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February, 2014:

Composure Under Fire

Foreign Service officers are diplomats, and as representatives of the United States government, we will be expected to defend the policies of our government. This can happen in official contacts such as at meetings or press conferences, or in informal contexts such as cocktail parties or even while out shopping.

Forget for a moment the fact that we will have to defend policies that we may not necessarily agree with. That’s a whole other conversation. We have to remember that the job we signed up for is to represent the government. There is a channel for us to advocate for changes to government policy, but in public, our job is to represent the official policy of the United States government.

Sometimes, people in foreign countries take the opportunity to interact with a U.S. official to complain about our government’s policies. As you can imagine, often these questions carry behind them a great deal of emotion, often anger. One of the skills that a Foreign Service officer must have is the ability to respond to these angry questions diplomatically and accurately.

This is as hard as it seems. When someone asks you to your face: “why is America at war with Islam?” it’s hard not to give an emotional answer.

This is why we have training called “composure under fire.” One person is in the hot seat, playing the part of a Foreign Service officer, and the rest of us played the part of hostile foreign nationals. We got to ask a lot of tough questions, trying to get a rise out of the foreign service officer. The Foreign Service officer, of course, tried to respond to the questions call me, and to guide the conversation in a positive direction.

At any time in our working life, we have to expect that our words are being recorded, and in the age of social media and the 24 hour news cycle, we have to expect that any poor choice of words or emotional outburst will wind up on the news before we have the chance to return to the embassy. Recent news reports illustrate this fact.

Today we had round two of composure under fire. We had a different coach this time, and he was tougher than the first coach. It was not enjoyable, but it was very useful. We got feedback on the content of our responses, as well as body language, word choice, eye contact, and general demeanor.

I can’t say that I feel prepared to face a room full of hostile reporters, but I feel a little more prepared to respond to the tough questions. I guess this is something that only comes with a lot of practice.

I now have a lot more respect for people like press secretaries and corporate spokespeople, who have to face this kind of tough questioning all the time.

Why I need a muffin pan

I made corn muffins to eat with my lentil chili (shut up, Evan!). I bought paper muffin cups, but the apartment didn’t come with a muffin pan. I figured that I could put the paper cups into a baking dish, and bake the muffins that way.

The muffins baked, but the paper cups didn’t hold their shape. Result: delicious but flat muffins.


If I want to make muffins again, I need a muffin pan.


My belongings have arrived.

The “unaccompanied air baggage” or UAB was finally delivered this week. There was some drama about getting the freight company to unpack my effects and take away the packing material. I had to open a can of whoopass, but it all worked out.

I now have my books and clothes. That’s pretty much all that I had in my UAB. Some people shipped kitchen stuff, but since my household is still in Michigan, and the apartment here has a fully-equipped kitchen, I don’t need any kitchen things. Well, except for a muffin pan. I need a muffin pan. I will post a picture to illustrate my need for a muffin pan.

Public speaking makes me nervous. Why?

It should go without saying that Foreign Service Officers have to do a lot of speaking. We have been told that we now have public lives, personal lives, but no private lives. At any moment, we may be called upon to represent U.S. policies. This week we had two exercises to help us prepare.

The first exercise was the prepared speech. With the help of a professional coach, who is excellent, we prepared and delivered a five-minute speech. The speech was delivered in front of a group of our peers, and was video recorded. Afterward, we had peer feedback, feedback from the coach, and we were given a DVD of our speech.

I don’t know why, but I get nervous when I have to speak in a formal setting in front of my peers. I have no nervousness at all when I teach, when I give conference presentations, or when I give Q&A sessions. But when I have to deliver a prepared speech, I get nervous. Why?

I have been reflecting a lot about this lately. I have been doing some serious introspection. I like to use humor to defuse tension and try to make everyone feel more at ease. But a lot of professional context actually have unsuccessful human relationships. Humor can actually prevent people from interacting and making connections with each other. I wonder if I use humor as a defense mechanism, or a way to hide part of myself, or even a way to keep people at a distance.

