Updated: Apr 17
As the aircraft turns on to a runway and powers up for takeoff, I reflect on the craziness of the last few weeks; saying good bye to friends and family, the weeks of organising everything associated with moving our lives to another country, and my pre-posting training and briefings. It's all done now. There's nothing to do but to sit and let the plane do its thing.
But as the ground falls away, thoughts begin to turn towards the future. There's a new job with new colleagues in a new city and new accommodation. It's both daunting and exciting at the same time. There's also the realisation that, for the next few years, I will cease to only be myself; I am a diplomat again and I am back to always representing my country.
Words said at the end of my training: 'Never forget that you're always representing your country. Always.' ring in my ears.
I look across at the family. They're all settled and engrossed in their movies. Whether they know it or not, they're always on the clock, too.
The switch has been flicked to 'on' and it will remain in that position until the end of the posting.
Diplomats operate in two environments at the same time: within the diplomatic mission and in the community.
In the diplomatic mission is known. It's a tangible link to home. We know the work and how things operate. The work is in our own language. The words comforting.
Outside the office is different. There's different cultural norms. There's different social hierarchies. Possibly a different language. Possibly different school systems. There are definitely different ways to get things done.
In both settings, we diplomats and our dependents must be 'on'. By this, I mean that we are always aware that we are the representatives of our governments in the community in which we live. Our words and actions carry the weight of our countries. There is no turning this off.
What's the problem?
For the purposes of this post, we're going to look at how being 'on' affects us outside the office as we live in our communities. I'll write on how being on affects us in the office in another post in the coming months.
For years, I really internalised those words about always representing Australia. I realise now how I felt that I was being held to an impossibly high standard.
For me, anything less that perfection: especially a perfect appearance; perfect relationships; perfectly behaved children and consistently doing an amazing job all while being being calm and good humoured, both in the office and outside of it, would reflect poorly on my country.
Do you remember the link between perfection and shame? It's present in the question 'What will people think?' I know now that the 'never forget' line is a cheap, but very effective, tool to ensure compliance among driven people-pleasers (and reformed people-pleasers, like me). In my experience, it's exhausting keeping up the illusion of perfection at the best of times. It's exhausting because it's impossible. Throw in fear about how my lack of perfection could reflect on my country ratcheted up the pressure a few more notches.
Beyond our own and our employer's expectations of us, we diplomats and our dependents must navigate the high expectations of those in the communities we live.
The problem starts soon after our arrival, and usually starts with a derivative of the question:
'So, what brings you to [insert name of place]?'
From that moment on, we - and our dependents - can be known as 'the diplomat/s'.
In my experience, saying that I am a diplomat can elicit a few different responses, such as:
- 'Oh, I know [insert name of person who also works in the mission]. You must be [insert name of the person who had job previously]'s replacement'.
This person is both putting you into context and letting you know that they're cool with being around diplomats. Then there's:
- 'I've been/never been to your country. I loved/liked/hated it'.
At which point we become tourism representatives. Or:
- 'I want to go to your country, but I can't get a visa. Can I get your card so I can call you?'
We are seen as a means to an end, not as a person. Then there's:
- 'Oh. So how long are you going to be here?'
This is a subtle attempt to find out whether we're worth getting to know. If we're only here a short time, then there's no point investing in any kind of relationship with us (a point on which I'll be writing a post in the coming weeks).
We can also downplay being a diplomat to not have the other parties feel intimidated. We can put ourselves down to have other people feel comfortable around us. That's some high quality self-deprecation, right there.
Additionally, depending on where we are in the world, we can be seen as conduits of information for what's really going on politically, socially and economically in either our home country or our host country.
Questions relating to what we think about something or questions about our jobs make us nervous. We live in a state of heightened vigilance for when people start to ask questions. For security reasons, we are trained to be wary of anyone from outside our governments asking questions about our work. It can be very difficult to determine why a person is asking these question or for whom they're asking them.
So innocent questions like 'how's work?' or 'I've seen the news, but what's really happening?' asked by people outside the diplomatic mission are usually answered simply and without detail. We respond with information that we'd be happy to be shared in a wider audience, because we can never trust when things that we shared in confidence would stay that way.
We can never give our personal view. We can never trust that something said privately in our capacity as a private citizen is retold and shared with the same level of care and with the same 'this is just my opinion' caveats. Our words always carry the weight of our government. Any divergent view from the official line can reflect poorly on our country.
