On competitive stories
Updated: May 31
We diplomats can be compulsive and competitive story-tellers when we get together. Why is this?
It can be difficult to convey our lived experiences as a diplomat to our families and friends. But this doesn’t stop us trying. Unless they’ve lived the diplomatic life themselves, our families and friends try to understand but our conversations can quickly turn to monologues as their responses conveying interest and understanding ebb away. Responses typically run the gamut of just short of complete understanding all the way to dismissing our stories outright and telling us to shut up.
It can be kind of a big deal when diplomats – present or past – get together. We are among other people who get it. It is safe to tell stories and share our experiences in this environment.
Think a moment, how many times have you stopped work in the recent past to talk with someone in the office about work and then – once the work has been sorted – the discussion evolves to a chat about each other’s previous experiences on other postings. It happens all the time, doesn’t it?
For me, some of my best memories of my postings come from meetings that brought me and my colleagues to a central location. The meetings were a rare – and valuable – opportunity to hear messages from Canberra and what direction we’d be taking over the coming year.
The meetings were also opportunities to catch-up with each other. This was when the stories came out. Tales of near misses in troubled cities, Ministerial visits gone well/awry and frustrations with workload or other grievances and boasts would all mix together.
Similarly, we'd get together with those with whom we lived and worked while on a posting once we're back home or encounter each other somewhere in the world. This is a kind of informal debriefing, as we catch up with each other, see how much all the children have grown, reminisce about times on posting and discuss life and the state of things.
In my experience, this is how diplomats connect with each other. Many a long-term, possibly even life-long, friendship has started in shared experiences and the exchanging of stories. Indeed, most friendships begin around the sharing of common experiences, irrespective of careers.
People connect through stories, and diplomats are people too, remember?
What’s the problem?
This may sound all very innocuous and a bit 'so what'. You're right. There's nothing wrong with making these connections. Indeed, they are critical to all humans. Bear with me.
I want to tell you something that I do sometimes towards the end of functions. Please bear in mind that I pick my timing and my audience very carefully (I know the people already and I don’t lead with this at the beginning of the event). I worked out years ago that it’s great fun to walk up to some friends from countries where it gets really cold and mention that it’s a bit chilly in whichever city we are at that point. At this, someone always responds, saying ‘This isn’t cold!’ and recoils away from me as if I’ve taken leave of all my senses. Someone else will then tell me and the rest of the group that they’d recently been somewhere and it had been -20C. And then it’s on.
Someone else in the group has been somewhere else when it was -30C. Yet another person would interject and say that they'd been running barefoot somewhere in February when it was -35C with a windchill of -80C (or something really cold).
At this stage, I’ve backed out of the conversation and am having a little bit of fun watching my friends ‘out cold’ each other. Someone has always been somewhere colder than everyone else.
[Side note: If you want to have fun with your Australian friends, comment on how warm it is. We do the same thing too, only about the heat. One can never 'out hot' an Australian and it’s just as fun to play that game, too. You’re welcome.] [continued below]
My end-of-event conversation strategies and fun aside, it illustrates my point: conversations can cease to be about listening and responding to what was being said, and become about hearing a little of someone's story, thinking of our own contribution that we'll make while they're talking, and then jumping in with our story.
I'm sure that in most instances it's not malicious, rather it's done out of fierce agreement and eagerness to participate in the discussion. Nevertheless, it becomes competitive.
Many of us diplomats cannot help ourselves. I wonder if it's anything to do with the fiercely competitive organisational culture in many of our employing agencies. We’ve spent years in competition for everything and every opportunity to show our colleagues how tough, hard-working, committed, dedicated, smart, clever we are is to be seized.
Here's my concern: when past or present diplomats get together, someone can open up – possibly after a few glasses of something – and share something that’s troubling them. They may downplay it, or say it very subtly, but they've said that something isn't right for them.
At this moment, we have a choice: we listen and respond with empathy; or we start one-upping them with our own story. I’ve heard many conversations where the person responding (myself included) responds with ‘Well, that’s nothing. There was one time when I was in…’ or 'That reminds me of the time when I was in...'.
Either deliberately or accidentally, what can this response say? Shut up. Your situation isn’t that bad. Think of me, or someone else, who’s had it worse than you.
Instead of recognising someone’s possibly just made a courageous effort to reach out for help, we can stop listening as they're talking to construct our response to up the competition. This distances us from each other as we use the opportunity to appear more competent, more resilient.
The person who reached out can be left quiet, alone and feel that the situation that is causing them some angst isn’t that bad and that they just need to knuckle down some more and get on with it. Keep quiet and carry on. Stiff upper lip, and all that. We must be resilient. People who aren’t resilient don’t get postings, after all.
For the mid-career diplomat
Like all good things, connecting with people who understand and can relate to us through our stories is a fantastic way to build connections. Until it’s not.
I fear that the hyper-competitive environment in which we work, coupled with working in an environment which is ruled by diplomatic understatement and rigid protocol, means that we can be prone to use our stories to make us look better in front of our friends and colleagues – who are also our competition.
When these gatherings and hallway conversations happen, and this can have happened a lot by our mid-careers, we can be stuck on ‘transmit’ rather than ‘receive’ mode. Our ability to do our jobs depends on our ability to read people and understand subtle verbal and non-verbal communication cues, but this can be set aside in our rush to connect with our peers and friends. We can be eager to project our fantastic, amazingly resilient, ever-posting and promotion ready selves into the world in an attempt to receive external validation and understanding, and can miss someone genuinely reaching out for help and support.
The very people who best understand the swings and roundabouts of our diplomatic lives and can help us navigate a tough time through listening can inadvertently make us feel isolated and more alone.
Contrived connection can feel hollow and forced, so I’m not setting you any challenge where connections could feel fake in any way.
My challenge is simply this: Next time you have the opportunity to catch up with a friend and you ask them how they are, listen to the answer. Pay attention to the words they use, what they don’t use and how they’re said. Remember that we diplomats have made careers out of speaking without saying anything, so be prepared to dig a little more if you feel it’s needed.
Know that in most discussions, all that is needed is a kind ear to listen, understanding and some friendly support. Sometimes, suggesting to your friend that they may need to speak with a professional may also be needed.
Critically, and here's the difficult thing: If a friend asks you how you are, be brave. Be honest. Speak up if you’re not doing so well. Drop the façade of having all your shit together and let people in to help. You don't have to do this on your own.
It's scary but it could be the best thing that's happened to you.
Thanks for reading!
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Important notice: All views expressed above are my own and do not reflect any official position. The words published above are intended to support, challenge and inspire diplomats and those living the diplomatic life as they reconnect with themselves and the world around them. They are not intended to, nor should they, replace the advice of a licensed helping professional.