Sunday, March 23, 2014

An Introvert's Guide to Diplomacy

It's been pointed out to me on several occasions how ironic it is that a dedicated introvert such as myself is a public diplomacy officer. In truth, it's really not that ironic. First, let me clarify a few things about what it means to be an introvert.

Interacting with people - even people whose company I enjoy - is draining. What may seem like "stand-offish" is really just conserving energy and being selective about my interactions.

I'm more comfortable with silence than I am with meaningless chatter. I'll speak up when I have something to say and when I'm done, I'll stop talking.

Boring people bore me and I'm not very good at hiding it. If interacting with people is draining, feigning interest in a boring story is practically debilitating.

What does all of this mean in the context of public diplomacy, where social situations are part of the job? It's easier for me to approach an official diplomatic function as a task with clear objectives rather than a social event. Whom do I need to meet? What information do I want to learn? Who needs to be introduced to whom?

For some people, chatting up strangers is an important part of public diplomacy. Not for me. But being a bad chatty Kathy means I'm a pretty good listener, which can be a useful, if underestimated, public diplomacy skill. 

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Works and Plays Well With Others

Is it already that time of year? No, not taxes. EER season. The annual exercise in futility whereby Foreign Service Officers attempt to describe why their existence matters in 44 lines. Tying your activities to the responsibilities listed in your work requirements can require certain written acrobatics. Then you have to make sure that you have demonstrated a range of precepts the State Department has identified as critical to success. Reflecting on whether or not you have made a difference in the past year is a humbling experience.

It makes me almost yearn for the report cards of my youth. It was easy to see where you excelled and where you didn't. Feedback was to the point. I wonder what would my second grade teacher would say  about my performance this year. 

Monday, March 3, 2014

A Little Privacy Please

It's been a while. I've had some personal issues to deal with. Which is difficult when you work in a tiny cubicle farm. My desk space in Kabul was palatial compared to the shoebox in which I now work. It also makes having a personal phone conversation impossible. And I don't have access to my mobile phone at my desk. So arranging private phone conversations requires several steps. First, a phone call at my desk in semi-code to schedule a time to talk openly on my mobile phone in another part of the building. Or, if semi-code won't do, making an unscheduled call on my mobile phone in a discreet corner of the building to schedule a time to talk openly on my mobile phone. Finally, returning to the discreet corner of the building with my mobile phone at the designated time. My favorite spot is the State Department exhibit hall, which has good cell reception and plenty of stuff to look at while I'm on hold.

The inconvenience sometimes forces me and my office-less co-workers to throw up our hands in resignation and try to have hushed personal phone conversations in our cubicles, if the subject is not too sensitive. Occasionally one will hear a plea to a child to stop fighting with a sibling, or a birthdate whispered to a credit card customer service representative. The polite protocol in such situations is to pretend not to hear your neighbor's birthdate. It reminds me of Les Nesman's "office walls" laid out with tape on the floor around his desk; our whispers, like tape on the floor, meant to signify a privacy bubble that doesn't really exist.  (Do I get bonus points for the WKRP in Cincinnati reference?)

Sunday, January 19, 2014

What, No Welcome Kit?

Just like any assignment overseas, a Washington assignment requires time to acclimate to the new surroundings. After four months on the job, I'm still discovering niche departments and offices tucked away in the folds of their parent bureaus. I'm still learning where to go to find current information and where not to go (e.g. any intranet Sharepoint site).

A new job overseas also requires a learning curve when working in a new language. Likewise, I work closely with military colleagues and am slowly improving my militarese (I'd say I'm a 1+ / 2 on the FSI language scale). We all know the stereotypes of our brethren in uniform, but I'm still amazed when I hear one of them utter a complete sentence using nothing but acronyms and abbreviations.

My advice to FSOs who start their first DC assignment after working overseas is to recognize that just because you are in the States, that doesn't mean you won't need time to adjust. Don't expect to have everything figured out right away. However things look your first week on the job, forget it. Things always look different once you start sliding down the backside of the learning curve.