So we answer very carefully, if at all, using very careful and deliberate language (something explored in a previous post). We strive to give the best answer; the answer that is helpful but does not invite further questions.
There's also the need to be wary for our security. As I've explored in a previous post on resilience, some see diplomats as an easy target to make a political statement against our employers. So questions about what we like to do, where we live, where our children go to school can be more than just making small talk or finding out about us for benevolent reasons. We need to be careful about what we publish about ourselves and our dependents on social media for the same reason.
This does test our resilience. While we can turn off at home at the end of the day and take holidays [some readers may call holidays vacations], we do not get to really spring back to form - the critical component of resilience once the stressing event has passed - until the end of the posting.
Two, three to four years is a long time to be stretched taut and be hyper-vigilant.
To be fair, where there is a real danger to diplomats and their dependents, our employing agencies take great effort to maintain our security. In some places, dependents are not permitted to accompany a diplomat. In others, the duration of a posting is shortened to limit the exposure of a diplomat to such intensely stressful situations. Our security and physical well being is taken seriously.
It's critical to understand that this wariness applies to diplomats and their dependents. We'll be exploring what this means for dependents in an upcoming post, for now, note that our dependents field these questions, but receive very little training (if any), even though they are often a diplomatic mission's most visible faces within the community.
All this may seem incredible to non-diplomats, but this wariness can be a constant state of being for diplomats and their dependents. This wariness of outsiders and holding back around them can be a barrier to real connection.
It means that we can know a lot of people - indeed, call many people our friends - but not have anyone with whom we can be our authentic selves.
We always wear the diplomat's mask.
For diplomats and those living the diplomatic life
We and our dependents can wear this mask for many years.
From a previous post, we know what wearing masks can do us: they force disconnection. So for diplomats and our dependents alike, after wearing the diplomatic mask and being so aware of what we say and do for a number of years over a number of postings, we can become disconnected with ourselves.
Maybe because of the diplomatic mask we wear, we connect over 'safe' topics. We don't talk about anything really personal and nothing about work with others outside of our own diplomatic community. This means that we can know very little about the people in our lives and they know 'safe' things about us.
Further, it can be difficult to break out of the diplomatic circle to make friends. The wariness that's needed when striking up any kind of relationship with those who aren't diplomats is draining. Sometimes, it's just easier to be with others who get it.
Then, we can find that we've surrounded ourselves with other people just like us and have not made friends with people in the community in which we live. This, in turn, can create the feeling that we are merely observers, not participants, and that we are disconnected from the world around us.
As with many aspects of this diplomatic life, this can be known and understood in theory. But until it's a lived experience, it can never be truly appreciated.
What are we to do?
The nature of our jobs mean that we - diplomats and our dependents - will always need to be on. We are always going to be representing our country for as long as we are posted. We will always need to be wary about what we say and do as we interact with people outside our workplaces and in the communities in which we live.
Some people we meet want will always seek to use us to access what, or who, we know.
For this reason, we need to keep our wits about us while also living our lives.
But this is no reason to hide. We need to set our masks down. We need to be people who are connected with ourselves and the world around us.
This will look like many different things to many different people. A good place to start is to use this post to start a conversation with those around you in your workplaces and your communities. Some may be living in fear of saying and doing the wrong thing, and therefore say and do nothing.
Besides, I'm concerned that being on in this fashion creates a level of stress within us that has been there for so long that we no longer realise it's there. This latent stress could put you at risk of a range of stress-related illnesses over the short-, medium- and long-term. Perhaps beginning to practice some mindfulness to quickly check-in with yourself throughout your day is a good start. Read on for a suggestion.
I encourage you to be courageous, start a conversation and speak up. Please seek help, support and advice if you're struggling with any part of the diplomatic life and the need to always be on. There is no shame in saying that you're struggling. Indeed, speaking up and asking for help is a sign of strength that I deeply admire. Recognise when you're about to tip from being OK to not.
Reach out to friends and family.
Reach out within your office.
Seek help, advice and support anonymously through my website.
Seek help from a professional counsellor.
Just don't put up with it. You do not have to endure the stressors alone.
This week, I challenge you to reflect on the stressors that you may or may not have noticed that are active within you and/or your dependents from being 'on' all the time. Perhaps practicing some mindfulness techniques through your day will serve you.
Kind and honest conversations based in empathy may be needed where some frustrations surface. The circumstances that create the frustrations may not be changed, but much can be achieved by openly acknowledging their presence.
Thank you for reading this post. It covered the central themes of diplomacy, resilience and connection.
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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.