After thirty plus years as an American diplomat, there are a few techniques one remembers as always being effective in engaging foreigners - that being the essential job of diplomats. Inviting foreign guests to Thanksgiving dinner is certainly one of the most reliable and enjoyable invitations that our representatives abroad have in their diplomatic toolbox. Although it isn't always a simple task to assemble the proper ingredients, every November American culinary ingenuity goes into high gear around the world to produce a credible version of this venerable feast. Ambassadors and senior officers at our missions abroad will often invite 30-50 people for Thanksgiving while junior staff (with smaller kitchens) might invite a half dozen of their close contacts. And despite Thanksgiving being a uniquely North American holiday, (Canada too), the acceptance rate for these invitations often hits a hundred percent.
In fact, people are eager to come to Thanksgiving dinner precisely because it is unique to our culture. And it resonates with other cultures easily. How can one miss with these key ingredients:
-- Interesting and different food: even we Americans only roll out this menu once a year, with some of the dishes such as stuffing and pumpkin pie unknown anywhere else in the world. Guest enjoy sampling these dishes, comparing them with items in their national cuisines, and opining about whether they actually like them or not. As we all know, sharing a meal is a powerful form of social interaction. Thanksgiving dinner ups the ante.
-- A Family Affair: family and food together also defines Thanksgiving, and the combination opens a window to foreign guests on American family life in all its diversity. Thanksgiving dinner would never be mistaken for a business dinner, and guests highly value the honor of being invited to share a holiday with an American family.
-- Thanksgiving is for everybody: This holiday crosses cultural boundaries more easily than any on the calendar. It does not have the religious significance of, for example, Christmas or Passover, but it does shine a light on a universal need to take stock and give thanks for our family, our friends and our good fortune. No one needs to explain or defend that idea - it translates into any language and all cultures. (The precise geographic origins of this celebration can also provide for a distinctly American dinner table discussion. As a Virginian, I am well aware that observance of Thanksgiving began in the Virginia colonies, not, as some misinformed souls would suggest, somewhere in Massachusetts.)
While to some sharing Thanksgiving with foreign guests might seem like just a "nice thing to do," it is far more than a gesture of hospitality. It is a very positive piece of a mosaic that foreigners construct about the United States and it produces lasting impacts. And it is not just an opportunity for professional diplomats. Citizen diplomats in the United States can play an important role at Thanksgiving. I will never forget a gentleman who approached me at an event in Kuwait to tell me how deeply he valued the memory of a Thanksgiving dinner he shared with a local family in Manhattan, Kansas, where he had studied in the 1960's. Of all his memories of four years in the United States as a student, that Thursday afternoon with a family in Kansas still stood out vividly and fondly.
Many Americans will share their family feast with people outside their direct families, be it with friends or with those who have no family nearby. Inviting a foreign student or two for Thanksgiving, either just for the day or to spend a few days, is a great way to show the United States at its best. Many families already do this and many more could.
Especially at a time when there is so much suspicion between "the West" and the Muslim world, why not invite a couple of foreign Muslims university students to share Thanksgiving. They can be found at colleges and universities all over the country. When people ask me about Islam, I always advise them to go out and meet some "real live Muslims," rather than rely on second hand facts or impressions. While Thanksgiving is not the time for deep religious discussions, just interacting with some young Muslims can be interesting and informative. Call the office of international students at your local university and they will help you fill the places around the table.
People-to-people diplomacy is a powerful and under-estimated asset. Despite recent focus on the supposed influence of social media, it is not even in the same league as direct interaction between individuals of different nationalities and cultures. The Thanksgiving ritual is a moving American message. Americans around the world and around the country are the messengers.