The days that we diplomats “did not speak about cheese” are of course long behind us. Economic diplomacy has been a key pillar of our Dutch diplomatic work for many years; a world city like Istanbul is an ideal place for active economic diplomacy and as diplomat one has to be prepared to do show this. Jokingly I say that I am in for everything except bungee jumping. So when I received an invitation to open an innovative Dutch public toilet concept in Istanbul I did not hesitate for a moment. I immediately said yes, including being referred to in the press release, which much to my surprise even made it to the Telegraaf (for the non-Dutch readers, this is the biggest morning paper in the Netherlands; my mother is always very proud when she finds my name there).
The request came from 2theloo, an increasingly popular Dutch brand, that it is an innovative service provider in the field of public toilets. Innovation, as I am told, is not only about high tech, but also applies to the service industry. You see the 2theloo’s often in Dutch Shell petrol stations. There are a lot of positive things to say about this company. They are ambitious and see Turkey as a very interesting market. The opening of first 2theloo took years of negotiations and all was set for the grand opening on Friday 5 June.
So far so good, till a political row broke out in Turkey just a few days before the 2theloo opening -between the Turkish President and the opposition- about toilets. A serious and sensitive issue that I refrain from commenting, as we diplomats are not being paid for creating unnecessary incidents. If one is interested, just google it. Within our consulate communication team some discussions arose. Should I still do it? Yes. We Dutch keep our promises. Was it politically risky? Yes. Should I make jokes in my speech referring to politics? Definitely no. Should I make jokes and/or references to Turkish politics? A double no.
All jokes aside. The above is perhaps an extreme example. Yet, working in politically polarized societies of which Turkey is an example, has its challenges. Many foreign diplomats, including myself, find ourselves therefor on the cautious side when it comes to commenting on political developments. It is an important reason why some of us are not on Twitter for example. Being cautious and being visible at the same time definitely poses challenges.
At the end nothing happened, I did my speech, people politely applauded, I answered some questions and then joined the opening, which in itself raised another question:
‘How do you open a toilet?’
(just by cutting a ribbon by the way)