Updated: Mar 23
Friendships are a vital source of human connection.
This post explores the challenges of making and
keeping friends when living the diplomatic life.
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Me: Hi, I'm Phil!
Other person: Nice to meet you. What brings you here?
Me: Oh, my wife and I are here on a posting.
Other person: Wow! How long have you been here?
Me: About six months.
Other person: And how long will you be here for?
Me: Another two-and-a-half years.
Other person: Oh...
If you're a diplomat or someone living the diplomatic life, you've likely had dozens of these conversations when you meet someone new. You know what has happened in this little interaction. You know what that 'Oh...' means.
For such a little word, 'oh' conveys a lot of meaning. This particular 'oh' is one that says 'Well, it's been nice but you're not worth getting to know any further as you'll be leaving soon.'
You've also likely lost count at the 'When was the last time we actually spoke to each other?!' conversations with your old friends.
Let's explore how we make friends and maintain friendships.
What's the problem?
Humans are social creatures. We are hardwired to connect with other people.
Knowing that diplomats are humans and are subject to the human condition, how do you connect with new people and maintain connection with friends when you lead the nomadic life of a diplomat?
It's hard to make friends as an adult, isn't it? We have relationships, jobs, chores and other commitments that we didn't have when we were kids. Back then, we could bound up to another kid and say 'Can I play too?' and become best friends a few minutes later.
During adolescence, the naïveté of childhood morphs into the social anxiety of adulthood and the thought of bounding up to someone in a social context to strike up a conversation now can become daunting. We dissuade ourselves of our worthiness out of fear of how we'll be perceived, or we put on a mask.
Making friends as an adult is difficult because it dredges up all sorts of uncomfortable emotions and thoughts. It can feel like high school all over again: ‘I’m not cool enough to hang out with them’. We can dissuade ourselves of anything and simply settle for a passing chat about the weather, about the game, about what someone's wearing that day, and move on.
Vulnerability is hard, messy and uncomfortable. It's hard to show up and be seen.
While it's difficult to make friends, it's not impossible. It's vitally important for our physical, mental and emotional well-being. Simply, we need some people in our life with whom we can be ourselves and know that we are seen, heard and that we belong.
It can also be difficult to keep in touch with our friends. Everyone is busy. It's hard to stay relevant in our friends' lives when we are so busy, far away and our lived experiences can differ dramatically.
Sometimes the effort needed to maintain friendships is too much on top of the other expectations upon us. Yet we need these friendships for our physical, emotional and mental well-being, especially to counter thoughts and feelings of loneliness.
For diplomats and those living the diplomatic life
It can get even more complicated, can't it?
For starters, we're always on. We are never not being a diplomat, or connected to the diplomat. We are, at all times, the job [I wrote a post on this topic - go here to read it].
So when we meet new people and we're looking to recruit friends, we approach it with a curious blend of 'I want you to believe that I'm cool! Please like me', with 'You're cool. I want to hang out with you more' with plentiful doses of 'Why are you asking me so many questions?'
I'll be looking at why this final question is so important in an upcoming blog post.
We all arrive at the start of a posting wanting to meet as many local people as possible. Getting to know people from where we’re living is one of the highlights of living in another city and country for a few years, isn’t it?
But it can be difficult to make friends with locals. There can be language and cultural issues. If you can't speak the language of your host country confidently, we rely on the other party to speak our language or the ability to speak a common third language.
This can limit our ability to interact with locals to smiles, nods, sign language, translation apps, interpretive dance and charades if language acquisition doesn't come easily to us. This is hardly conducive to making enduring friendships.
Our punishing and relentless work schedules can also make it difficult to find the time necessary to start and invest in new friendships or maintain established friendships (or any kind of social relationship).
Moreover, in some places where we live and work, making friends with people locally comes with significant risks. It's hard to know who is friend or foe in a hostile environment [Again, I'll pick up this point again in an upcoming blog post].
Even when the language, work schedules, and other interests all align, people may not be recruiting friends. It can feel like people have their own long-established social networks around them and aren't recruiting new friends who will only be here for three years (read the opening dialogue again). Or people are busy living their lives and working so hard to service mortgages that there’s precious little time to invest in making new friends [an issue I explored in a previous post on loneliness].
Schools can be a great place to meet others. But, depending on where we are posted, they are attended by the children of other diplomats or expatriates. This can also apply to sporting clubs. This hardly gets us out of the bubble.
So when it can feel all too difficult to make friends with people from the place where we're living, we make friends with people like us: other diplomats within our mission; diplomats from other countries; and expatriates working in the private sector.
