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An effective tool or a dangerous game? Asks James Landale, Diplomatic Correspondent for BBC News

Few diplomats can resist a good joke. Above all, they love jokes about their profession. They are the people who can tell you to go to hell in a way that makes you ask for directions; the honest men and women sent abroad to lie for the good of their country; the officials who can step on someone’s toes without spoiling the shine of their shoes. They love jokes about the countries where they work, weaving them seamlessly into telegrams to show their political masters their command of local mores and language. And they love a well apportioned gag that can leaven their official talking points at embassy functions. A laugh can go a long way to lighten the load of some appalling boilerplate.

But is diplomacy itself a laughing matter? The British Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, thinks so. In November last year, Mr Johnson told MPs on the Foreign Affairs Committee: “I think telling jokes is a very effective way of getting your diplomatic message across… Sometimes people greatly appreciate that you are talking to them in that informal way, while subtly getting your point across. It can be a little bit condescending to think that they do not get the point.”

Mr Johnson was responding to the committee chairman, Tom Tugendhat, who had publicly criticised the Foreign Secretary for his diplomatic deployment of humour. The previous month he had told the House Magazine: “There are many people who don’t understand quite how difficult it is to translate humour, because humour is fundamentally cultural. It is really, really hard to do cross-cultural humour. I just think that at the moment, when what we really need is a very, very cool headed, stern and strategic look at our foreign policy and our alliances, what we need is a very, very cold and considered approach to our foreign strategy… I just think that it’s very, very hard to make humour work in international environments, which is why very few serious politicians try it.”

So, who is right?

Humour can undoubtedly help diplomacy. It can encourage people to accept your arguments. The comedian, John Cleese, once said: “If I can get you to laugh with me, you like me better, which makes you more open to my ideas. And if I can persuade you to laugh at the particular point I make, by laughing at it you acknowledge the truth.” Or as George Bernard Shaw put it: “If you are going to tell people the truth, you better make them laugh; otherwise, they’ll kill you.”

Humour can calm a tense moment and put an opponent back in their box. In 1960, the British prime minister, Harold Macmillan, was addressing the United Nations when the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, started shouting and hammering on his desk (some reports say he used his shoe but this is disputed). Mr Macmillan paused and said: “I’d like that translated, if I may.” In print, it does not sound like a great joke. But in the UN chamber, it brought the house down and pricked Khrushchev’s pomposity.

Humour can provide a moment for self-deprecation which can be useful in a negotiation. In 1948, some ambassadors in Washington were asked by reporters what they wanted for Christmas. The French Ambassador said world peace. The Russian Ambassador said freedom from imperialism. The British Ambassador, Sir Oliver Franks, said he would like a small box of crystallised fruit. Some say Sir Oliver had simply mistaken the nature of the question. But others suggest this was deliberate irony designed to puncture his counterparts’ more grandiose visions.

Diplomats can use humour to sugar a pill. At the UN general assembly in New York last year, there was a rather tense meeting between some European foreign ministers and the Burmese national security adviser over his country’s treatment of the Rohingya. The foreign ministers delivered some tough messages. But a diplomat who attended the meeting said that Boris Johnson displayed such bonhomie and good humour that he made it impossible for the poor Burmese official to walk out in a huff.

Social media has offered new ways of using humour for diplomacy. The Russian Embassy in London has deployed sarcasm and jokes via its twitter feed to push back against its opponents. I do not know who writes the tweets but they are clearly English. No Russian would write “Cor blimey, Edward. Britain hasn’t actually fought a land war against Russia since 1855!” in response to an article bemoaning the lack of UK land forces in eastern Europe. But it makes a point as well as prompting a smile.

And yet there are limits. Humour can be risky. At the Conservative Party Conference last year, Mr Johnson came unstuck when he suggested that the war-torn Libyan city of Sirte could be like Dubai “once they clear the dead bodies away.” The analysis may or may not be right but the tone was seen by many as lacking taste.

Humour can also be misconstrued. Mr Johnson is well known for his jovial bonhomie but some ambassadors have told me how much they squirm when the Foreign Secretary begins any talks or press conference with remarks in their own language, or at least something approaching it. Instead of being engaging and warm, it can appear patronising and mocking. To many Britons, this might appear a touch sensitive on the part of overseas envoys. But what many Brits fail to remember is that much of their humour comes at the expense of foreigners – “Don’t mention the war,” “Nobody expects the Spanish inquisition,” “An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman” and so on. And the New Statesman recently recounted an early reception when Mr Johnson welcomed foreign ambassadors by declaring: “We have invaded, defeated or conquered most of your countries, but we are here as friends.” Many envoys were horrified at what the Foreign Secretary clearly saw as a joke.

The most serious risk, however, is that humour can lead to a diplomat being treated less seriously. At the Foreign Office Christmas party last year, Mr Johnson gave a speech which contained several jokes but little substance. “What am I going to put in my Christmas telegram?” an ambassador wailed at me. The risk is that the more a diplomat becomes known for his or her gags, the harder it might become for them to deliver serious messages. Jokes may make people laugh but they should not undermine credibility.

My own favourite joke about diplomacy is the one that defines the art as ‘skating on thin ice while swimming in murky waters.’ It is a definition that could apply equally to the art of making diplomatic jokes.


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