Recently, Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, gathered his wife and kids for a state trip to India. The picturesque man and his picturesque family flew halfway around the world for a week of meetings and dinners with everyone from Indian government officials to Bollywood movie executives. What should have been an easy win for the young Trudeau government, turned into one of the biggest embarrassments of his administration.
Trudeau has all too frequently reached beyond sympathy to aggressively empathize with communities that he is not part of. He cried when he apologized on behalf of the Canadian Government to the LGBTQ community though he is not part of that community. He cried when he apologized on behalf of the Canadian Government to the First Nations, though he does not share their identity.
But on his trip to India, his attempts at joining in on local culture were taken to a new level of embarrassment. It would have been one thing for him and his family to wear traditional Indian clothes when they attended traditional events or visited traditional sites. Instead, the Trudeaus dressed in traditional attire for most of the entire trip.
The Trudeaus were criticized because most people in India do not dress that way anymore. They were criticized because their clothing was more ornate than what most own or can afford. They were criticized for wearing the traditional clothes everywhere. The most embarrassing moment came when Trudeau met with Bollywood moguls. While he and his family donned traditional Indian garb, the moghuls wore suits and ties. And they were not quiet about their criticism on social media.
Practitioners of public diplomacy face a tough challenge. As outsiders, they need to show that they acknowledge the local culture without implying ownership over it. They need to gain trust without appearing as a threat. They need to understand their audience’s identity without assuming it. They can do this the clothes that they wear. But going too far can lead to a costly blunder. Let Trudeau stand as a warning.
What you wear is an instrumental way of representing who you are, what you believe, and what you represent. We use clothing as an indicator to judge people we do not know every day. You walk past someone on the street wearing ripped jeans and a tanktop and you immediately make a judgement about who they are. The same goes for the person you pass in the expensive tailored suit.
In American politics, judging politicians by their clothing is an extremely common practice. Who could forget the Barack Obama “Tan Suit Incident?” In an effort to dress for the season, President Obama wore a tan suit while giving a press conference about national security in August 2014. Few remember the details of what he said at the press conference but the tan suit lives on. “How could he be serious about national security in a Tan Suit?” many claimed.
So how can those in public diplomacy dress in a way that acknowledges local identity without being overbearing or inappropriate? The secret is in symbols.
In her recent book, The Extreme Gone Mainstream, Dr. Cynthia Miller-Idriss examines the clothing associated with the recent white nationalist movement in Germany. Among her many findings, her discoveries around symbolism are striking.
In Germany, there are strict censorship laws around using Nazi Symbols, language, and references. So white nationalists have moved toward insider symbolism on their clothing or symbols for which only those the group understand there meaning.
For example, the number “88” is a symbol for the phrase “Heil Hitler.” Because 88 cannot be printed on clothing (per German law), shirts that say “89-1” or “87+1” have become popular.
Even culturally deeper, Nordic symbolism has made a revival in white supremacist clothing. Nordic folklore represents the rise of those with Nordic roots above all the rest. It equates to Nordic superiority.
This is a prime example of insider symbolism. To the untrained eye, the number 88 means nothing. But to those inside the group, it has meaning. To a German, they may see Nordic symbolism and think nothing beyond its significance to all German culture. A non-German might see it and just think it is cool looking. If I was shopping in Germany, I might easily accidentally buy extremist clothing. But to an insider, the symbolism has a different meaning.
Symbolism ties into national identity. Groups of people have shared history. This shared history is common among all members of the group. It evolves and is passed down from generation to generation. Narratives become part of this national identity. The idea of the “American Dream” is one example.
Symbolism too evolves as part of shared history. This can be the case at all community levels: a village, an entire country, an entire religious group.
It is tapping into symbolism where public diplomacy practitioners can acknowledge local culture without going overboard. A flower is important to a town that you are visiting? Wear it on your suit lapel. A color has a particular meaning? Wear a tie of that color. A local soccer team is playing a big match? Put on their scarf.
And do your research! Understand what certain colors represent to certain people. Learn what symbols your audience might find offensive. Dig deep into local history. Often these symbols are insider symbols so they require work and local expertise to uncover.
Using insider symbolism can have additional benefits. Your audience will be impressed that you understand their culture well enough to have tapped into them. On a subconscious level, they might even partially accept you as part of the community. Additionally, you evade criticism back at home for adopting part of local culture because these symbols are likely to go unrecognized by outside audiences.
The bottom line is that you should always wear the traditional clothes of your home culture. With the exception of participating in traditional ceremonies where it is expected that you wear a certain type of clothing, by going too far and completely adopting local garb, you will likely embarrass yourself and lose local credibility. Instead, by acknowledging a symbol within your clothing, you maintain your identity while showing that you recognize theirs.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. They do not necessarily express the views of either The Institute of Public Diplomacy and Global Communication or The George Washington University.