10 Questions You Should Answer Before Joining the Foreign Service

I love asking former colleagues of my Father’s and mine the one question “Why did you become a Diplomat?” the answers have always varied, some are funny “I just thought I could meet more exotic women if I became a diplomat”, which always made me laugh, to “I wanted to be part of changing the world.”

I was never a Foreign Service Officer, which is a small band of misfits that are the core of the Foreign Service in Canada, I was an Advisor who stepped into a specialty desk, was handed a diplomatic passport when traveling, but didn’t rotate jobs at Headquarters or Abroad. That is a huge difference. I never wanted to be a Foreign Service Officer. Instead, I chose to work with them, and not compete for their positions, or attempt to make a lateral move into the Foreign Service (also a big difference).

I got to be part of the Department but also had a great position to observe.

  1. Do you have an Ego? Yeah, but do you have one big enough to get through the horror of being dressed down in public, in front of colleagues and still do your job. This happens on the daily, when you first begin working, no matter how much training they give you, your superiors will find fault, will tear a strip off of you, will not guide you, but will actually see if you will sink or swim. You need not only a thick skin, but an ego to rise above it all.
  2. Do you like to write? Anyone who works in the Foreign Service has to like to write, sometimes write, re-write and then re-write the re-writes…it is a never-ending cycle of writing. Every word you write has legal implications, and every level of boss who needs to sign off on it will have an opinion. I think my worst case of draft/redraft was 25, and it went all the way up to the Ministers Office. You have to have a sense of humour about it, it has nothing to do with your writing.
  3. Do you like to travel? So, if you have thoughts of joining the Foreign Service because you think you are going to travel a lot, well, you are right, just not in the fancy way you are thinking. Try landing in a city such as Paris, on a Sunday, bags are lost, middle of a heat wave. You only have the one outfit on your carry on, but you have no toothpaste, deodorant etc. because well, due to TSA regulations, you can only bring what fits into that tiny bag. So you end up waking up on a Monday, having spent the day before tracking your bag down, nothing is open on a Sunday, you can’t find your basics like deodorant, and needing to wake up extremely early to brief your bosses before heading to a round of early meetings that will last until dinner time. Your suitcase will finally arrive midway through the week, you have been wearing the same suit since Monday, and you are starting to smell like a hockey bag because the deodorant you bought doesn’t quite work in the heat wave, and you have been washing your blouse in the sink with shampoo, so it isn’t really cleaned properly. At the end of the week, you will, of course, write a lengthy brief of what happened during the meetings and negotiations before heading back to the airport to fly home, seeing nothing of Paris, unless 7-12pm count when nothing is open. It isn’t glamorous.
  4. Do you like to move? Packing up a home, moving, unpacking, settling and dealing with a new culture and language is difficult on top of a new position, but you have to do it constantly… every 3 years, and it wears you down to your core.
  5. Do you want a personal life? I always ask this question when people ask me for advice. The bottom line is, most Foreign Service Officers don’t have a personal life outside of the department. It is hard to keep a marriage together, there were lots of affairs, lots of breakdowns. Friendships, marriages, and relationships are difficult to maintain at the best of times, try working in an organization where secrecy is kinda your thing and you can’t share your stresses with anyone else, except with some people you work with. So there is that.
  6. Is it a calling? Like most ministers or doctors, there is an internal drive they have to go into that vocation. Being a Foreign Service Officer is a vocation, it isn’t just a career. You have to have a higher calling in order to be successful at it, or else you won’t survive what is coming at ya.
  7. Do you enjoy being tethered to a Blackberry/iPhone…? people don’t realize that a natural disaster, political crisis, coup attempt, war, or a Canadian going missing abroad can happen at all hours of the night, you are likely to be called in, expected to reply even in the middle of the night. Don’t think you are important, if you can’t do it, someone else will step in, and you will be known for not cutting it. I am not joking.
  8. Do you want to become Ambassador? Well, good luck with that. It isn’t as easy as it seems. My Father once reflected on his life and career, he said his most vivid and prized memories were when his children were born, and when he married my Mother, but he missed out on everything from birthdays to plays. He wasn’t there for any of our moments. When he became an Ambassador, he basically declared himself a CEO without the monetary compensation with a whole government breathing down his neck.
  9. Are you ok with a Family member getting sick or dying when you are on posting? The reality is, it will happen. You might be on posting and one parent either gets sick, or passes away, and you will have to feel the guilt of a) not being able to afford to fly out of your posting b) the guilt that you are far away and may not make it in time to say goodbye. My Mother lost both her parents when we lived abroad. It was horrible, she lived with the guilt that she wasn’t there in time to say goodbye or there to be with them through their illnesses. My Father, lost both his parents when back in Ottawa, 4 months apart. He then had to get on an airplane to his posting. It is never easy, but those are the realities.
  10. Are you ok with visiting hospitals and jails? One of the many things that people aren’t aware of, is that many officers while abroad, actually have to visit jails and hospitals where Canadians are detained or sick, and some scenes are more horrific than others. The jails, being the worst. Many never come back from experiencing a jail overseas the same, you can’t un-see the conditions that Canadian citizens are stranded in.

It’s not a vocation for everyone, be honest with yourself, because it will be a ride, there are lots of stories in your head, but you can’t share all of them!

Diplomatic Kid

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