The ins and outs of international coffee diplomacy
It would be a shame to squander world peace by serving tea to an Italian or espresso to an Asian. Perhaps it’s a stretch. But in diplomacy, every detail matters.
And serving the right coffee, just like mastering the correct handshake or bow, is practiced by American diplomats.
No one gives this more thought than Ambassador Peter Selfridge, who leads the Office of the Chief of Protocol for the United States. He is the one in charge of making sure diplomats are briefed when leaving the United States.
Don’t ask for coffee in Afghanistan, where you’ll be served hot sweet tea. You don’t need to drink the sediment at the bottom of your Turkish coffee.
And pretty much nowhere is decaf an acceptable option.
He also oversees how the United States entertains visiting foreign dignitaries (there’s more than one who wants an espresso and a cigar as soon as they wake up). Some older foreign ministers always ask for decaf espressos.
So over coffee at Juan Valdez, a cafe in Washington, D.C., named for the mustachioed Colombian farmer, we talked about the dos and don’ts of international coffee diplomacy.
The following transcript has been edited and abbreviated:
When an ambassador or a diplomat is going abroad, what are they told?
There’s usually a fairly thick, involved section on customs. Things from presenting your business card with two hands so you’ll be served hot tea at every meal; don’t refuse second helpings, those kinds of things. I suppose it does get into some granular detail: In Afghanistan you’ll be served hot sweet tea.
When you’re going into a meeting nine times out of 10 your control officer will say, “They’re going to serve you fruit. you don’t have to eat it.” Or, “You’re going to be served a Coca-Cola, it’s best if you at least take a sip.” Those kinds of things. You usually get a whisper brief right before you go in.
How does it vary in detail with coffee? Is it, “When you’re in Italy you don’t drink cappuccino in the afternoon. Drink it in the morning but it might be kind of awkward if you ask for it later?”
Yes. That usually will be in some kind of social customs brief. But a lot of times you’re not even forced into that decision. In my experience, when you sit down at a table like this and have a meeting with the Italian foreign minister or whatever, you’ll be given an option, “Espresso or water?” And most countries are good about it. It’s there when you sit down. There’s a water, there’s usually a little snack plate that varies by region. And then you’re offered coffee or tea or something. So usually you’re — thankfully, mercifully — not given an option to stumble into that. Although we as Americans get a big pass on a lot of those things, too.
Just as the goofy Americans?
Exactly. “They drink cappuccinos in the day?”
Are there places on the other hand where it’s impolite? Like in Afghanistan are people told, “Don’t ask for coffee. You’re going to be offered tea. Take the tea.”
Yeah. Yeah. And it’ll be sweet, and it’ll be scaldingly hot. and those kind of things. I think in cases where it is kind of very black and white lines, those will be flagged for you.
What about decaf. Is there anywhere where you’ll embarrass yourself if you ask for decaf?
This is anecdotal, but it’s not very easy to order it in most places. Although on the flip side — and we usually don’t talk about leaders’ names in these things — so I’ll just tell you there are a few older foreign ministers who come here who do ask for decaf espresso, which I always find kind of weird. I think it’s a very hard option to come by.
So it’s not like you have an open-ended option?
Not usually. This is not scientific by any means, but it usually falls into three categories: You’re going to get tea — like a hot tea is probably the most common. Then you get coffee — and maybe you’re given an option of espresso. And third is the fruit juice option.
With the espresso how specific can you get? “I want a shot of it?” Or “I want a macchiato?”
It’s very basic. I think the whole Starbucks phenomenon is making that kind of ordering more common, but in these meetings it’s usually very straightforward. And a to-go cup, by the way, anywhere, is unheard of. Coffee is a thing to sit down and socially enjoy.
What about in the Middle East? When people go to Turkey are they told, “Look there’s going to be some sediment in the bottom. Don’t drink that”?
It’ll definitely be like, “Turkish coffee is very strong. It’s typically served at breakfast and lunch. It’s a social thing.” It’ll go into those kinds of things.
What does England do? Do they do coffee at Buckingham Palace?
They do tea. But I think I was offered coffee as well. But obviously it’s big with tea.
So is it rude in Asia to ask for coffee?
