Ambassador Barbara Stephenson will speak about shared musical experience in diplomacy, and music as the best vehicle for cultural identity and communal experience


Diplomats are by definition “strangers in the strange land,” according to Ambassador Barbara Stephenson, president of the American Foreign Service Association.

“That’s always been our lives,” Stephenson said, “ … figuring out ‘How do we understand the culture where we live?’ and ‘How do we create a moment of connection where they understand us, and we can have a relationship?’ — which is the whole purpose of being strangers in the strange land.”

As part of Week Seven’s theme, “The Arts and Global Understanding,” Stephenson will discuss “Conducting Diplomacy Through Sharing Music” at the 10:45 a.m. lecture Tuesday, August 7, in the Amphitheater.

“That’s what I wanted to explore: … music as a unique communal and uniquely powerful form of communal expression and vehicle for expressing,” Stephenson said, “but also by participating in it to create a sense of community.”

Although Stephenson is not a trained musician, she said her art as a diplomat is to figure out how to read different cultures, people and their values and then explain her culture to them.

On a higher level, Stephenson describes diplomatic work as “creating a shared experience that enables us to set aside doubt in the sense of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ to walk together toward a common goal. That’s what diplomats do in their highest moments of their calling.”

To Stephenson, music is “the best vehicle for creating that powerful shared experience.”

Stephenson said she often reflects on how people form connections, and she said music is the most powerful “vehicle that we — almost as part of the human condition — have available to us.”

Stephenson said there are many ways that people “might introduce (themselves) and share a culture.”

“We sometimes share food. We sometimes share our story,” Stephenson said. “Even when we are sharing our story, we are often sharing that story with a musical component and often with dance accompanying the music.”

There are many other forms of art that can be used to build connections — for example, fine art — but Stephenson said standing in an art museum looking at artworks is “a lonely experience.”

“You stand there, you stare silently at the painting, and the painting looks back silently at you,” Stephenson said. “And you may try to talk about it (with others) afterward, but it’s not a communal experience.”

Stephenson said music is different because it often involves people coming together to share the experience. That experience can then lead to a shared understanding, Stephenson said, which is the root of diplomacy.

Diplomacy is about finding a way “to grow the space for ‘us’ and shrink the space for ‘them,’ ” Stephenson said, paraphrasing former President Bill Clinton.

“Coming together to share our music is a very powerful communal experience,” Stephenson said.

Tags : American Foreign Service AssociationAmphitheaterBarbara StephensonConducting Diplomacy Through Sharing MusicThe Arts and Global Understanding

The author Flora Junhua Deng

Flora Junhua Deng is covering the School of Music for The Chautauquan Daily this summer. She is a rising senior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she is studying journalism and music. A native of China, Flora is not a huge fan of coffee but likes tea. She is a cat person but also loves dogs.