Friday, September 13, 2013

The Foreign Service Fishbowl

You know what's awesome about having a blog? People read it! It's fun to look at your stats and see people reading across the globe - why, this past week alone I had 27 hits just from the Congo and another 40-something from Mali. Really. Who's reading over there? And why, exactly? (Seriously. Drop me a line if it's you and tell me who you are.)

You know what sucks about having a blog? That's right: people read it. Even people right here in Jordan. I get hundreds of hits from Jordan, and even more from State Department IP addresses. I have to assume lots of these people know me in real life somehow.

Now I know: freedom of speech, yada yada yada. But the fact remains that not everyone at the State Department looks favorably on bloggers. And even if they did, well, you tell me: would it be a good idea to post my complaints in this forum, knowing as I do that there are people here at post who read this blog even if they don't particularly like me? (I know. I find it hard to believe too.)

If you've been reading for any length of time, you know I periodically shut down the blog and go silent for awhile, usually because I'm frustrated by too much attention or because I start to feel that can't write what I want to. I feel myself slipping into one of those phases yet again, and I'm trying hard to stay present. Because I need to write. And yet - I don't need to give any ammunition to the sharks in the fishbowl. You know?

Sometimes I love the fishbowl aspect of Embassy living, even magnified as it is by my blogging habit. Because, you see, it is nice to have people around who know what your troubles are. Home in the U.S., you're relatively anonymous, which can leave you without help in times of trouble. Here, overseas, most people who know me even just a little know that I'm struggling to hold down a rather challenging full-time job while still finding time to feed my family, all while trying to stay healthy and sane. They know of my constant worries about my faraway husband, and they know when I have health issues or work worries or writing goals to meet.

Someone accused me of being "clique-ish" awhile back, and I tried to hear her, really I did. But in the end, I decided she was wrong: it isn't clique-ish to seek out a group of like-minded people and then band together to help each other make your way in the world. That's not a clique: it's a support group, and everybody should have one. It's clique-ish if you shut other people out, certainly. But there is nothing wrong with finding your tribe and holding them close. I look for that tribe, at every post, and yes, I suppose you could argue that it's an exclusive group for me. I don't need a lot of friends. I don't have time for a lot of friends (see full-time job, etc., above). Here - as everywhere - I have been fortunate to find a small handful of close friends who make me laugh even when they drive me up the wall, who offer up a shoulder when I feel like crying, who help with my kids when I'm feeling overwhelmed.

I am grateful for this handful of people, the ones who listen without judging. My own small support group.

But, oh, the downside of the fishbowl! It can be punishing in here, when one small misunderstood word is magnified, repeated, misinterpreted.  When rumors start, they spread like wildfire, destroying everything in their path. It's painful to watch when good people are hurt by the tidal waves that threaten to swamp this small bowl of ours. And it's certainly not fun when the wave turns in your direction, or in the direction of your friends.

But it's a small community, and everyone within has a different understanding of what the rules should be. The little things - like whether you wipe down the equipment in the gym, or watch your kids in the playground, or give a proper thank you to the guy who pours your drink, turn into big things more often than not, as people suffer hurt feelings or imagine slights that simply weren't intended. A casual remark at a party, or a change of table at the cafeteria, suddenly seems to be an on-purpose insult. Add in the stress of dealing with the situation in the region, the uncertainty, the increased workload, the changing dynamics inside and outside the Embassy walls, the worry about family members here at post or elsewhere, and you have an emotional powder keg. It's easy to overreact, to attack, to assume the worst of others.

And no - I don't think you can compare our fishbowl to high school, though I've heard that comparison made at every post. After all, most people eventually graduate from high school, move on to college and re-invent themselves, leaving behind the scraps of their former selves that they didn't like all that much and becoming newer, better people in the process. But in the Foreign Service, your transgressions, even the imaginary ones, follow you from post to post to post. It's a small world. Quick: name a post, and there's a good chance I can tell you someone who is serving there, or has in the past.

People: It's a big scary world out there. We're all of us finding our way through the maze as best we can. And it isn't always easy to be kind when you see someone blocking your path with a clenched fist. But look again if you can: maybe that isn't a fist at all. Maybe it's an outstretched hand. Maybe that person is actually reaching out to you, asking for your help, or offering hers to you. Look again before you make the situation worse with your assumptions of ill-will.

You can't assume the worst about the Other. You just can't, or you'll sink us all.  What looks to you like a clique might really be a small circle of people trying their best to hold each other afloat, clinging to each other as they make their way across the waves. And it's quite possible that they'll hold you up too, if you let them, if you're brave enough to tell them you need help. Don't assume the worst, because when you do, that's always what you find.

Me, I'm trying to be kind, every single day. It isn't easy. Like the rest of you, I succeed sometimes, and then I'm enormously, unreasonably proud of myself. But, and here I'd imagine I'm also like the rest of you, I mostly fail. I can think of a few specific times here in Amman when I've failed big, when I've chosen the easy way rather than the kind way, when my sense of humor has hit the target wrong, or when my words have hurt instead of helped. That pains me. Yet still I try. I'm trying my best to be kind, to see the best in people, to meet them where they're at. I hope, dear reader, that you know this about me. And I hope you'll extend me the same courtesy. We're all in this fishbowl together, like it or not.


Unknown said... [Reply]

Great post! I linked to it over at my blog ( and added a few of my own thoughts.

KristinJessup said... [Reply]

I totally get this! Thank you for this post. Sometimes I feel that in the Embassy life people turn on each other for little to no reason because the pressures of the job and the blurred lines between professional and personal life are the forefront of embassy life. It is definitely a challenge.

It was definitely not a reason we left the State Department after one tour, but there were certain personality types that made it easier to leave.

Please. Write your own stuff.