Grass-roots diplomacy win

When a visa applicant tries to bribe an officer, State Department policy is to have that officer not have any further contact with the applicant. This policy is designed to protect the officer and Department from any appearance of improper contact.

One of my colleagues had this experience last week. The applicant tried to stuff a “red envelope” (紅包) to him after he refused the applicant a visa. The officer saw the envelope, which in Chinese culture is used to conceal cash used for gifts and bribes, and immediately stopped interaction with the applicant.

Department policy requires that attempted bribery of an officer results in a “permanent ineligibility” for a visa. In other words, that person can never be issued a U.S. visa. Policy also states that the Department notify the applicant personally. But because of the policy that the officer who was involved in the attempted bribery can have no further contact with the applicant, the officer couldn’t notify the applicant himself. And because of my current position in the section, the task fell to me. I had to call the applicant and tell her that she could never go to the U.S.

Giving someone bad news is never easy. Talking on the phone in a second language is never easy. Giving someone bad news over the phone in a second language is really hard. Doing it diplomatically is even harder.

The phone call began badly. The applicant was very upset, almost shouting at me over the phone. She denied that she attempted to bribe the officer, and indignantly demanded a chance to confront the officer in person, demanded to view the survailence tapes showing the incident in question, demanded that she have the opportunity to prove her innocence and remove the record of her ineligibility from our system. Of course, none of those things were possible, but she barely gave me the chance to get a word in.

About five minutes into the phone call, I felt like telling her that I said what I needed to say, and hang up the phone. But then I remembered what I often tell my coworkers here: the times when we have to refuse applicants are the times when we have the opportunity to be diplomats. Saying yes is easy. Saying no is hard. When we issue a visa, the applicant really doesn’t care if we are polite or rude. But when we have to deny someone a visa, the way that we do so matters. Listening to this applicant scold me and vent her frustration and anger (and, I think, embarrassment), I considered hanging up on the applicant. I had that option. The rule is simply that we have to inform the applicant of the ineligibility. I could have shouted to her over her angry tirade, and then hung up the phone. But that would have made me a bureaucrat. A bureaucrat doesn’t have to put up with verbal abuse, and so has the option of not putting up with it. A bureaucrat could simply hang up the phone and go on to the next case.

I don’t want to be a bureaucrat. I want to be a diplomat.

So I decided to be a diplomat.

I listened to the applicant for about 20 minutes. Finally, after her anger was vented, her anger turned into sadness, and she started crying while talking. When she finally stopped talking, I told her that although the ineligibility would always be there, she could apply again, and ask the adjudicating officer to recommend a waiver for her. She asked if that would give her the chance to prove her innocence. No, I replied, the past can’t be changed, so she had to look to the future. I tried to put the situation in a positive light, because that’s what diplomats do, right?

In the end, I think that she understood. More importantly, she wasn’t angry anymore. In fact, at the end of the phone call, she thanked me.

I can’t say that the phone call created a new friend for the U.S. The whole experience could have been a wasted 45 minutes. But at least we don’t have another Chinese person who is mad at the U.S. Sometimes, in diplomacy, that’s a win.

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