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Cultural Conundrums & Canapes

charlesHaving attended up to 35 diplomatic functions a week, former UK Ambassador Charles Crawford covers the finer details of diplomatic entertaining 

For senior diplomatic digestive tracts it’s simple. A seven-day working week has seven breakfast slots; seven lunch slots; 14 drinks party slots; and seven dinner party slots. That adds up to 35 possible diplomatic functions.

In an especially busy week a Head of Mission might be found taking part in 25 or more events, laden with morning coffees and afternoon teas thrown in for good measure. By the end of the week these functions have long since ceased to be pleasurable.  You want to sit at home over cocoa with beans on toast and tackle your weary tax return, far from bright international chatter and canapés laden with tragic blobs of mayonnaise.

As UK Ambassador to Serbia I had one horrible week, starting with a 0500 flight to Montenegro on Monday morning, then non-stop meetings/events/functions here and there until Saturday evening, when we were invited to a friend’s birthday dinner at a restaurant. At that final and otherwise agreeable event of the week I dozed off at the dinner table.

Such a merciless, bloated schedule helped me decide to quit the UK diplomatic service. We worked out that we had had some 5,000 people a year through our residences in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Warsaw for nine years. Everything from small private top-level dinners for members of the Royal Family to the annual Queen’s Birthday Party with 1,400 guests. Enough was enough.

I recall fondly the best food I had in my diplomatic career. It was served by Japan’s Ambassador in Serbia. The Japanese foreign ministry ran a scheme to bring young Japanese cooks to the diplomatic circuit. This particular genius prepared a stunning dinner of Japanese delicacy crossed with French culinary aplomb. Let’s be honest: whatever your nationality, a dash of French élan never goes amiss at senior diplomatic events. The 2004 State Banquet hosted by HM The Queen for President Kwaśniewski of Poland was magnificent on all fronts, including the menus – written in French.

Diplomatic entertaining has two modes: when you’re host, and when you’re a guest. The latter first.

It’s easy to be a diplomatic guest. Just be polite. Show up when you’ve undertaken to do so, dressed appropriately. Then do not get drunk or behave disgracefully. If the event is something special (i.e. not ‘just’ a reception), write a quick, short personal thank-you letter afterwards.

The worst diplomatic guests break these simple rules.  It’s awful if a guest behaves badly at an event. What’s  almost worse is if they fail to appear at the function when they have promised to do so: rude in itself, but also highly inconvenient for the host/hostess and other guests, especially if the event is a formal dinner with a seating-plan. If something happens to make it impossible for you to attend as promised, tell your hosts ASAP so they can launch Plan B.

Cultural factors play a huge part in entertaining and etiquette. In the ‘Western’ tradition it’s good to be reasonably punctual for the start of an event, and then not outstay one’s welcome. In other cultures things are flexible. Guests appear long after the scheduled start, bringing friends or relatives not on the guest list. Or, horror, they appear early to behold the final panic as everything is being set up. Gentlemen appear with ladies who are not (ahem) their wives. Then they don’t leave, working mercilessly through whatever alcohol is still being served or otherwise available. Problem? Solution! An LP of modern Slovenian opera sends lingering guests scurrying for the exit.

Sometimes receptions are large, crowded, hot and noisy. It’s too much of a crush to get anything useful done, or even hear what others are saying. Follow the advice given to me by a wily Russian ambassador: “Make your way steadily to the wall at the far end of the room, touch the wall, make your way back to the door, then leave.” More than sufficient.

What if you’re a diplomatic host? Here are some simple tips.

It’s all about details

Never underestimate details. We had to host a dinner for a member of the Royal Family visiting Poland. We ran a practice lunch of the chosen menu. All was well until delicious lightly grilled cherry tomatoes appeared. One false prongful:  squirt, juice everywhere. Blasting molten tomato over a countess’s beautiful dress is unlikely to improve your career prospects. That’s why no sane diplomat serves spaghetti. You never know where the sauce will end up.

The worst top-level British protocol (and substantive) blunder I heard about came during the State Visit by The Queen to Poland in 1996. The wrong guest-list was used for sending out the final invitations to The Queen’s return banquet. Several Polish guests faced the horrible situation of turning up as formally invited for the banquet when they were not on the official list. Exquisite embarrassment. The Queen invited these Polish guests the next day for a private audience, so all ended well (enough). What had gone wrong? In the swirling, tiny changes to all the State Visit arrangements, the details of the very final guest-list had not been attached to real life.

A warm glow

The whole point of diplomatic entertaining is to build senior relationships. That’s why you don’t press on work issues at events you host. Your guests need to leave with a warm glow. They have enjoyed your company and the opportunity to meet your other guests, and look forward to meeting you again: discuss the diplomacy of the Syria migrant crisis then.

No-one feels uncomfortable

Say and do nothing to make any guest feel uncomfortable. Don’t make supposedly witty personal remarks in welcoming speeches. And bring everyone in. A dinner party that leaves a guest isolated because he/she cannot join the conversation perhaps for language reasons is a failure. Hence (in my view) it’s fine, within reason, to abandon formal protocol hierarchies to make sure that over the table everyone can relax. Announce the rules in light-touch terms at the start:

“Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen! We all know and love protocol rules. Tonight I have taken a bold decision. I have dispensed with all protocol hierarchies in the seating plan! This means we can all enjoy talking to each other in whatever languages we care to use.”

This departure from protocol is highly dangerous! I know that. But I’m confident that we’ll use all our accumulated experience and avoid a massive diplomatic incident…

Something like that works fine round a table. VIPs wanting a quiet private chat can do so over coffee afterwards.

Don’t underdo it

Organising a large reception? Think hard about how it will work on the day. Are there enough waiters and drinks tables so that annoying queues don’t develop? Can nibbles circulate democratically and not get scoffed by greedy guests lurking near the door? Are there towels in the loos? Is the microphone positioned sensibly so that speeches can be delivered easily to everyone in the room? Does it work? Details are essential!

Special touches

Making a diplomatic event ‘different’ so that guests really enjoy it usually requires extra work and extra money, and a zany if not undiplomatic imagination. Hence most diplomatic events are stolid affairs. Why take risks?

I tried to ring the changes. In Belgrade I hosted a reception to promote Foster’s Lager (in its European form it counts as a UK export). But Foster’s is a giant Australian brand, so I borrowed a kangaroo (in fact a wallaby) from a passing Serbian zoo. Sensation. Another idea worked well in Poland, when I asked the British School to provide a young girl to sing the UK and Polish national anthems at our Queen’s Birthday Party. Beautiful, touching, and much appreciated.

Look out for distinguished visitors who are in town for nothing to do with diplomacy. In Warsaw I heard that Michael Palin, of Monty Python  fame, was coming to Poland to make another of his praised TV documentary travel programmes. We invited him to the residence to meet some friends. He enjoyed the chance to escape the hotel and relax. He had been all over the planet making these programmes: no UK ambassador had ever invited him before.

My finest diplomatic function? In 2003, 200 Newcastle United football fans were corralled in their Belgrade hotel by the Serbian police, and so I invited them to my residence to avoid the trouble. We set up a spontaneous party of beer and sandwiches with 40 minutes’ notice. Diplomatic entertaining should never be stuffy.


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