In the wake of the 2011 uprisings, Tunisian, Egyptian and Yemeni diplomats faced unprecedented questions regarding their professional conduct. The foreign policy institutions of all three countries witnessed new forms of political agency, with diplomats beginning to question, debate and (re)define routine practices and norms. Combining diplomatic theory with the multidisciplinary literature on state bureaucracies, this article analyses the various strategies that diplomats developed during a time marked by radical politicisation, strong emotion and new opportunities. On a conceptual level, it emphasises the concept of ‘diplomatic discretion’, which remains under-theorised in diplomacy research today, but is crucial to the study of diplomatic practice. Empirically, this article draws on ethnographic data regarding diplomats’ lived experiences, treating their narratives surrounding the 2011 events as a starting point of analysis.