I learned someone's secret today.
It's a small world here in the Foreign Service, and you're forever meeting people who know people whom you know. That's how I learned this bit of information that I could've done without, because it's sad, and it's awful, and I'm not supposed to know it, but now that I do, well, what now? Do I pretend I never heard it when I meet up with this person, a recently acquired friend? Or do I acknowledge it? Do I say, hey, I know, and I'm sorry? And what if it isn't something recent? I don't want to rip open old scars just to make myself feel better.
It's a small world indeed, and not always in a good way. There are loads of newcomers showing up at post: every day I see new faces in the cafeteria and I breathe a sigh of relief: relief that I already have some friends, and I know where the stores are, and I'm past all of that (for the next couple of years, anyway). Some of these people I like already. Others, not so much. Everyone has a different response to the newness, and some people start right out by complaining. Why, people, why? One of my friends here has a self-imposed rule: don't complain until you've been here for six months. Because you can't know whom you're offending when you complain about the school, or the house, or the store. And you don't know how far your complaints will travel. And do you really want to be known for the next three years - or beyond - as the lady who whined about her fireplace? Answer: no. No, you do not. If you can't put a positive spin on it, you need to tread carefully, because in a small community, in which you're the newcomer, there's no way of knowing how far your complaints - no matter how legitimate! - will spread, or how they'll color people's perceptions of you.
We were invited to dinner at the house of another old-timer couple, and we were talking about this problem, of listening to complaints without assuming that the newcomer is a complainer. Someone suggested putting it right in the welcome book: "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all. At least not for awhile." Someone else came up with this: "We're a small post, but we're extraordinarily catty."
I can't stop laughing about that one. It isn't true: we're no more or less catty than the folks at the next post. And yet: when you show up in a new place, people look you up and down and make bold stroke assumptions about you. Happy. Boring. Funny. Healthy. Whiny. Drink-y. Dull. I wonder what they assumed about me last year, and how much of it turned out to be true? What did they assume about you?