By Biljana Scott.
Professor at Oxford University, Senior Lecturer at DiploFoundation and Visiting Professor at the London Academy of Diplomacy.
‘Diplomatic language’ has a bad name, carrying connotations of equivocation, obfuscation and prevarication. And yet, as this article sets out to show, diplomatic language involves a valuable skill: knowing how to detect and deploy the unsaid. I define the ‘unsaid’ as ‘meaning conveyed implicitly through language’ rather than that which is not communicated at all or non-verbally through body language, and I suggest that a mastery of the unsaid is essential both to international and interpersonal diplomacy.
There are several good reasons for resorting to the unsaid: (1) we can keep our options open longer through equivocation; (2) we secure room for manoeuver through ambiguity; (3) we may plausibly deny what has been implied but not said explicitly; (4) we can persuade others better by priming them with stories-in-a-capsule (such as metaphors). And should you question whether these are ‘good’ reasons, then consider the following: (5) we can show tact and save face through indirectness; (6) we can enhance in-group identity and affirm community membership through tacit understanding (what need not be said because it is understood). And finally (7), since interpretation involves speculation, we are being true to our cognitive make-up when we fill in the gaps of sensory input (including linguistic input), with informed guesses about what that input might mean.
Having outlined the key functions of the unsaid, the remainder of this article identifies and exemplifies four types of implicit communication found in diplomatic discourse.
1. ‘Mind the Gap’
Gaps abound at many levels of language. At word-level, we find gaps between compound terms such as Public Diplomacy (diplomacy by, for or with the public?), and climate security (securing the climate against human emissions, or humans against climate change?). Between sentences we find gaps between the juxtapositions of parataxis (Have children. Will travel), a device repeatedly used by President Bush in the countdown to war in Iraq in order to associate Saddam Hussein with 9/11 in people’s minds: “Saddam Hussein is a threat to our nation. September 11 changed the strategic thinking, at least as far as I was concerned, for how to protect our country.”
Gaps may also be inserted through the device of scope ambiguity in order to give rise to multiple interpretations. Does the scope of the negative in The President may not ratify the treaty indicate that he is not allowed to, or that he is in two minds over ratifying it. Does the scope of ‘Olympic’ in No demonstrations are allowed in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas, extend to and include ‘other areas’? Scope ambiguity is frequently encountered in UNSC Resolutions.
Gaps can also be inserted through the addition of contrastive stress (‘Now this is worth considering’), and through the addition of prepositions in ‘power to’ or ‘power over’; ‘fear of’ or ‘fear for’; ‘to laugh with’ or ‘to laugh at’.
Further gaps abound between connotations and denotations, between intended and possible meanings (both within and across cultures), and between literal and ironical meanings. It is when we bridge gaps unwittingly, as we so often do, that they may prove misleading.
2: Stories in a capsule
One of the most effective forms of persuasion involves the manipulation of inference. By providing a narrative, we can structure our interlocutor’s perceptions and influence their actions. Narratives may be found in connotations, for instance, which tell a story by foregrounding certain attributes and backgrounding others (as in security fence vs apartheid wall). Metaphors and analogies similarly invite the listener to articulate the larger significance of what little has been said (bankers are wolves in shepherds’ clothing). Listeners can be covertly guided in their understanding of causes, consequences and ethics through the framing power of figures of speech.
Priming is particularly effective where values are implied. In the case of the Roadmap to Peace, the prior existence and attainability of ‘Peace’ as a destination is assumed by the metaphor, as is the resourcefulness of the various teams involved. The only reason, therefore, why the destination might not be successfully reached, allowing for a few trials and tribulations along the way, is because of lack of will power. Or so the metaphor would have us believe. Change the metaphor, and you change the associated expectations and value judgments.
There are many different forms of ambiguity, from vagueness to homophony, all of which depend on focus: how far one zooms out to a (potentially) deceptive larger picture, and how far one zooms into linguistic features or hidden assumptions.
Vagueness is canonically exemplified by the underspecification involved in the ‘One China’ policy (which China: PRC or ROC?), and by UNSC Resolution 242 where the absence of the article ‘the’ in “demands immediate withdrawal … from [the] territories occupied in the recent conflict.” raises the possibility of withdrawal from only ‘some’ territories, not ‘all’. Vagueness is also involved in the exact referent of special and differential treatment, reasonable force and Socialism with Chinese characteristics.
At the other end of the scale, lexical ambiguity concerns the presence or absence of particular features. Thus, sorry has the features [±responsibility]: (I’m sorry I hurt you vs I’m sorry the weather is bad), an ambiguity capitalised upon by the ‘Letter of the two sorries’ issued by the US over the Hainan Island Incident. Similarly ‘to sex up’ is ambiguous between the features [±mendacity], as Lord Hutton acknowledged in his summing up of the Iraq inquiry.
Homophony is another source of ambiguity potentially relevant to diplomacy. A play on cross-linguistic puns was initiated by Sir Charles Napier, who sent a one-word telegram in 1844 on the capture of Sindh consisting of the Latin word ‘peccavi’, Latin for ‘I have sinned’, homophonous with ‘I have Sindh’. Current examples of punning used in order to evade political censorship may be found in Chinese, a language which is naturally rich in homophones. The image of a river crab wearing three wrist-watches, for instance, is a popular icon derived from the homophony between the word for ‘river crab’ 河蟹 héxiè, and that for ‘harmony’,和谐, héxié, which occurs in a government policy on the ‘Harmonious Society’ that has come to symbolise official censorship. Similarly, ‘to wear a watch’ 戴表 dài biǎo, is homophonous with the word ‘represent’ 代表 dài biǎo, which occurs in another government policy that has come to be identified with censorship, namely the ‘Three Represents’.
4: Indirect Speech Acts
There are several ‘unsaids’ involved in courtesy, arising from the close correlation between directness and discourtesy: the more frank we are, the more face-threatening we seem. Conversely, tact invariably has recourse to implicit communication. One of the most pervasive reasons for cross-cultural (or indeed interpersonal), misunderstanding is the failure to recognise the discrepancy between what people say and what they mean by what they say. As in the joke about “what is the difference between a diplomat and a lady”, a seemingly simple utterances such as yes, no and maybe, can perform different actions depending on who is saying it, to whom, with what intention.
Since implicit communication is a particularly useful resource in diplomacy, for the reasons outlined in the introduction, it seems advisable to master the unsaid rather than be mastered by it. In order to do so, one needs to understand how the unsaid works and where it is most likely to arise and thrive. This summary of four categories of the unsaid provides a preview of how such an understanding might best be secured.