Many people in America assume that the way we do things here is the way it has to be everywhere else in the world, despite the fact that culture and traditions vary widely in other nations.
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One prime example is naming conventions. In most of the western world, people are referred to with a given name and a surname — otherwise known as a family name— with the given name placed before the family name (hence the synonym, the last name).
In some other cultures, people are identified by only a single name. These people are said to be mononymous.
In Iceland, it’s common for children to have different last names than their parents, since they use patronymics or matronymics as surnames. Hence, Björk Guðmundsdóttir, who is the daughter of a father who was named Guðmundur.
In most of Asia, people use both family and given names, but typically put the family name before the given name when self-identifying. That’s why President Xi Jinping is called President Xi and not President Jinping.
For Americans with limited foreign travel experience, it can be confusing to find out that the last name in the order on an Asian person’s business card is not a family name, but their given moniker.
Presumably, those Americans working in foreign diplomacy or national security will have had enough of an education to understand how names customarily work in the countries that they have to deal with.
However, in the Trump administration — where judges deemed unqualified by the American Bar Association are regularly sent to the Senate for approval and competence is apparently valued as much as honesty — that sort of basic knowledge of the cultures of the foreign countries a national security advisor is working with is considered optional.
What other conclusion could you take away from the Trump administration national security adviser Robert O’Brien’s appearance on ABC News yesterday with anchor Jon Karl?
O’Brien was being questioned about the North Korean “Christmas gift” to Donald Trump that failed to show up as promised when he referred to that country’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un as “Chairman Un.”
It was an important question for the public to have answered since North Korea has been escalating its missile tests the past few months after the failed denuclearization talks with the Trump administration and the promised “Christmas gift” that was widely interpreted as a threat.
O’Brien told Karl that North Korea may have reconsidered following through with the threat, a not very reassuring or confident and apparently speculative reply.
“We always monitor the situation” however, because “Chairman Un has said that there would be something over Christmas,” O’Brien said.
Whether you believe, as Donald Trump does, that his strong personal relationship with the North Korean leader is the formula for a diplomatic resolution to the problems of a nuclear-armed hostile foreign power or whether you think that the president is engaging in naive pandering with a rogue terrorist nation, diplomatic success likely requires that you at least say the name of your negotiating partner correctly.
In any other administration, no one who couldn’t properly say the name of the foreign leader whom they were responsible for monitoring for the national security issues involved would be allowed to rise to that level of power.
In the era of Trump, however, loyalty beats competence in the extremely uncivil service.
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Original reporting by Kathryn Krawczyk at