The Elephant in the Room: Discussing Politics Abroad

Any time we travel, we become ambassadors or representatives for the places we come from. Some have reached out to us for support in this new role, so here are some ideas to help:

  • Stay informed on current events from a variety of sources. The best response to questions about current political events is an informed and respectful response.  
  • Be ready to answer questions others may have about current events, and use the opportunities to learn more about current events happening in your host countries!
  • Be respectful and willing to have open dialogue, especially when points of view differ from your own.
  • Remember that study abroad is not only an opportunity to learn about other cultures and countries, but also to learn more about your own.
  • Be curious and ask questions! Does your host country have a bipartisan government? Does it have a president? What does their government look like? What is their economic system? 

Dr. William Stanley, director of the Latin American Iberian Institute, and a professor of political science here at UNM has offered some thoughts on the matter:

These are interesting times to be abroad. Our new US president brings an unprecedented style of communicating, and has introduced or proposed major changes in US foreign policy. There will be heightened international interest in what the US will do next, and increased criticism from some sectors and countries. You may well find that people you meet in your host country will look to you for information and answers about where things are headed. While I hope you will keep yourself well-informed by reading professionally-researched US and international newspapers available online, it is also perfectly OK to admit that you don’t know the answers to questions posed to you. Much of what has gone on during the first weeks of the new administration is outside of well-established norms for US presidents and their representatives. Yet we also see US political and legal institutions generally functioning as intended. I have found in my years of living and traveling abroad that even during periods when US policies were unpopular in countries I was visiting, people I met generally distinguished between my government and me as an individual. Most people gave me the benefit of the doubt and treated me with courtesy and hospitality. That said, in some countries and regions it may be prudent to put some additional thought into where you go or how overtly you identify yourself as being from the US. Bear in mind also that there are unpleasant, unreasonable, or hostile individuals in every culture: if you encounter such a person, you do not need to internalize their judgments about you or of your country. This is an important time to be abroad, and to engage in open, friendly, respectful conversations with people who are themselves open to sincere and respectful dialog.

As Dr. Stanley mentions, it is perfectly OK to admit you don’t know the answer to every question! 

As always, your support network here at UNM is always happy to help you as new questions or situations arise. Feel free to reach out as necessary!