Sunday, July 24, 2011

Small World

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?


Popster said... [Reply]

Two of the things I've learned in life are derived from security issues and my ancient elders.

If your friend determines that you have a "need to know" you'll be told.

The other; if you don't have anything good to say about someone keep your lip zipped.


Anonymous said... [Reply]

I would love to know what they assumed about me (though I'm non-FS).

Anne said... [Reply]

I'm on day 5 at my new (first overseas, very small) post, so this couldn't have come at a better time for me. Thanks!

Danielle said... [Reply]

Great post. Complaining (and its small post cousin: gossip) is so tempting but I've also realized it's almost impossible to sound like a well-adjusted, gracious person when I do so, no matter how many people agree with me. I'm no pollyana and I whole-heartedly enjoy the occasional "wait till you hear what MY landlord did" b*tch sessions, but it's also amazing how good it feels to do the opposite, to say nice things about other people and find out later that your genuine compliments sparked connections between 2 people who might not otherwise have realized they could hit it off. Sure beats the results of any of my complaining.

Connie said... [Reply]

I agree with Popster, if your friend wants you to know, they'll tell you, otherwise it's not important - even if it is important(!). I think it is ok to just pretend the elephant is not in the room... most times. I know what you mean about complaining. I try to put a positive spin on everything, even when I am truly ticked, although I also reserve the right to b***h about some minor petty things. We can't hold in everything, so I'll gripe about my unimportant pet peeves to let off steam, when I must, and save my tact for when I get to the actual sensitive stuff. We do live in a 'small world'.

eve said... [Reply]

while I do agree with most of what you've said, 4 months into our first post (and 8 1/2 months into my first pregnancy) I feel so isolated and pathetically sad in a place like Luanda... well, I just won't go there, and generally refrain for reasons you've cited- no one likes a complainer. It can be very difficult to go to functions and smile through it all pretending everything is "just fine" when it's anything but. I REALLY hope you're right and that in two more months I'll absolutely love it. But sometimes just an ounce of compassion from someone who has been there a while makes all the difference in the world.

Donna said... [Reply]

Eve, Luanda is HARD. You've earned some complaining time over there. And I didn't mean to say that you should smile and say everything is great when it isn't. I guess what gets to me is when you go out of your way to help a newcomer, and then, when you hear someone ask how their weekend was, they just heave a big smile and say "okaaaay.... I guess." Total Eeyore move. Or when you stop by their house to welcome them and the first thing out of their mouth is how the oven is a deathtrap and the balcony is filthy and the neighbors are loud and... and... If you do too much of THAT, pretty soon everyone will avoid you. But if you can laugh a little about the hardships (as you do on your blog), I'm all in favor of that. You have to find your tribe - find the people you can talk with in a real way - but you can't do that if you've built a reputation as some one who is determined to be miserable.

Good luck with the baby!

Bfiles said... [Reply]

heading to my first post soon...thanks for this!

Please. Write your own stuff.