My natural talent for being a wise-cracking asshole was tempered by my years working for the United Nations. After serious training, I learned how to avoid offending people from around the world – it was a job requirement. On any given day, I spoke to 100 + people who came for a tour of the UN. Leading my flock through halls and meeting rooms, I spouted the latest Security Council resolutions condemning either Israel or South Africa (this was the 80s) and hedging my way through questions posed by irate visitors about why the UN would not intervene in Tibet or Northern Ireland. Uncomfortably, I lectured Japanese tourists in my abysmal Japanese, about the importance of nuclear disarmament while surrounded by melted artifacts from Nagasaki and Hiroshima. I learned to deliver the information – passionately, but without personal opinion. This meant no smirks, frowns, glee or embarrassment – unless officially sanctioned by the international community.
It wasn’t easy. I’m pretty opinionated and used to delight in verbal sparring. Sometimes, still do. But to this day, I value the skills I picked up in those international rooms. One key to maintaining a mask of control and fending off potential conflict is to have a script — a few non-commital words expressing whatever the neutral party line is. This still comes in handy. Just the other day, someone cornered me at work wanting to know what I thought about the competition shutting down in the next town. “It’s always sad when a bookstore closes.” I said. And while this is true in theory, in reality, I think: better them than us — I sure hope that we get a bump in business comparable to the hit we took when they opened.
Often, being diplomatic can just mean keeping your mouth shut, and that really doesn’t come easily to me. I have only gotten fired once in my life – from a waitressing job when I was in college. Too many years have passed for me to recall the exact exchange, but a customer was rude to me and I dished it right back. In retrospect, I admire that gal but today, I need my day job.
Keeping my mouth shut was a skill I really got to practice in the war zones of former Yugoslavia. You don’t want to piss anyone off when Kalashnikovs are around. A neutral smile, courtesy and a United Nations blue passport were all useful in getting through checkpoints manned by sometimes drunken Serbs, Croats or Bosnians. This discipline of not inflaming dicey situations still helps me today: I avoid road-rage incidents on Route 1 and can defuse the instinct to punch the lights out of unpleasant customers in the bookstore. I think a certain amount of public neutrality is common sense – who wants their window smashed by a right-winger offended by a ‘Planned Parenthood’ or ‘Support Our Soldiers: Bring them Home’ sticker? The only bumper-sticker I have on my car says “READ”. I think that’s safe.