Sunday, September 28, 2014

FSO BFFs

Friendship in the Foreign Service is a funny thing. Unlike childhood, where opportunities for friendship are in every classroom, on every playground, or in every scout troupe, the Foreign Service is a challenging place to make and maintain meaningful friendships. A-100 is probably the best source of long-lasting friendships in the FS. You're starting something strange and life-changing with this group of people and they are the only ones in the world who understand what you're going through. That bond sticks. When you introduce someone from A-100 to a colleague, you add the "A-100" qualifier; she is not just a "friend," she is an "A-100 friend." Other FSOs know what that means.

But soon enough you scatter to all corners of the world. And that's how it is throughout the career. Make a friend in language training; off you go. Settle in to the embassy and meet someone you click with; off he goes. You don't have the luxury of developing trust and friendship over time, you better get on with it. I suppose this has made me more open with people than I have ever been before. I'm not exactly an open book and I still have a hard time reaching out to people, but I suppose I let my guard down a little more often and more quickly after meeting someone I like.

My best friend in elementary school used to tell a story that on our first day in kindergarden, I marched right up to her and asked if she wanted to be my friend. I honestly don't remember that and it doesn't sound like something I would do, but maybe my 5-year-old self was less inhibited around new people. I'm in my 40s now and without a spouse or children to provide opportunities to meet new people, it's difficult to expand my circle of associates beyond the work place. I suppose I have a certain "type" when it comes to friends, but to survive in this career, especially as a single person, it's necessary to bend your personality just enough to connect with people who don't strictly fit that "type."

Monday, June 23, 2014

Hail and Farewell

There are many rituals in the Foreign Service and many of them take place during the summer transfer season: taking your final language test, packing out, and the dreaded Hail and Farewell. The longer you're in the Foreign Service, the more annoying it becomes to say goodbye; or, rather, to endure the same ol' farewells and well-worn felicitations of your co-workers when it's time to move on. I've yet to meet an FSO who truly enjoys the Hail and Farewell ritual, and yet it persists. Like an unreligious couple who has their newborn baby baptized because to not do so seems wrong.

Saying goodbye to colleagues is one thing, saying goodbye to friends is different. I'm approaching my 9 year mark with the State Department and I'm in the middle of my 5th assignment. Along the way I've made some wonderful friends, all of whom I've had to say "goodbye" to at some point (some more than once). It doesn't get easier, per se, but after you've done the farewell party so many times, the sentimentality of the ritual fades.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Afghanistan on My Mind

Afghanistan has been in the news a lot these days. The recent elections were widely acknowledged to be successful, if not quite perfect. President Obama announced the reduced troop levels. And Sgt. Bergdahl was recovered.

I have mixed feelings about all the "withdrawal" talk. Setting an arbitrary deadline seems like a recipe for failure, but without a firm deadline the Afghan government will never learn to ride the bike without the training wheels and will always expect us to keep them from falling off the bike.

I resent any talk of the U.S. abandoning Afghanistan. You don't get to call our withdrawal from Afghanistan "abandonment" after all the American blood and money that has been spent trying to turn Afghanistan into a functioning state that no longer provides a safe haven to al Qaeda and friends. At what point is Afghanistan's success or failure on Afghan hands, not ours?

I am emotionally invested in seeing Afghanistan succeed. I met some wonderful Afghans while I was there and I want to see them accomplish their dreams. I worked hard on projects that I'm proud of (ok, and a few I'm not so proud of). I lost a friend and colleague there. It's personal.

I've been home now for almost a year and life has thrown some distractions my way. I'm more removed from Afghanistan, but I still follow what's happening there. Just like I still follow what happens in Nepal, and Iraq, and Romania. I guess you can leave the country and move on, but part of the country stays with you.

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.