A knack for being indirect and a good dictionary come in handy when you're impersonating a diplomat, according to students at Broadneck Senior High who have spent the past eight weeks learning to think like diplomats from Indonesia and Canada.
"You can look up hard words in the dictionary and use them, and it confuses the other diplomats," said Kara Gittes, a 16-year-old junior acting as an Indonesian diplomat. "Sometimes they even think you're complimenting them, but you aren't."
Kara, her twin sister, Jennifer, and other students in Virginia Crespo's international studies classes are participating in a computer simulation exercise sponsored by the University of Maryland at College Park.
At least once a week for about four weeks, students from schools across the United States and Canada pretend to be diplomats from other countries and converse simultaneously via modems with computer messages.
At these "international conferences," they try to resolve world problems including hunger, overpopulation and human rights.
Don't for a moment think it's a game, because SIMCON (simulation control) will put you in your place, as it did some of Ms. Crespo's students, whose messages came across as more flippant than intended.
But SIMCON, which monitors the conferences to prevent "international incidents" and sets boundaries and discussion topics, also is quick to compliment, telling some of Ms. Crespo's students who represent Canada that "It is clear from these messages that Canada has the potential to become a leader in the simulation."
"Basically, you beat around the bush," said Jason Woods, a 17-year-old senior who acted as an Indonesian diplomat.
"You have to learn how to say what you want to say politely. And it helps if you can counter quickly with something else -- then the diplomats from other countries are dumbfounded."
The students also learn that it doesn't take much to set off an international incident, such as the time they replied "God bless you" to a computer message that arrived relaying only computer gibberish.
"We got in trouble for that," Jason said.
But the Indonesian diplomats also have been praised for their position paper on human rights, which urged all nations to accept refugees or at least find them homes.
"We found out Indonesia accepted a lot of refugees from Vietnam," Jason said.
"So our position was that the United States and other countries should accept refugees, or at least help them relocate."
To prepare them for the hourlong computer conferences -- which can get hectic with one person reading printed messages aloud and the others conferring at the keyboard on a reply -- the students spent six weeks researching Indonesia.
The hardest part, say the Indonesian diplomat-students, is that they have to conceal their real feelings on such issues as world overpopulation and birth control and respond as they believe someone from the predominantly Islamic nation would.
"It's also hard to get someone to listen to you, probably because we're a Third World country," said Matt Tyler, a 16-year-old junior.
"This teaches them problem-solving, decision-making, critical and analytic skills, and how to think on their feet," Ms. Crespo said.
"They also have to learn that this is negotiation -- not debate. Both sides have to win. This is the best exercise I've found that does all that, and it only costs the price of a long-distance call to College Park."