The Foreign Service Journal, November 2006

T he TM is signed, the house- hold effects sealed up, and the visa — finally — deliv- ered. No longer will people ask, “Really, for which state?” when you tell them where you work — every- one abroad knows what a U.S. embassy is. The question is, do you know what you’ll find when you arrive? Every job has its good and bad aspects, its nuances and culture, its geniuses and oddballs. The State Department is no different. Being prepared for the twists and turns your life will take in our traveling show will help you weather the trying times and enjoy the good moments. So as you head off on your adventure, keep these tips in mind — things I wish I had known before my first assign- ments. The department will not take care of you but, if you’re lucky, your co-workers will. Do not — never, ever — think the department will be there for you. It will not. It is a bureaucracy meant to move slowly and follow rules, no matter how unfair, archaic or silly those rules may seem to you. And if anything ever goes wrong with the process, it’s your fault. Did an employee evaluation report not make it into your file? It’s not the fault of the person who didn’t get it in, but your fault for not check- ing that your file was complete. Did someone lose a voucher you submit- ted? It’s your fault for not making extra copies to resubmit. You must always double-check everything, save copies of everything, document every- thing. If you don’t, you’ll be the one who loses out, and Foggy Bottom won’t care. The good news is that, in general, your co-workers do care. There are “kiss up, kick down” types in every cone and bureau, but generally your co-workers want you to do well. In how many other jobs has someone met you at the airport, bought gro- ceries for you and made your bed for your first night’s stay? How many will take a Saturday morning to show you how the Metro works or which restaurant serves the best fare? Be good to them and, for the most part, they will be good to you. Then, when your time comes to be a sponsor, remember how nice it was to have a full refrigerator and fluffed pillow on your first day, and return the favor. Your happiness and success often depends on the connections you make with your American colleagues and your Foreign Service National staff. Of course, those connections lead to the second tip: Prepare for the personal. Both in your official and unofficial duties, people will either want to know about you or will know about you. Professionally, people in your host country may ask questions that would be considered rude in our cul- ture but are perfectly normal in theirs. Be prepared for them so you don’t respond in an emotional man- ner. If you do, you will be the one who looks odd. After all, everyone asks those questions there. Topics may include: “How much money do you make?” “Why don’t you have children?” “How can you leave your elderly parents all alone?” And, if you’re female and over age 21: “Why aren’t you married?” Often that one is followed by some local version of “What’s wrong with you?” These can be emotional issues for some people — imagine if you’ve been trying to have a baby for five years and someone at a reception asks you why you don’t have kids. So prepare for the personal and have ready an appropriate answer. You also need to brace yourself for personal questions in the office. Many embassies and consulates are like small towns, where everybody knows your business. Sometimes What I Wish I Had Known B Y R OBIN H OLZHAUER N O V E M B E R 2 0 0 6 / F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L 17 FS K NOW -H OW As you head off on your adventure, keep these tips in mind — things I wish I had known before my first assignments.