Wednesday, July 26, 2023

The Ugly FSO

Have you ever heard of the book The Ugly American? I've never read it, but I've heard many references to it. As Wikipedia summarizes, "The book depicts the failures of the U.S. diplomatic corps, whose insensitivity to local language, culture, and customs and refusal to integrate were in marked contrast to the polished abilities of Eastern Bloc (primarily Soviet) diplomacy and led to Communist diplomatic success overseas." "Ugly American" is truly a shorthand for the most embarrassing behaviors and excesses of the United States' own abroad.

I think there is such a thing as an Ugly FSO (Foreign Service Officer), too. This person believes in a strict hierarchy with themselves at the top. They imagine Foreign Service Officers like themselves above Foreign Service Specialists, Civil Service members, contractors, and Eligible Family Member (EFM) employees. They see their cone as superior to other cones. The Ugly FSO screams at the General Services Officer, Facility Manager, Motorpool Dispatcher, Information Technology service provider, local guard, or Housing Board representative when they don't get their way. They expect the Consular section to intervene or assist beyond what is appropriate and allowed. They don't bother to learn how to take care of their ordinary administrative tasks and expect someone else, usually an Office Management Specialist or a locally employed (LE) staff colleague, to do it for them. They treat all local staff and junior-ranked Americans as their subordinates, even if they don't supervise anyone.

The Ugly FSO is only interested in their own professional development and advancement. They don't nominate others for awards but ask for (or even write) award nominations for themself. They do not take performance evaluations seriously, especially for Civil Service and local staff employees whose performance evaluation systems look different than their own. They kiss up and kick down because they know their own performance evaluation doesn't account for subordinates or peers. They try to avoid the office housework, busy work, notetaking, party planning, and any other unglamorous tasks but fully expect others to take on that workload instead. They expect others to organize happy hours, hails and farewells, offsites, and other morale boosters without their assistance. They arrive after set up and leave before clean up. In the case of receptions we host, they arrive and leave when they feel like it - knowing some of their colleagues will follow the rules we were taught in A-100 to show up early and stay until the last guest leaves.

The Ugly FSO cares more about their lifestyle and moving up the ladder than the places or people they supposedly serve. They do not take language training seriously, especially for single-country or non-European languages, and do not care about making local friends. The only non-Western local people they know are people they hire or work with at the U.S. embassy or consulate. When they leave each post, they have more to say about the food and the travel opportunities than the people. They try to explain aspects of the local culture they don't understand to people who know better and who don't alike. They believe the time they spent in a country justifies their prejudiced views or stereotypes about that country.

The vast majority of my colleagues aren't like this. But Ugly FSOs exist, and with enough time most of us will encounter at least one. Hopefully readers won't be as shocked as I was when I learned that even in our profession, one focused on service and diplomacy and building relationships, there's still a few corners of ugliness I can only hope will one day improve. My advice is make sure you don't become an Ugly FSO. And if you're unfortunate enough to encounter one, do everything you can to make up for the damage they do. Each positive counterexample makes a huge difference.

Friday, July 21, 2023

Candytopia with My Sister C!

My sister C was in town, so we decided to visit Candytopia, a pop-up candy-themed experience in Tysons. One of the hardest things about the Foreign Service for me is being so far away from my sister. She's my best friend, and I try to soak up as much time as possible with her when I can.

Growing up in northern Virginia, Tysons Corner Center mall was a place I've been to countless times. It sure has changed, though, from the days when I would hang out with my high school friends and do the rounds of Abercrombie & Fitch, Hollister, PacSun, H&M, Forever21, and the list goes on. Now I'll only go if I have a specific need or craving or want to meet up with a friend for a stroller walk when the weather's not great.

We were on the fence about visiting Candytopia but decided to check it out, especially since we thought it might be fun for baby S and he's young enough that his admission was free. S loved the sculptures the most, like this fox made of candy corn, a candy that divides our household and my office. (For the record, I'm anti-candy corn.) S is in a phase where every animal is "dog," so as soon as he saw the candy corn fox he jumped with excitement and exclaimed, "Dog!"

My favorite part of Candytopia was the really creative and painstaking candy art. Just look at this delectable take on Starry Night! These candy artists have some amazing talent. (I wonder how one becomes a professional candy artist?)

