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We Need More Ambassadors

ambassador of Tokyo

We need more people like this anonymous young woman. I was so impressed that I snapped a picture of her helping us with directions. She is an everyday ambassador.

Don’t you love it when you have a friendly interaction with a total stranger? Maybe it’s a shared joke or a momentary conversation with someone whom you randomly crossed paths, but it restores your faith in humanity for a fleeting second. You get a brief rush of fulfillment as you walk away from that person, smiling to yourself at the moment you’ve just shared.

These strangers are giving you a gift. I believe they’re consciously deciding that they are going to project a positive force for good. Their gift to you most likely only lasts for a moment, but it represents a kind of emotional transaction. But unlike financial transactions, both sides get a credit on the psychological balance sheet.

I’ve always appreciated these interactions, but they now have a greater significance for me since I’ve become a world traveler. I’ve come to call these people everyday ambassadors, and I’ve run into more than I can count in my travels over the past seven months. To a brief visitor like me, these people come to represent their country, or their city, or their people in ways they couldn’t expect. These strangers become the gold standard of behavior that I then assume all their fellow residents abide by, whether the entire population deserves it or not. Just like an official ambassador, their actions represent the whole group — they speak on behalf of their people.

We need more everyday ambassadors in this world. Meeting these people made me realize my role as an ambassador, too. When I return to the United States, I want to be like them — representing my neighborhood, my city, my family and my country to people to whom I interact.

I recognize that we probably can’t always be great ambassadors. Frankly, constantly trying to leave a path of happiness in my wake is not only unrealistic, it would require energy levels only a platoon of Kimmy Schmidts could achieve. But I can take small steps in the right direction, using the great examples I've see from others as a guide.

I could list dozens, but here are a few ambassadors of the world that we’ve encountered over the past seven months and 23 countries we’ve visited. I know none of these people’s names, but I won’t forget any of them:

  • To the young woman in Shibuya Station in Tokyo: You clearly were headed to work, but you saw we were confused and not only gave us directions, but walked us down the escalator to point us in the right direction.

  • To the well-dressed elderly proprietor of the eleven-seat whiskey bar in Kobe: You warned us that you didn’t speak English as we sat down. You could have remained silent and left us with our drinks in silence, but instead you struggled through a conversation in English (and mostly through hand gestures) on American movies, which I greatly appreciated. It took me five minutes to figure out our conversation, but finally I was able to agree with you. Yes, I really like Clint Eastwood movies, too.

  • To the old man riding his bicycle during my morning run through the streets of Nuremberg: You gave me a pleasant surprise by riding up beside me during my run through the cobblestone streets of your town — laughing, smiling, ringing your bicycle bell, and encouraging me in German to run faster. I only kept up with you for about a block, but it made my run, and my day.

  • To the grandfather with his family in Goa, India, who insisted I step in front of him in line because, in your words, “you are our honored guests in this country”: I know you’re old enough to remember when your country had “guests” who looked like me who were in no way welcome, which makes your words even more special.

  • To the Uber driver in Cape Town, South Africa who shared his perspective on democracy: You gave me a completely new appreciation for democracy when you told me that the moment you really respected our country’s system was when Nixon resigned. “When he left, that’s when I knew that no man is above the law.” The moment I equated with a low point in our system was, in fact, a high point because it was a reminder that the democratic system works even in the worst circumstances. I’m glad you decided to chat.

Over six continents, the one constant I’ve found is that these people are all around you if you open your eyes, and they seem to be happier and more content with the world around them. Perhaps if we all worked to become everyday ambassadors — especially us Americans — we’d not only be happier but have a much better understanding of our neighbors, both at home and abroad.

I'd love to hear your experience with everyday ambassadors - either meeting them or a time when you were one yourself. Add your thoughts or experiences in the comments below. Thanks!

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