The Washington Post Column

A Failure to Communicate

For the sake of my hosts — and for the sake of the transatlantic relationship that they were trying to promote — I am not going to tell you precisely what country I was in, but a couple of days ago I listened to the foreign minister of that country make a dinnertime speech. The speech was not made after dessert, in the American manner, when guests are relishing the last spoonfuls of creme brulee, and are only too glad to cut short the conversation they have been trying to have with the delightful but incomprehensible Latvian on their left. Instead, the speech was made before dinner, in the Continental manner, when there was nothing on the table except breadsticks and fizzy water. Naturally, the speech was Continental too.

By that I mean that the speech was extremely polite and elaborately embellished. Much use was made of phrases such as “transnational institutions” and “multilateral procedures.” Many optimistic references were made to forthcoming European Union initiatives. Concern was expressed for the peoples of other regions. Then, about three-quarters of the way through the speech, a crucial point was made. “Here in Country X,” said the foreign minister firmly, “we are comfortable with American leadership.” I looked around the room. The other Americans were either staring up at the beautifully painted ceiling or gazing down at their woefully empty plates.

Afterward, I asked some of them if they had enjoyed the speech. A few rolled their eyes. Most couldn’t remember it. One actually sharply disparaged the foreign minister, whom he described as “the type of person who wants to make the world safe for cocktail parties.” The problem, I realized, was linguistic, and it is a very deep problem indeed. Although there was an interpreter present, few of the Americans had actually understood the speech. If the foreign minister had stood up, made two jokes, made the one serious point — which was, as I understood it, “we still support you even if France doesn’t” — and then sat down again, the Americans present would have responded with a standing ovation. But in Europe — and in other places that have inherited the European diplomatic tradition — the point of a public speech is not to ruffle feathers, not to offend anyone and not to say anything too directly. Clarity is rude.

Obfuscation is a virtue.

Americans are different. Americans believe clarity is a virtue and obfuscation is rude. Although I realize that this is a deeply unoriginal observation, made long ago by Henry James, Mark Twain and others, I have become convinced that these very old differences in the use of language, and in the making of speeches, have lately grown much wider. The European Union is partly to blame, as it has created a culture of overt consensus and covert disagreement. But Sept. 11, 2001, is to blame too, because it convinced many Americans that the time for talking is over and the time for action has begun. Confronted with standard diplomatic waffling, an American, nowadays, is likely to assume that the speaker’s vagueness indicates moral weakness as well.

Confronted with forthright American speakers, on the other hand, Europeans are just as likely to turn away in disgust. Donald H. Rumsfeld’s occasional off-the-cuff remarks are the most famous example of this phenomenon, but he has been unfairly singled out. In fact, his style merely epitomizes a wider change. On the same day as the foreign minister’s speech, I also listened to an American official make a completely uncontroversial statement: Americans, he said, will never, ever allow any international authority to override the Constitution. This has always been true. It isn’t usually put that way, however, and many of the Europeans present were offended: “So he thinks Americans should do what they want and everyone else has to do what the Americans want?” It wasn’t what he said, it was the way he said it.

Alas, it isn’t possible to quantify what this notable change means with any sort of precision. But I think it’s worth pointing out that something has changed, because it helps to explain why it seems so difficult at the moment to convince anyone else of our point of view. To put it bluntly — we are no longer speaking the same language.