When I have to give a speech, I have no way to hide.

Some self-help psychologists or life coaches say that people often sabotage themselves, often right when they are about to complete something or reach a goal. Psychologists say that it’s because people are actually afraid of failing. If they trying their hardest and fail, it can be devastating. So, what people sometimes do is quit at the last minute, so even though they never achieve their goal, they never succeed, they can still console themselves by telling themselves that they didn’t fail.

Lately I have been wondering if I hide behind humor. Do I keep people at arm’s length through humor? If I habitually use humor as a shield, then when I am in a position where I can’t, such as when I have to give a speech, I’m really exposing myself in a way that I usually don’t have to. Is that why I get so nervous when I have to give a speech? Do I feel more vulnerable in that circumstance than I usually do in my daily interactions?

Lots to think about.


A lot of people in the class are sick. There is a bad cold going around. When eight-seven people spend the entire day crowded into a small room, sitting very close to each other, disease spreads easily.

There is a Chinese trick to fight off a cold: as soon as you start to feel the symptoms, you drink a tea made from ginger root and brown sugar. You have to drink it quickly, while it’s hot. The ginger is very spicy, maybe it’s a combination of that and the hot temperature that stops the infection from making you sick. If you do this early enough, you can nip the cold in the bud.

I did the ginger tea trick last week, when I started to feel a scratchy throat, and it seems to have knocked the cold out. I’m also taking lots of Vitamin C, staying hydrated, getting sleep, and exercising. With luck, those things will keep me healthy.

Fingers crossed.

Spending the day at Main State today

Most of our training happens at a special training center in Arlington, Virginia. Occasionally, we go to other locations. Today, we are spending the entire day at “Main State,” the main State Department building in Washington, D.C., in a district called “Foggy Bottom.”

We will attend area studies lectures from experts and officials who are responsible for the world areas.

We are also learning State Department protocol. When a VIP enters the room to speak, everyone is to stand and applaud as the person enters. What’s a VIP? Anyone at the Assistant Secretary level and up.

I’m planning to do a lot of standing and applauding today. It’s interesting and exciting to listen to people who are directly involved in creating and implementing U.S. foreign policy.

One year ago today,

I took (and passed) the Oral Assessment for the Foreign Service. Today I am Foreign Service Officer in Washington, D.C. Life is good.

Hiring Slowdown at State Leaves Candidates in Limbo

This is a news article about hiring Foreign Service officers. It appears that I was very lucky indeed to get hired.

By Martin Austermuhle
Uploaded on January 28, 2014

Sitting in a D.C. coffee shop in mid-November, Michael notes with a hint of irony that even though it took him three years to pass the written and oral components of the test that determines who becomes a U.S. Foreign Service Officer, he’s still not sure if — or when — he can expect to serve in a U.S. embassy abroad.

And he’s not alone. Many erstwhile U.S. diplomats are currently stuck in employment limbo, having passed the necessary tests needed to join the Foreign Service but also facing a department that isn’t hiring nearly as aggressively as in years past.

Much like the rest of the U.S. government, the State Department has been a victim of across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration. In 2013, the cuts amounted to $400 million, forcing the department to ratchet down on hiring, leaving candidates like Michael, who asked that his real name not be used, to languish on a register of Foreign Service candidates without any clear hint as to when they might move off the list.

In the 2013 fiscal year that just ended, the State Department hired 291 Foreign Service generalists, down 47 percent from the year prior and 150 percent from 2010.
According to figures posted on a State Department message board, the hiring decreases have been substantial: In the 2013 fiscal year that just ended, the State Department hired 291 Foreign Service generalists, down 47 percent from the year prior and 150 percent from 2010. Hiring among Foreign Service specialists — who focus on administrative, management and technical matters at embassies abroad — has also fallen, dropping from 502 in 2010 to 299 in 2013.

