“Open House” and “Town Hall” – A Translation

During more than three decades of diplomatic service, I have greatly enjoyed exploring different cultures and societies and in turn sharing with them the “odd”  things Americans do.  Of course, unique or similar (but rarely if ever the same) holiday celebrations were among those sharing experiences.  But among the most consistently challenging American events to bring across the cultural threshold have been the “Open House” party and the “Town Hall” meeting.     Let me say up front that I have obviously not served everywhere and that are some countries where one or the other of these two forms of getting people together are similar.  But from Latin America to Western and Eastern Europe in my experience, the two concepts were not routinely in the local vocabulary or practice.

An “Open House,” such as my wife and I will once again be hosting at our home this coming Christmas for our Estonian and American colleagues and friends, is a warm, informal, and uncomplicated way of hosting and enjoying some holiday good cheer without the pressures of coming on time, a formal receiving line, or dressing appropriately.  The house is literally open for several hours for guests to come and stay as long or as briefly as they wish to enjoy a relaxing time with us and in each others company.

The “Town Hall” — literally of course a seat of local government — is in this case a short form for a meeting open to a large number of people, regardless of rank or position, to discuss issues of common interest with each other and a principal figure, be it a president, school principal, or ambassador.  Participation by a maximum number of attendees is key.  Format is not.  While common courtesy and respect for divergent views is most important, everyone gets to voice an opinion and anyone gets to speak.   The idea, again, is to discuss issues in a non-threatening and informal atmosphere that encourages interaction and engagement by folks, including those who are normally more reserved.  It can get a little messy and loud at times, but it can be a great catalyst for dialog.

If you are not an American and are invited to either one of these two types of events, watch us among each other and go with the flow and break into the conversation.  It may feel a bit foreign at first, but it grows on you quickly.

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6 Comments

Filed under American Values, Civil Society, U.S. -Estonian Relations, U.S. Foreign Relations

6 responses to ““Open House” and “Town Hall” – A Translation

  1. õpilane

    Hello!
    This comment is not relevant to this topic but as I didn’t find your e-mail address I will use this space to contact you.
    I’m from Viljandi, from the school you visited today and I was assigned to write an article to our school newspaper about your visit.
    I would like to ask you about your impression of our school and Viljandi in general. Do you think there are any big differences between our school and typical American schools?
    Would you like to visit Viljandi again?
    Thank you!

    • I greatly enjoyed my visit to Carl Robert Jakobson School — particularly my meeting with so many students. I was impressed by the modern facilities and your dedicated teachers and administrators. There are lots of similarities between your school and high schools in the United States, and also some differences. The great energy level of young people whose whole life is still ahead of them is a definite similarity. I think to some degree the discipline among you and your fellow students was higher that it would be in the U.S., although that is a generalization that does not always apply. I do believe debate between me and the students in the U.S. would have been a bit more intense. Viljandi itself is a delightful and beautiful city — particularly in the wonderful weather I was able to enjoy. The people of Viljandi clearly take pride in their town and it shows — beautiful green areas, clean streets, and active citizens. I would very much like to come back and visit again and have even more time for conversation and discussion with as many people — young and older — as possible.

  2. Sergei Stepanov

    The great idea, to bring “Town Hall” to Estonia. This one would start openminded discussion by painful topics over here, I hope.

  3. mbfitzmahan

    Thank you for yesterday’s Town Hall. This forum represents the best of American direct democracy. I felt fortunate to have this kind of opportunity.

    Congratulations on your intelligent, perceptive and compassionate answers.

    I was especially interested in your view of what is today’s America’s foreign policy. I wish I had taped your answer to present to my IB Diploma classes.

    Thank you for taking interest in our American community in Estonia.

    Maureen Fitzmahan
    International School of Estonia.

  4. william cline

    All of the US Embassy’s efforts to meet and learn about Estonia and the Estonian people are positive efforts for all citizen’s of both countries to understand each other better.
    I especially liked the contact with Estonian teachers. I have three Grand Daughters in Estonia. Only the two oldest are in school but talking with them shows me the respect the Estonian students hold for their teachers. The youngest looks forward to attending school like her sisters already do.
    Education will be the strongest link countries can establish between their future citizens.

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