by Kate Otto
We must regain, or build anew, our capacity for thoughtful, undistracted human interaction; we must think of ourselves as everyday ambassadors. Ambassadors, in this sense, hearken the spirit of diplomatic and cross-cultural communicators, the kind of border crossers who represent their national interests in pursuit of a peaceful world. But rather than representing a nation or specific population, everyday ambassadors stand for a single, simple, powerful idea: that thoughtful human connectivity is the answer to most of our social ills in an increasingly digitized world. Rather than crossing borders of nation-states, everyday ambassadors cross borders of comfort zones, amending the communication lapses that are so prevalent in our environments, both online and offline. This everyday style of ambassadorship represents the ideal of being a human connector in an increasingly digital world, and it promotes the use of technology in ways that honor, preserve, and celebrate our humanity.
Some everyday ambassadors are those who quite literally change the world with their savvy, like Patrick’s digital humanitarianism, saving the lives of victims of natural disasters. Yet everyday ambassadorship is just as important in our own homes, neighborhoods, and communities—refraining from looking at our phones while we’re out to dinner with friends, organizing coworkers to spend a day at a community garden, dutifully facilitating annual charity fundraisers for a favorite nonprofit. Everyday ambassadors, contrary to the conventional image evoked of wealthy world diplomats who often receive their posts as political favors, do not require passports or plane tickets in order to have an impact in the world. Their qualifications lie instead in the realm of the intangible, immortalized in the sage words of Maya Angelou: “People will never forget how you made them feel.”
An everyday ambassador is, quite simply, a bridge builder. A connector of the proverbial dots. An individual willing to transcend not just borders, like gender, nationality, and ethnicity, but the limits of our innermost comfort zones, in order to meaningfully connect and find common ground with others. Everyday ambassadors are willing to rethink, or altogether eliminate, stereotypes of people with whom they have little in common, whether they’re friends, family members, or strangers on the street. They honor differences and seek out hidden shared interests. They also help others rethink deep-seated, oftentimes false, assumptions in a gentle, nonjudgmental manner.
Everyday ambassadors strive to make the world a better place, whether globally or locally, and do so with a strong focus on crafting respectful, responsible human relationships. Everyday ambassadors reject terminology like saving or helping others, and instead phrase relationship building in terms of two-way exchanges and mutual growth, remaining self-aware, flexible, and culturally sensitive in their daily interactions.
The term everyday ambassador was coined with respect to the ongoing trend toward social impact work, made easier by modern digital technology, including study abroad programs, religious missions, gap-year internships, and scholarship and fellowship programs. The term also speaks to the ever-diversifying demography of nearly all nation-states, as a result of immigration and globalization, and applies to people who build bridges between diverse communities within their own countries, cities, or neighborhoods. Whether we operate locally or globally, diversity increases the likelihood that different viewpoints might clash and creates more need for mediators who see shared values beneath superficial differences. The solutions to our world’s most intractable problems, as well as preventing more problems from emerging, require some serious ambassadorial skill sets.
Being an everyday ambassador is not so much a title as it is a way of life. Yes, being an everyday ambassador can mean fighting HIV/AIDS in Indonesia with an informed and humble approach. But it also means kindly addressing your morning barista by name, not taking out your bad mood on an unsuspecting bus driver, or replacing passive-aggressive behavior with peaceful, honest conversations at home and in the workplace. You might be surprised that the smallest efforts can make the most enormous difference.
Opportunities for everyday ambassadorship exist all around us. They are abundant anytime we travel abroad, like learning local languages and customs in advance, in order to show respect for the communities into which we hope to integrate. We can even modify our vocabularies to show more consideration for other cultures. For example, travelers often use the term Third World country to describe a nation in which many people remain impoverished, where the travelers feel compelled to visit and to “help.” Yet this term, understandably, is somewhat insulting to a person from that country, as there exists an underlying implication that third means lesser or of a lower class. (Interestingly, this now common association between economics and numerically categorized countries is misplaced; such ordering originated during the Cold War, when Third World countries distinguished themselves as peaceful and politically neutral, refusing to side with Western NATO First World Allies or with the Communist Second World Bloc.) Replacing this derogatory phrasing with other terms—like the Global South, identifying nations south of the equator, or a developing economy—makes no implied social judgments about people living in that country and gets us started off on a kinder first note.
We can also be more careful with the language we use to describe the work we hope to achieve in a new place, so as not to belittle or disempower those we aspire to serve. For example, I might feel intimidated if a group of foreigners descended on my city sporting bright, matching T-shirts and proclaiming, “Save North America!” And so I imagine that Kenyans or Ghanaians feel the same if a group of volunteers, no matter how compassionate or well-intentioned, arrive at airports proclaiming their roles as continental saviors instead of their desire to be partners, or just friends! Oftentimes we’re genuinely unaware of the message our daily language might send to others, and so even these slight modifications in personal word choice can make a world of a difference.
Being an everyday ambassador is also crucially important in our own cities and communities, where exclusionary attitudes, about everything from religion and gender to socioeconomic status, race, and lifestyle, often still prevail. Prime examples of everyday ambassadors at the local level are the people who spoke up, online and in person, to defend Cheerio’s 2013 commercial featuring an interracial couple after it received racist commentary online. Or the smalltown South Carolinians who held support vigils for their local police chief, who happened to be a lesbian, after her homophobic boss fired her in 2014. They are the Freedom Fighters of America’s civil rights movement, as well as the protestors of all races who put their lives on the line to fight racism in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s and Mike Brown’s fatal shootings.
Everyday ambassadors are just as equally the people who invest their time in non-life-threatening initiatives, like mentoring, tutoring, or providing technical support to social organizations. They are the countless individuals who facilitate conversations at kitchen tables, in church halls, and on doorsteps, encouraging their peers to see past stereotypes and be more tolerant, accepting, thoughtful neighbors. Everyday ambassadors, whether at an international, national, local, or household level, are the people who embrace differences and see all people as equals, unconditionally worthy of respect.
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