In 2008, during the period between President Barack Obama’s election and inauguration, the United States State Department came out with a new buzzword to accompany all of the others emerging in the evolving media environment: Public Diplomacy 2.0.
This approach is based off of Web 2.0, which is the notion that during the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Internet shifted from being a strict corporate producer to consumer model to an intricate web of production and consumption. Social media, blogs, and other websites that gave consumers power contributed to this shift.
Public Diplomacy 2.0 is focused on taking advantage of the new, grassroots nature of media and ever-globalizing society in order to shape the perception of America abroad. An example of how this tactic is facilitated is through study abroad students.
American Boston College students, whether they like it or not, represent the U.S. while they study abroad. This representation is not limited to the national, it extends to every aspect of one’s geographical identity, from region, to state, to city. Of course, this representation works in terms of other factors, like race and ethnicity, but I am limiting this to American geography for the sake of simplicity and the context of Public Diplomacy 2.0.
Gavi Covault, MCAS ’18, studied abroad in Amman, Jordan during the last spring semester. Amman has a fair amount of expats, but Americans are not extremely common. Her program consisted of 18 students from various American schools. The program immediately briefed the participants on the idea that many people in Jordan would not have encountered many Americans, and that the students may very well be the only ones they would ever meet.
Additionally, many students in the program were staying with host families, and should they act in a way that disrespects Jordanian cultural norms, their host families would have to deal with the reputational consequences long after their departure from the country. The stereotype of the bombastic drunk American was one that they specifically tried to avoid, Covault explained. For many students, partying is as vital to a complete study abroad experience as a passport, but due to the sociopolitical context of her experience, this was not Covault’s reality.
I also studied abroad during the last spring semester in Glasgow, Scotland. Glasgow is a progressive city that is in a period of rebirth after decades of post-industrial mismanagement and persistent social tension amplified by The Troubles and gang violence.
Once I began to think about this idea of representation, I asked a few friends from other countries if they felt pressure to represent their countries in a positive light. It is important to note that I was in an abroad program that was overwhelmingly white, and therefore many groups that are misrepresented in media were absent from my personal narrative.
One of my friends from Montreal, Canada, noted that some of the students from France viewed her experience as fundamentally different than theirs, despite their common tongue and cultural synchrities. One way that imperialism lives is through nationalism, and she felt this in the context of microaggressions from French citizens regarding her status as not truly “French.” One could easily imagine that this could affect her perception of French-Canadian interactions.
One night I found myself in a cab alone at about midnight. Glaswegian cab drivers are notoriously friendly and my experiences had been excellent in cabs throughout my whole abroad experience.
Naturally, the driver started to strike up a conversation. He immediately could tell I was American and asked where I was from. The second I told him New York, the conversation began to change as he became more careful with his words.
He first asked me if I remembered 9/11. I told him no, though I had some patchy memories as my town is in a suburb of the city, and my elementary school had a direct view of the skyline. The conversation continued, and he began to move more toward conspiracy theories around the attacks. I had heard these theories before and been in discussions about them, and immediately took issue with his arguments.
I was afraid to voice my opinions, however, because it was late and I was alone. Though the driver was incredibly friendly, and I’m sure that I could have engaged him further, I chose not to on the off chance it would become contentious. I got out of the cab smiling, tipped him the usual amount, and went on my way.
In retrospect, I wonder if I failed to do my duty in the context of Diplomacy 2.0. Rather than engage someone from abroad about a widely-discussed topic, I chose to remain silent to ensure my personal well-being. I assumed that me failing to encourage discourse would be inconsequential, which is something that is easy to feel while being an American abroad.
It is simply not in everyone’s nature to debate or delve into these complicated conversations while on vacation or even at a foreign university. I’m not saying that people should be argumentative, but if one is worried about the global perception of American actions, they do have the power to influence the opinions of others and promote change.
When American students study abroad, they represent their identities in a variety of ways, and it is essential to think critically about one’s interactions and to understand the magnitude of one’s impact on the international view of Americans.
BC students have a responsibility to be conscientious in precarious sociopolitical environments abroad, and to understand that their actions do have consequences. In countries where Americans are not heavily represented, it is important to think critically about what you are saying, and how it might reflect on the broader categories of your identity. As the world becomes increasingly influenced by grassroots activity, so does diplomacy, and understanding this can influence how culture is shaped, and potentially policy.
Featured Image by Meg Dolan / Heights Editor