Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Exactly Who Are They Talking To?

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Polyglot

When I hear a political speech in English from a foreign politician or diplomat, I always wonder what is the intention of the message?  Who are they really talking to and what do they really want?  I mean, if the President of the United States intentionally speaks directly to the citizens of a foreign country through an interpreter, he is talking to them, not Americans.  When this happens, it’s usually to rally the people by talking around an oppressive regime or somehow repair a damaged American image.

Likewise, when I hear a foreign leader or representative speaking English when English is not one of their official languages, I conclude they are are not talking to their own people, they’re talking to Americans.  And then I wonder why?  There are plenty of examples of press conferences where someone from country X is talking to the world media, but the language they use is that of their own people.  Their own media doesn’t have to interpret.

But when they speak in English, the message is very different.  It’s directed to American politicans who direct America’s money and military and influence.  Or it’s directed at the American people who can be a soft touch for broad themes they’ve mined from our history like liberty or here recently, collective fear.  “This is not just a threat to us”, they like to say as if to say, “Support us if you know what’s good for you.”

Listeners need to listen close to what foreign leaders are saying or warning when they choose to speak in English.  It’s going to be significant to US foreign policy eventually.  At the same time, the dynamics of political speech aren’t that deep.  It’s just human interaction.  The level may be different but content and context aren’t much different.  Think of office cubicles with nuclear weapons and you’ve pretty much summed up the mundaneness of how people try to coerce each other on the geopolitical stage.

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Written by Interviewer

January 13, 2015 at 06:35

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