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One-upmanship and putdowns: the aggressive use of interaction rituals in face-to-face diplomacy

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 June 2020

Seanon S. Wong*
Department of Government and Public Administration, Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shatin, NT, Hong Kong
Corresponding author. E-mail:


When leaders meet in person, they perform a wide range of interaction rituals. They dress for the occasion, greet each other and shake hands, exchange pleasantries and gifts, arrive at the meeting venue and have themselves seated according to protocol, and so on. What do they make of the performance of such rituals? In this paper, I argue that leaders often take advantage of or outright flout what the sociologist Erving Goffman calls the prevailing ‘ceremonial idiom’ of an interaction – that is the intersubjective understanding they share on what rituals to perform and how to perform them – to realize a number of political and personal objectives, with larger international consequences. The ‘ceremonial idiom’ is deliberately transgressed and a counterpart's ‘face’ threatened – overtly but more often subtly – to achieve what are commonly known as ‘one-upmanship’ and ‘putdowns’ in interpersonal contact. Empirically, I demonstrate my argument with over two dozen episodes of face-to-face diplomacy across six categories of interaction rituals: the identity of leaders, gestural, spatial–physical, task-embedded, linguistic, and communication rules. I also outline several directions for future research.

Research Article
Copyright © The Author(s), 2020. Published by Cambridge University Press

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