Foreign Policy Faux Pas: 6 Ways to Talk Policy Without Being A Jerk


To anyone who talks politics, this scenario will sound annoyingly familiar:

It starts off with a simple conversation about why foreign aid in Pakistan is failing, and the next thing you know you’re getting GDP, CPI, and STD numbers – all adjusted for inflation – lobbed at your head.

Nobody likes a know-it-all, but in politics they are everywhere. Unwittingly end up in a conversation with one of these social lepers and you’ll wish you were you sitting in JFK’s convertible waving to a Texas crowd.

To make sure you don’t become a walking political punch line, follow these simple steps for talking policy without being an ass.

1. Ivy League, Schmivy League

It’s Harvard graduation day! Congratulations! You’ve worked incredibly hard to earn that Kennedy School fleece you inevitably wear to class, friendly get-togethers, and with your provincial reconstruction team during a Baghdad summer. But guess what? The name on your diploma – aside from guaranteeing you a job wherever you want – does not necessarily mean you have a clue as to what you’re talking about. Just ask any number of alumni there or at any other major policy institution and you’ll quickly find out that many of their classmates are completely full of it. So remember, when talking with others about the Syrian crisis, don’t name-drop the top line of your diploma, discount ideas from the “riff-raff,” or take a job at the State Department unless you know what you’re doing!

2. Never assume you know it all

If your opening line in a conversation about foreign policy is, “My thesis was on …” then you’re well on your way to being a pedantic turd. The minute you start assuming you know more than everyone you meet because you went to college, had a summer internship, and spent a semester in Paris is the same minute you stop keeping an open mind, learning new things, and making new connections.

3. Listen more than you talk

Ask questions and speak when spoken to. Nobody wants to listen to your 45-minute presentation on land grabbing issues in Ethiopia, especially without a Power Point or some other distraction from your vapid, long-winded drivel. Keep your statements short and allow others the room to respond without interruption.

4. Don’t quote dead theorists

Immanuel Kant once said, “If man makes himself a worm he must not complain when he is trodden on.” Take that one quote to heart, and forget the rest. While the genius of Wallerstein, Plato, Morgenthau and the lot may interest you personally, don’t think it resonates with the larger audience. The second you start rattling off Machiavelli, people will immediately hope you end up like him. So leave the smoking jacket and ironic pipe at home, as well as yourself if you can’t come up with your own material.

5. Admit when you’re wrong

Consider this a life skill, not just a foreign policy one. The only thing worse than a know-it-all is one that won’t admit when they’re wrong. Remember the Neocons? They were masters of clinging so strongly to an ideal that people actually believed – and some still do – their ill-conceived nonsense. Have you enjoyed what that brought us? I didn’t think so. Stand up for your point, but know when it’s time to concede defeat. Who knows, you might even learn a thing or two!

6. Never yell to make your point

BUT THE IRANIANS WANT TO DESTROY ISRAEL!!! Aside from being wrong, it’s also annoying as hell. The minute you start yelling over people, you will lose your audience. Keep calm and carry on. If need be, bring a pillow to scream in to. Then take a long, deep breath – preferably from an exhaust hose – and make your way back down to earth. We’ll all still be here, and will be much more willing to listen to your point if spittle isn’t hitting us in the eye as you spew your pretentious diatribe because we disagree.