These are other people who understand, and if they don't exactly know your situation, they know enough. Making friendships with people who live in this circle can just be easier. The isolation that comes from not being confident in the host language is negated (indeed, you may meet someone who's ability to communicate in the host language is a lifeline for you). Tips, suggestions and insights are freely exchanged. The support we can get from others who are also going through a similar experience is invaluable. This causes intense friendships to form very quickly, and we can find ourselves sharing deeply personal stories even before we know each other’s family names.
Making friends as a diplomat reminds me of the Mad Hatter's Tea Party ride at Disneyland. We spin in our own teacups, and we know that there are others spinning in their own teacups. Everyone is spinning, spinning, spinning. Occasionally, we look up and around and lock eyes with someone else and smile, wave, maybe say a quick something. We’ve connected for the briefest of moments, and the connection is real. The ride continues on and, before long, we spin in our respective ways and may not see each other for the rest of the ride.
Is that connection enough? It depends. The connection can be enriching and be just what we need, but can we count on that person with whom we connected and shared some meals with three postings ago to be there for us now?
We can have a phone full of contacts with only first names recorded and our social media profiles heave under the weight of the number of our friends. But it can feel that we have no one to whom we can turn when we really need a good friend to listen to us and to call us on our bullshit when we are capable of more. This can leave us feeling socially isolated and lonely, as we busily spin our teacup.
It can also be difficult to keep contact with whom we've been friends for a long time. Busyness is ubiquitous and even finding an hour to talk can take weeks of planning, negotiation and last-minute cancellations. We can take these friendships for granted, believing that they'll always be there. Like any relationship, these friendships need to be nourished before they wither.
When our loneliness deepens, our ability to bear the stresses of this diplomatic life - our ability to be resilient - also diminishes.
What are we to do?
It’s important to acknowledge that making new, and maintaining established friendships can be both exhilarating and exhausting.
It’s important to acknowledge that it can be tough when those oldest and closest friends are not physically where we are when we need them most. It can be tougher still to not be where our closest friends are when they need us most.
I feel that we can do two things:
It can take a Herculean effort to keep in contact. Life demands much of us all and it’s all too easy to let years pass between contact in-person. So, we reach for our phones and open a social media app. This helps, but also doesn't help.
I’ve previously written about the impact that social media can have on us [go here to read]. When we use it mindlessly, it feels like connection, but it’s not. It’s too passive.
The tool that many of you are holding in your hands reading these words right now is the most powerful communications device we’ve ever had. You can open any number of apps after reading this and talk via video – or via the old-fashioned way by voice – with the people in your life.
If you’re like me, it can take enormous reserves of courage to approach someone and strike up a conversation in a social situation. But somehow, I found it much easier to walk up to someone when I’m wearing the diplomat mask in a work situation. The rejection I may face and that I fear is a lot easier to handle when I’m in work mode than when I’m being 'real Phil'.
But there’s no difference. If I can do it in one setting, I can do it in another. You can too.
Once I realised this, I became much chattier with the people I encounter in my day – even when my language skills are pretty ordinary. If people approach me and talk, I am still wary of their motivations [again, this will be the subject of an upcoming post], but I’m much more willing to engage with them.
I had to acknowledge and work through my thoughts and feelings of not being enough and worthy of opening myself up to people before I began to really connect with others. I had to reconnect with myself before I connected with others.
Are you putting you into the world or are you wearing the diplomatic mask when you first talk to someone?
A final thought
We lead busy, adult lives. All our commitments and obligations can make it hard to break out of the routines we’ve set up to do it all to make new friends and maintain established friendships. But we must break the routines. We must stop being so busy. Busyness and routines can be shields we use to protect ourselves from being seen; from dropping any of the balls we're juggling and disappointing others; and from disappointing ourselves.
Making friends requires us to prioritise human interaction. Something must give so we can get the enormous benefit of human connection.
1. Let’s use social media for good this week. Rather than mindlessly scrolling and ‘liking’ posts, let’s use the chat service to talk with someone with whom we’ve been wanting to catch up. Sometimes treating it like a meeting and scheduling it - and then defending it - works best.
2. Pay attention to the people in your day. This sounds self-evident, but when you are catching up on emails or scrolling through your social media feed while in line at your favourite coffee shop, you’re missing the opportunity to connect with the people in your day. Take a moment to chat with the people you see routinely but with whom you may never speak. The sense of connection to others and to place is, for me, almost instant and when doing this, I’ve started some great friendships.
3. Is the routine you've developed to fit everything in or your busyness preventing your connection with others?
This post covered the central themes of diplomacy, resilience, loneliness and connection.
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.