"Hmmph, he's just being diplomatic."
You've heard this comment offered, usually derisively. The subtext is often: "He's being manipulative;" "He's afraid to say what he really thinks;" "He's setting you up;" or, most damning, "He's lying."
These subtexts may all be true, but they reflect a misunderstanding of the word "diplomacy" and the intent of being diplomatic. According to Meriam-Webster, diplomacy is "skill in handling affairs without arousing hostility." the synonym offered is "tact."
When your grandmother asks if you like her burned cookies you could say, "They're horrible, you stupid old broad," or you could say, "Thanks for asking, Grandma, they're quite extraordinary." The first response may be accurate, but the second is accurate as well as diplomatic -- and tactful.
The second is probably also the wiser choice unless you're out to burn bridges and are positive she doesn't have $100,000 socked away somewhere with your name on it -- in pencil.
We value honesty in this country. If there's anything both the reds and blues agree on it's the importance of honesty in our relations with each other. And our cross-ideological scorn for politicians who lie is another commonality. But too often we view diplomacy as lying, or a sign of weakness -- after all, if you're strong you can just do what you want.
But beating someone up is not a valid substitute for diplomacy.
Diplomacy begins with listening, not something Americans as a culture are good at, but, then, neither are the French and they pretty much invented the craft. It then requires empathy, a genuine understanding of the other's point of view. And despite our cultural bias, neither of these are particularly difficult -- although they do require some effort.
Here's the hard part. And it's the hard part for everyone from every culture who attempts diplomacy. You must hear the other side, empathize with the other side, and still represent your side. And not only represent your side, but get your side the best deal you can (all things considered) while allowing the other side to feel the same way.
It's this apparent dissonance between appearance and purpose that gets diplomacy its bad name. But the dissonance isn't real. I'm a liberal by inclination, but there are conservatives who have not only argued me to a standstill, but actually convinced me they were right and I was wrong. By listening to me, understanding what mattered to me, and then presenting their arguments in ways I was prepared to hear they changed my mind. When was the last time someone on the other side of the political scale convinced you of something?
Diplomacy isn't about being nice for the sake of being nice, it is a tool of negotiation. It is method for achieving your goals. It is manipulative but it doesn't imply either fear or lying. So if you want your Grandmother's sack of cash, or you want North Korea to back down, then listen, understand, and speak softly in terms the other understands.
And smile when you call me diplomatic.