Meeting PhD Students at the Laundrymat Doing Public Diplomacy Work

Ladies and gentlemen I introduce to you: randomness at work.

Sitting at the laundrymat in Dresden, Germany waiting for my clothes to be washed. Reading. Two young Americans walk in and begin to try to understand the German instructions for the washing machines. Confusion. Frustration. Since a German lady had just helped me, I felt obligated to extend the help to others, especially fellow Americans. I watched them struggle for a couple minutes, then called out, "You guys need some help?" A huge sigh of relief comes across their faces at the realization: a native speaker is in their presence!

We start talking and I learn they’re PhD students at the University of Southern California. They’re doing some fascinating work at USC’s new Center on Public Diplomacy and are here in Dresden for a conference. They’re traveling around Europe on grants and research money interviewing folks about the Danish cartoon scandal, presenting papers on wireless communication in Zimbabwe, and generally having a good time. It’s all really important work. I told them I want to contribute to a larger cause which targets: a) the Arab world around values of freedom and democracy, and b) China around values of free speech. I especially want to hit youth using technology.

If you’re interested in the USC Center on Public Diplomacy, check out their web site which is complete with a blog and RSS feeds. Here’s their definition of public diplomacy — every U.S. citizen can do his/her part (especially when Europeans surveyed think the U.S. is a greater threat to global security than Iran):

The USC Center on Public Diplomacy defines public diplomacy as "focusing on the ways in which a country (or multi-lateral organization such as the United Nations) communicates with citizens in other countries." Going a step further is the US Advisory Group on  Public Diplomacy for the Arab and Muslim World, which  calls public diplomacy outright "promotion of the national interest."

But public diplomacy has been found to be most effective, not by radiating messages to the masses by TV satellites, but through credible interlocutors who are locally regarded with great esteem, and whose views and opinions are accepted by the masses. As Sir James Fitzjames Stephen remarked in 1873, "The way in which the man of genius rules is by persuading an efficient minority to coerce an indifferent and self-indulgent majority."

Thank you God of Randomness!

8 Responses to Meeting PhD Students at the Laundrymat Doing Public Diplomacy Work

  1. Tim Taylor says:

    Ben,

    This is a GREAT story, except maybe for the “particularly because they were American part”… It’s fantastic to consider the string of events that led to that meeting.

    I struggle to see that as random however…

    Thanks for sharing this, sounds like you are having a great time.

  2. Ryan Kellett says:

    I too applaud the helping others when you can but am continually curious as to why Americans greet each other abroad like friends. It is my experience that this happens all the time when traveling.

    The real question is would you equally have helped someone if they clearly weren’t from the USA? What does your answer depend on? Language?

  3. Ben Casnocha says:

    I would have tried Ryan, but I doubt I would have been succesful. I should have been clear — I said “especially since they were American” because I knew I could help them, ie we both spoke English in a German speaking place.

    Americans greet each other abroad as friends — yeah, I’ve seen this too. Makes sense to me: a common bond greases good relationships.

  4. I always cringe a little when I hear Americans say that they want to educate Chinese about free speech.

    To a large extent, there already is free speech in China, except about a few politically-related subjects. Just like in the US. Except that in China, the discussion is in Chinese!
    Why do some Americans want to interfere by getting Chinese to talk about a few taboo subjects which the vast population are not interested in?

    If you want to help public diplomacy, the best way is to go somewhere, assume nothing, and just listen to others first. If Americans and others did this more, there would be a great deal less hostility in the world.

  5. Nick B. says:

    You should have used your German skills with the Americans, just to mess with them.

  6. Ben Casnocha says:

    Thanks Paul for the thoughtful comment.

    I agree that the best kind of public diplomacy is to listen, not assume, and try to learn, then present your perspective. I clearly didn’t convey this well enough in my blog post.

    “A few politically-related subjects” I think seems like a gross understatement. Political subjects are the bedstone of a society that evolves through civil discourse.

    When you say the vast population is not interested in talking about these subjects, I would say that’s because they don’t know any other reality. It’s like many women in the Arab world who say they don’t mind having virtually no rights and having to cover themselves. That’s an extreme example, but I think it holds true in all areas of life: if you know of no other alternatives, you’re likely to accept your current state as fine. That’s why it’s the responsibility of people who know of other and better alternatives to communicate how and why it works for us.

    What do you think of this?

  7. Ryan Kellett says:

    I agree with Paul in that there is already free speech in China to a great extent. Anything can be said around the dinner table (think the equivalent of the European pub where the hidden transcript comes out amongst friends). I would argue that Chinese college students, who I’ve had the most contact with, have at least a basic idea of the reality of free speech. Surely, their idea of it is not as complex as it could be but even still many students either do not care (much more happy to discuss the new CD she bought or his grade on the last exam) or choose to support the government’s censorship. In a straw poll conducted by a english language teacher at Shantou University, students voted two to one in favor of the government censoring politically sensitive internet sites.

    I’ll admit that I am one to “interfere” by wanting Chinese students to voice their opinions because they do have interesting things to say and the world should get a chance to hear. In fact, I’m trying to start a web-based project with Chinese college students right now. But I don’t force them to talk about “taboo” subjects. If I bring up a politically sensitive issue and the students don’t have any reaction, that says something in itself. All I cand o is offer these young people my own perspectives.

  8. Chris Yeh says:

    Life is full of extraordinary people. We just have to be open to them.

    The professor of your class may have a storybook life: link to chrisyeh.blogspot.com.

    The skinny kid behind you in line at an event may be an Internet mogul with incredible reach: link to oskoui.com.

    Or the girl you happen to meet at a party may end up becoming your wife.

    The point is to be open to the possibilities.

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