No. And it’s funny, it varies by country how much they’re going to kind of twist to meet the American tastes. I would say most of the time they don’t, and you’re offered tea, pure and simple. But occasionally in some countries they’ll go out of their way to have coffee. India is a good example of that. Chai tea is everywhere, right? But I remember distinctly being offered coffee even though coffee’s not really a common thing.
If you’re a non-coffee drinker, if you prefer tea, are there countries where it’s awkward? Where you’re offered coffee and you have to suck it up and drink it? Like, Obama’s not a coffee guy.
No, yeah. Not at all. He likes tea.
OK, but what about for others? If you’re not into coffee, just don’t like the taste of it, what do you do?
A lot of leaders fall into two categories, and our leaders fall into this, too, when they go overseas: Accept whatever is given, and probably don’t touch it. We see that a lot. A leader will come in. “Coffee?” “Of course.” You pour the coffee and it’s never touched. Our guys do that a lot, too. Because refusing is really what you want to avoid when somethings’s offered. The other ubiquitous thing in a lot of these meetings is water. And if that’s an option, they’ll always choose it.
Let’s talk about the reverse, about what we do here when foreign leaders come. What sorts of things do we serve?
It used to be common to go into a meeting and it was just water on the table. And folks started realizing whenever we go overseas, the red carpet is rolled out. Some countries would have a buffet, and you’re there for a 10-minute meeting. I think we tried to start reciprocating a little bit of that. But I think we kind of reverted to the age-old coffee, tea, milk kind of options. And I think [Secretary of State Hillary] Clinton then built on that. “Can we at least offer espressos, because that’s one of the most common things asked for? Or different kinds of tea, at least, not just black tea?” I think she kind of built on that. [Secretary of State John] Kerry’s kept a lot of that in place.
And how do the offerings vary?
We definitely dust off our green teas when certain Asian countries come. We’ll dust off our espressos for a lot of European countries. With the African countries, we learned that fruit juices were paramount, even to coffee or anything like that. And I think just by age, a lot of the older leaders — particularly in Western but also South American nations — will order espressos. And more of the younger leaders will just get coffees. And milk is an almost unheard of addition. Especially with the older generations. I guess I would break it up that way.
And is espresso always an option? Or does that vary by who’s coming?
It’s always ready to go. But we don’t have them pre-made. The only thing we’ll pre-make is a pot of coffee. By the way, we try to buy American, so we use a Puerto Rican coffee company. We have Puerto Rican beans ...[from] Cafe Yaucono. And it’s actually Puerto Rico’s most popular coffee. We usually get a dark roast. We always have a pot of coffee, a pot of black tea ready to go. And then depending on the leader, we might have sodas or juices — and there’s always water on the table.
And that coffee goes to foreign dignitaries visiting? Or is it used for other things?
If you ever sit in a lobby at the State Department, you’ll see foreign diplomats coming and going all day. And then when visiting leaders come in, that’s called protocol providing this coffee service for the secretary’s bilateral meetings and all that.
So this batch is used from high-level meetings to low-level meetings?
Exactly. But generally it’s used for most of the high-level meetings.
Are there specific requests for visiting leaders that you guys have to fulfill?
I say this having to be very general. But the Blair House [the president’s official guesthouse] is another one of those places where we might get very specific. And that’s where we understand a leader’s dietary restrictions very clearly. Or desires and likes and dislikes. They’ll know that, “So and so prime minister wakes up with an espresso and a cigar.” There are a few like that. Or, “So and so leader only likes half tea, half milk.” They’re very specific. But at the same time, almost every world leader travels with a body person or valet type. They know, “The queen will have her tea now, and this is how she’ll take it.” There’s not a lot of guesswork in it.
Are we confident enough in our cappuccinos that we’ll serve it to the Italians?
Yeah. Well … Yeah. I think so, yeah. For sure. We have pretty accomplished folks. Yeah. And we have a French press and all those things.
Is that how things are prepared? With a French press? Or is it a big machine?
Probably a little of both, but probably more on the machine. Blair House has this beautiful old copper coffee machine. It’s huge. It almost looks like a still. But it makes good coffee.