Please Speak to Strangers!
Written by Brittany Lynk and Sherry Lee Mueller
On a recent visit to Washington DC, I reconnected with my mentor, Sherry Lee Mueller, who had a strong influence on the direction of my career. Among the many hats she wears, she is a professor at American University’s School of International Service. What follows is an excerpt from our conversation on global development, and the importance at the individual level to engage with others to create shared understanding.
Sherry: It was 1963. My parents were seeing me off as I boarded a student ship to Europe to participate in an Experiment in International Living Program in Bad Godesberg, Germany. Despite the fact that I was a farm kid from Illinois who knew no one in either Germany or the group of American students I was about to meet, the last admonition my mom gave me was: “Remember, Sherry, don’t speak to strangers.” When I retell that story to people familiar with my career administering and evaluating international exchange programs, it inevitably elicits a laugh. I have made a career out of speaking to strangers and urging others to do the same.
Brittany: The experience seems to have been pivotal, even transformational for you. Judging by your career, you have dedicated yourself to promoting meaningful person-to-person interactions across cultures ever since.
Sherry: I like to say I have made a career promoting excellence in citizen diplomacy. We are all citizen diplomats, whether we recognize it or not. As we move through our world interacting with people in person or online, we can be responsible, conscientious citizen diplomats or, without realizing it, careless informal representatives of our country. Whether we are aware of the vital role we play in shaping others’ perceptions of our country and culture on a daily basis, we are either reinforcing negative stereotypes or shattering them by our attitudes and behavior. The internet, social media, and the unprecedented speed of communication offer the illusion of closeness and understanding. Yet it is the personal encounter that offers the opportunity for true learning and nuanced understanding. Brittany, your own work is a wonderful example of this.
Whether we are aware of the vital role we play in shaping others’ perceptions of our country and culture on a daily basis, we are either reinforcing negative stereotypes or shattering them by our attitudes and behavior.
Brittany: Thanks. That’s right—for the past nine years I have had the pleasure of working with the U.S. Department of State’s premier professional exchange program, the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP). The IVLP welcomes nearly 5,000 rising leaders each year from around the world in a variety of fields to experience the United States through short-term visits.
As an International Visitor Liaison, I am in the business of making friends! My job is to accompany the groups of leaders and facilitate their program, serving as a cultural interpreter, communication link, and, yes, a highly visible citizen diplomat. I’m often the first American each visitor meets upon their arrival.