community.

New Mexico, USA
November 3, 2007

Eric in New Mexico writes:

If I were to interpret a "blank slate" it would be in the process of analysis in terms of tossing all the parameters of a situation, known and unknown, up in the air and seeing where they land of their own accord.


It took America just about 27 months, from 1942-45 to build an industry from scratch, based on designs from scratch, building a city from scratch to build a bomb from scratch, with only theories to go on, in the middle of the largest and most costly war in history. Yet we did this and ended that war that had cost 50 million lives up to that point with the weapon that no one knew would even work at the time it was being produced. In secret.

Now Iran has had at least 18 years, lots of help from other nations, black market smugglers, and their scientists have had proven designs to work with, and in all probability now has in its possesion, a handful of nuclear devices smuggled in after being bought on the black market. I don't believe the Mullahs nor the Rev. Guard trusted the devices to work properly, and took them apart to study.

This assesment may give pause for thought as to why the Iranians feel comfortable not coming to the table or abiding by chapter 7 resolutions, and the intent to push America into war by killing Americans in Iraq with the bombs the Rev. Guard quods force supplies as "causus belli" has a strategic objective.
To blame the war on the U.S., as "trigger happy".

If I may digress into some "Red team" thinking;
If I were an Iranian Mullah, I'd issue a fatwa prohibiting nukes, have my good friend in North Korea test one of mine to see if it works, but knowing I'm not going to defeat "Zionism" with one bomb and hope to survive I'd nuke Nantez and make it look like a sub launched missile using a conventional missile and a freighter, sink the freighter and blame that on them as well. Now I have a radar track to back up my story. And I can "retaliate".
By the time air samples were analized, I'd have the war I was looking for, and the global jihad Bin laden never succeeded in starting.

That's if I were a Mullah.

After all in their mindset, it is about prepping for the coming of the Mahdi. America stands in the way, and the destruction of America to a Mullah first lies in the destruction of our credibility in the world, to separate us from our allies.

I can roghly imagine the global political fallout from a seemingly "premptive" US suprise attack resulting from a false flag nuclear terrorist act, if it were to succeed.

How do you stop it? Publicize the recognition of the threat so that were it to happen, the global effect would be to direct blame on the true perpetrators.

This post may be regarded as premptive analysis in action, as such.


So that's one way of filling in a blank slate, but catch phrases like "working together to improve weakness" can be too generalistic to properly describe say, the activities of the P5+1, the diplomacy involved in maintaining UN Security Counsel credibility, and the global effort to properly resolve the threats to the humanity in many aspects. Be it disaster relief, or non proliferation, poverty or climate change, the unintended concequences of the actions of ethical infants, and/or genocidal meglomaniacs.

Working together and "in larger freedom" the family of nations can change the diapers of ethical infants. Why we keep having to prove the reasons for doing so to ourselves is beyond my analytical ability. Believe what you see and get your eyes checked often.

Now perhaps that wasn't politically correct, but it be the truth as I know it to be. Toss things up in the air enough and you see patterns, probability, and intent.


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