Although we couldn't lick the candy art or sculptures for obvious sanitary reasons, we were allowed to touch the pieces. Moreover, each room had unlimited free candies available for guests to eat, which was M's favorite part of the experience. (That should surprise no one.)

I think C's favorite room was the one near the end: a pit of toy marshmallows we could jump in. We ended up having a "marshmallow fight" and throwing marshmallows at each other until we were laughing so hard we had to stop. I love that something like this exists for kids and kids-at-heart alike.

There's a lot of heavy stuff going on in the world right now, and sometimes it's good to take a step back and just enjoy a few moments with the people you love. Joy and rest are such an important part of taking care of ourselves and replenishing our energy so we can get back to doing the hard, necessary work later. If you're reading this, I'm wishing you joy and rest with your loved ones, too.

Sunday, July 16, 2023

It's PCS Planning Time!

Months before our departure, we're in the thick of planning for our PCS (permanent change of station, what we call a move when we change from one assignment/tour to another). The biggest advice I can give on PCS planning is not to procrastinate. M and I plan each PCS the way we planned our wedding: we make sure we get a few things done each week leading up to the move so we're not overwhelmed at the end. We work it into our weekly modified Family Home Evening, which already includes some scriptures, video games or board games as a family, and a review of our weekly finances and budget. That structure works well for us.

My second biggest piece of advice is to channel your inner minimalist and have the least amount of things you can that'll make you feel happy and at home abroad. It makes packing and moving so frequently much easier. However, I know that this piece of advice is controversial in the Foreign Service community, and many of my colleagues would never give up their extensive collection of exotic furniture or impressively full bookshelves or whatever it is. (And if it's worth it to you to take it all, then please feel free to ignore me! All I'm saying is I'm not interested in having a three-day packout myself.)

One skill I still need to hone is negotiating PCS transfer timing. It's a well-known trope in the Foreign Service that summer transfer season is brutal in every office and every post as transfers and Congressionally-mandated home leave in the United States leave everyone short-staffed. (Of course, there never seems to be a reduction in requests from senior leadership, official visits, or major foreign affairs developments to coincide with this annual staffing gap.) As a result, every Foreign Service supervisor wants incumbents to stay as long as possible and their replacements to arrive as soon as possible. It's unfortunate that subordinates are put in the position of pushing back on their current and future supervisors almost every time they move.

In my transfer from Seoul to Washington, DC, I only got two days of leave even though I was traveling across the country for my sister's wedding the weekend I arrived and was traveling with a newborn and had no permanent housing in DC. Yet both of my offices complained that my transfer put them in a tough spot for staffing. One supervisor still asked me if I could further reduce my leave from two days to one (!) and I said no. This time, I didn't want to repeat the same mistake of sacrificing my own family's needs for my workplace's preferences. When I faced immense pressure on my PCS from both sides this year, I insisted on and received two full weeks of leave especially since I didn't get the leave I needed last time.

I've heard some managers complain about direct reports asking for leave in their first interaction, but our current system doesn't leave employees much choice. One of my mentors, part of a Foreign Service tandem couple who would both be working at post, asked for two weeks to arrange childcare for her children upon arrival - especially since one of her children had special needs. She was denied and had to fight with her supervisor for just five days of leave. Her only option was to hire the first nanny she found; there wasn't enough time to try anyone else. I wish managers weren't so short-sighted, willing to sour someone's relationship for a whole multi-year tour to get them in the office just a few weeks or months earlier. Even more importantly, I wish the State Department helped managers better bridge the gap with temporary detailees and real prioritization - meaning that some of the workload actually decreases instead of just telling people to do more with less.

Anyway, there are an enormous amount of administrative, logistical, and personal tasks to complete with any PCS. Thankfully, Dubai is a very cosmopolitan post where we can get pretty much anything we would need locally (even if I hear the prices are quite steep). But we still need to update our vaccines and passports and I need to transfer my work accounts to Dubai and we need to book our flights and find renters for our apartment and reserve our packout and the list goes on and on. I've noticed each time we PCS that the Department is getting a bit better about digitizing and centralizing more of the process. I hope one day there will be a one-stop shop for PCS assistance instead of so many different people, offices, and systems.

