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Four Lessons On Cultural Diplomacy From Conan O’Brien

December 10, 20187 min read

Usually shows about traveling make me fall asleep, but when I first watched Conan O’Brien travel to Italy, I stayed up all night laughing.

Late night host Conan O’Brien is hilarious, but the more I noticed just how big of a star he was everywhere he travelled, the more I realized that he is more than a comedian: he is a diplomat.  Conan tackles cultural differences without ever being offensive. In fact, he barely ever toes the line. He’s so good at his unofficial job that political science journals have even written academic articles on his travel specials. How does he do it? After watching almost every travel clip (including his newest special to Japan) available both on the show’s website and on Youtube, I’ve managed to narrow it down. Here are four things you can do to be more like the cultural diplomat of your late night dreams.

1. Make an effort to learn about the culture before you go.

On almost all of his trips, Conan makes an effort to learn the basic culture of the country he is traveling to. Two of his most notable (and hilarious) examples come from his travels to South Korea and, most recently, Japan. For his trip to South Korea, he tried to learn Korean. Although it’s a complex language, at the end of his lesson, he managed to learn a few basic phrases, which then came in handy when he flew over. Before going to Japan, he trained with an etiquette coach, where he picked up a few things that might be accepted in America but not in Japan (namely the rudeness of chewing gum, which is fine here).

Along the way, he makes a couple of jokes that pick at the cultural differences between America and South Korea/Japan but makes the careful effort to tease both countries, not just the country he is visiting. In the end, experiences like these build a sense of respect, which is especially crucial for visitors.

2. Be eager to participate in cultural traditions, and treat those traditions with respect.

During his trips, Conan goes beyond visiting the typical tourist spots. Typically, he brings in a co-host who is an expert on the country, such as Steven Yeun for South Korea, Jordan Schlansky for Italy and Flula Borg for Germany to help him better understand the country. Together, they participate in several cultural traditions.

We’ve all seen that person who looks at refuses to eat traditional foods or respect certain traditions, but Conan is always more than willing to join in, making everyone laugh in the progress. One of Conan’s most endearing moments is when he visits a Buddhist temple in South Korea. Perhaps the funniest part is Conan trying to meditate with the monks, only for his peace to be interrupted by several bells and chimes ringing above.

It’s a respectful moment, but Conan brings a little bit of himself into every tradition. Conan displays that you can be comedic and respectful simultaneously, a valuable skill while traveling.

3. Handle confrontations with poise.

While filming their trek to Aida Camp in Palestine, Conan and his crew were confronted by a group of Pro-Palestine activists. When they stopped him, Conan did not know what they were going to say, but that did not prevent him from listening. “…They can’t keep saying ‘well, you throw rocks’ when you’ve got M-16s, you’ve got tanks, you cannot compare that,” the leader tells him next to the Palestinian/Israeli wall that divides the two nations. Understandably, it’s hard to keep calm when a group is blaming you, an individual, for the actions of your entire home country’s actions that you may or may not support.

But Conan took the situation with grace, managing to stay neutral about the conflict while also making jokes– arguably aimed at Trump–  in the process. However, it didn’t stop there- while the aired version only shows a few minutes of this event, Conan ended up conversing with the activists for 24 minutes. Sometimes you have to push the personal aspect of the conversation aside and just listen and respond. When that happens, both parties come out with a deeper understanding.

4. Treat everyone you meet with kindness and without judgment.

During Conan’s trip to Armenia, he gets word that there are Armenian fans waiting outside of his hotel. Always humble about his reach, he admits that he is curious to meet them and goes outside to talk, only to discover that they are Syrian refugees staying in Armenia for safety. Still, if one was to see them walking around the streets, one would have never known their true identities. Conan shows no surprise and accepts them as they are, even joining in to dance with them out in the town square. The normality of this scene speaks more than any words of advocacy could have.

Featured image: Conan on TBS

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Lauren Cho

Lauren Cho is a high school student based outside of New York City. She is passionate about current events, social justice, young people's role in government, and CJ Cregg from the West Wing. When she is not writing, she can be found teaching herself the ukulele or listening to Button Poetry.