The Unfortunate Decline of the Art of Schmoozing

How important is a personal touch, even at the highest diplomatic levels? “[President Joseph] Biden wished [Chinese leader] Xi’s wife, Peng Liyuan, a happy birthday (The two share the same birthday, Nov. 20.),” Robbie Gramer recounted in Foreign Policy. “Xi said he was working so hard he forgot that his wife’s birthday was next week until Biden mentioned it…” There is no way to quantify the importance of this anecdote between Biden and Xi Jinping during their meeting on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Summit in San Francisco in November. The story does show that Biden was prepared on more than a geopolitical level; he knew Xi’s wife’s birthday and tried to add some confidence-building measures (CBMs) to the meeting despite the tense diplomatic relations between the two countries.

CBMs have a history in offices, businesses, and all human organizations. It used to be that chats around the coffee machine or water cooler were central to the effective functioning of interpersonal institutions. The question “How are things going?” often meant more than just reviewing the current or next project. In the informal setting, the question would often refer to someone’s health, children, or spouse.

Networking at conferences also meant more than just making small talk with another participant about what the last speaker really meant.  Chatting with someone new was an important first step before following up the friendly, brief interaction at the meeting with an email or call. Team-building exercises were also part of this equation. So, whether in the office, at a larger meeting or at a retreat, face-to-face was a crucial part of CBMs.

But face-to-face interaction is in decline.

The worlds of TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, X, LinkedIn, WhatsApp, and all are dooming the face-to-face. The growth of social media has been hailed for bringing people closer together. Turn on your internet connection and you have instant access to millions if not billions of people around the world. However ever-changing technology has opened never-ending possibilities of electronic connectivity, the art of face-to-face interaction can never be replaced. Face-to-face interaction is the foundation of creating trust.

Schmoozing represents the best of face-to-face interaction. The verb to schmooze comes from the Yiddish schmuesmeaning to talk. More than merely talking, its origins connote informal verbal interaction in a warm, friendly manner. Today, some would use the verb to mean discussing to gain something, an informal way of convincing someone to agree to what you want. More positively, schmoozing means informally shooting the breeze between people, an important step in creating a confident atmosphere.

Now why am I talking about schmoozing when the world is being confronted with horrors in the Middle East, continued war between Russia and Ukraine as well as catastrophic climate change? How can informal “shooting the breeze” help solve our current polycrises?

Two recent articles caught my attention to show the positive elements of schmoozing at the highest diplomatic levels. If you think the world’s problems can be solved at formal dinners with tuxedos and evening dresses or long-table negotiations with translators, the two articles are worth highlighting.

The first described the informal schmoozing mentioned above between the Chinese leader and Biden on the side-lines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Summit. As described by Robbie Gramer; “`There is no substitute to face-to-face discussions,’ he [Biden] told Xi on Wednesday, as the two met for a working lunch.”

Among the successes of American presidents’ personal diplomacy, Gramer notes:

Roosevelt clinched the 1905 peace deal that ended the Russo-Japanese War only after senior Russian and Japanese delegations spent a month together with him in New Hampshire. Nixon spent an entire week in China with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai during his historic 1972 visit that paved the way for the United States and China to later formally reopen ties. Carter only finalized the vaunted Camp David Accords after devoting two full weeks to negotiations with Israeli and Egyptian leaders at the remote presidential country retreat in Maryland.

The second article is Peter Coy’s New York Times description of a meeting on the side-lines of the climate talks in Dubai. According to Coy, Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, president of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, explained the turning point in the negotiations that might have broken the deadlocked COP 28 as follows: “`And then we became the first COP to host a change-makers majlis,’” Jaber said. “A majlis is both a place and an event,” Coy wrote. “It is the place in an Arab home where people sit with guests…In a majlis, people don’t rush to do business. Sociably sitting is part of the experience.” Majlis are also important in Islamic contract law; contract reports include the discussions which led to the conclusion of the contract.

Coy reports how Jaber and others praised the role of the Dubai majlis; “`You reconnected with your spirit of collaboration, you got out of your comfort zones and started speaking to each other from the heart.’” “`That,’ he said, “`made the difference.’” The Environment News Service confirmed the Dubai majlis’ importance: “`The gathering seemed to evoke a more personal, tone, and confidences were shared.’”

Coy also cites Nobel Prize economics winner Elinor Ostrom when she praised “cheap talk.” “`More cooperation occurs than predicted, ‘cheap talk’ increases cooperation,’ Ms. Ostrom wrote in her Nobel lecture.’” “Video calls make face-to-face easier,” Gramer points out. “But there’s no business like the business of showing up.”

Face-to-face, is declining for several reasons. The first and most obvious is the Covid pandemic. We were told to stay at home and avoid unnecessary contacts with others. Plus, it’s not conducive to gaining confidence when the people conversing are wearing masks.

And following the pandemic isolation, people grew accustomed to working from home. End of water cooler/coffee machine chit chats. End of small talk at large meetings and conferences. End of team-building exercises. Schmoozing, CBMs and electronics are apples and oranges. Zoom or Skype are not conducive to confidence-building measures. Negotiations over the net have obvious limitations.

Face-to-face, schmooze, cheap talk, shooting the breeze, majlis, the idea is all the same; confidence-building measures based on human, direct contact. In a world of social media and quantitative measuring, the qualitative may be declining, but the human element can never be replaced. Long live the schmooze. Cheap talk is priceless.

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.