They say moving is one of the most stressful things someone can experience, and we go through it every few years! Parts of it are a whirlwind or downright absurd, but we make the best plans we can and then laugh about whatever doesn't go our way. As long as we all make it to Dubai in one piece, everything else is icing on the cake (or can be figured out later). And we're all so excited about the next adventure.

Saturday, July 1, 2023

My Best Advice for Being a Staffer

It's hard to believe I only have a few months left in my current tour as a Staff Assistant (i.e., staffer) at State Department headquarters in Washington, DC. As people transfer to their next assignments, it seemed like a great time to do a post on the best advice I have for anyone else who wants to make the most of their time as a staffer.

So in no particular order, here's my best advice - much of which I received from others but some of which I came up with after my experience:

  • Read the paper. One of the principals in my office who worked as a staffer earlier in her career recommended that I not get too lost in the rote exercise of moving paper (i.e., the policy and administrative documents behind our foreign policy decision-making, information flows, and records) but that I actually take the time to read the paper. I have learned so much about U.S. foreign policy from reading the paper, and I've learned a lot about our principals by reading their edits and comments and debates in the documents.
  • Balance professional development with supporting the team. A DC tour is a great opportunity for networking, training, and attending professional events. At the same time, being a staffer means you're part of a staff team and the staffer work pretty much never stops. So whenever someone is off attending an event or doing training or even grabbing coffee with an outside colleague, the other staffers in the office have to ensure the work goes on. Either extreme is problematic, so I recommend striking a balance: you don't want to hang your coworkers out to dry because you're more focused on special projects and your own professional development than your main job, but you also don't want to miss the unique opportunities that a DC tour brings (especially if you're going back overseas immediately afterward).
  • Talk to other offices' staffers. So much of what's billed as "standard" for staffer work actually reflects the quirks of a specific office or even a specific principal. You can learn best practices and alternative ways of doing things from other staffers. Plus, you can commiserate about the pains of staffer life with those who will truly understand.
  • Try not to take things personally. As a staffer, you often function as a go-between and a messenger. You will frequently deliver bad news or task something that ruins somebody's day (or night or weekend). Sometimes, people will take out their frustration on you. Remember that it's not about you, and if the behavior is inappropriate or abusive or unprofessional then speak up and raise it with your chain of command if necessary. I once had three different people in a row yell at me on the phone. Thankfully, someone else in my office called out the third yeller and that person apologized to me, which I appreciated. One line I heard once and love is "I can understand why you're frustrated, but I cannot understand why you are speaking to me so rudely/unprofessionally/inappropriately."
  • Be flexible on duty and shift schedules. Stuff comes up all the time, whether it's personal needs or a last-minute trip where you need to travel and staff a principal. Sometimes, a colleague gets sick or has a family emergency and you need to cover for them. You can't be married to a duty and shift schedule, so you might as well roll with the punches.
  • Get to know each principal. Every principal has their own preferences, quirks, pluses, and minuses. Don't assume just because two principals have worked closely together for a long time or come from the same office that they will all be the same.
  • Learn when to say no. It's okay to say no sometimes. I said no to multiple travel opportunities because the timing did not work for my family or even my breastfeeding goals. I also eventually learned to say no to office housework (i.e., non-promotable tasks that need to get done) that was outside the scope of my job. Most find office housework an undesirable task that disproportionately falls to women (and especially women of color) in the modern workplace.
  • Go in with a strong sense of what you want out of the staffer gig. It really helps to have a plan for where you want the staffer job to take you, something you can compare your progress against and reassess as your time in the role goes on. Whether it's a future assignment, finding mentors and sponsors, building your peer network, or deepending your subject matter expertise, your goal will help guide your focus and expand your perspective beyond the day-to-day grind.
  • Don't expect people who haven't been a staffer to get it. There's a reason folks with staffer experience have a certain amount of solidarity with one another. Most people in the Department do not understand what a staffer does or how. Some will be curious and ask, but most won't. Don't expect people to get it, and assume the folks you meet have no idea what you do as a staffer. You might have to explain if people get confused and ask you to do something that is not your job or complain about you doing your job the way it's supposed to be done.

I obviously have just one person's perspective, but I'm sure other staffers can relate to what I said. It's a tough but interesting job, and now I know why there's some professional credit for all those who have served as a staffer.