“Due to sequestration, the department has implemented a hiring slowdown, hiring one employee for every two that departs. This applies to Foreign Service, civil service and locally employed staff. A few special areas have been exempted primarily for the protection of life and property or where staffing is supported by fees charged for services,” explained the State Department through its press office.

In a February 2013 letter to Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), Secretary of State John Kerry warned about the impact of the cuts on American diplomacy, which seems to be making a comeback of sorts with the recent Iranian nuclear breakthrough. “Cuts of this magnitude would seriously impair our ability to execute our vital missions of national security, diplomacy and development,” he wrote.

That’s where Michael finds himself. After three prior attempts, in early 2013 he passed the written portion of the Foreign Service exam, and in September he surpassed the oral portion. (In between the written and oral exams, there’s also an essay, and if that doesn’t pass muster, candidates don’t move on to the oral.) With slowly building fluency in a critical language — which adds points to his final score — Michael felt confident that he could quickly make his way into a new class of diplomats-in-training.

That hope is currently on hold as he joins more than 600 other candidates on the register of applicants who have passed the Foreign Service exam but are waiting for a formal job offer from the State Department.

The hiring freeze isn’t the only challenge he faces, though. The department hasn’t stopped advertising Foreign Service jobs or cut down on the number of annual tests, so even as current candidates may not move off of the register at all, new ones who take the test can be added to it — and, depending on their score, they could place ahead of people who have been patiently waiting for a job.

“You don’t know how many people are above you [on the register]. There are people in the queue, waiting to take their oral assessments. They could take their oral assessment tomorrow and get one point higher than me and, if they already have their clearances, they’ll go on the list the next day and they’ll beat me,” he said.

Michael also worries that his already slim chances are being threatened by Foreign Service assignments provided noncompetitively through initiatives like the Mustang Program, which allows civil servants or Foreign Service specialists to join the traditional diplomatic corps. Military veterans also automatically get a bump in their score, so classes tend to have a sizable military representation.

Despite diplomacy often taking a backseat to defense in terms of prestige, plenty of people want to join the Foreign Service. According to the State Department, some 20,000 people take the Foreign Service exam every year. Despite the fierce competition for a coveted spot, the department hasn’t significantly raised the bar needed to pass the written and oral tests, creating a glut of “successful” candidates who may never get jobs in the present hiring climate.

The wait may feel like it’s lasting forever, but it won’t: Candidates who pass the Foreign Service exam can only spend 18 months on the register before having to start the process all over. Many, like Michael, do so even before their time is up, taking the test every year to ensure that they can extend their stay on the register. Still, it’s a gamble. Candidates can only choose one score, and if they fare poorly on a more recent test, they have to choose between a higher placement that might expire more quickly or a lower placement that would keep them on the register longer.

In the meantime, candidates face another dilemma: jeopardizing their current jobs in the hopes of securing a future one working in U.S. foreign policy. That’s because the hiring process requires intensive screening and background checks. Investigators have to interview a candidate’s current employer, so there’s no way to keep your boss in the dark about the fact that you hope to eventually leave your job. Other candidates come from all over the world to take the oral exam (at their own expense) and even when a “conditional offer of employment” is made, there is no guarantee that will translate into an actual job. On message boards, some successful candidates have complained of waiting years to get hired, including one nine-year odyssey.


We have been personality typed and simulated

We spend the last half of the week on the famous “offsite exercise.” This event is a mystery to those of us in the Foreign Service training program. I was a little uncomfortable about the event. My personality preference profile explains why.

But before we left for the offsite (it was held on an army training site in West Virginia), we got the results of the Myers-Briggs personality test that we took earlier in the week. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Myers-Briggs test, it positions your preference on four different spectra. The resulting profile gives you a picture of how you like to interact with people, and get, process and use information. Besides gaining insight into yourself, this profile gives you some awareness of different profiles that your coworkers may have. The idea is that this awareness helps make the workplace more efficient and comfortable.

According to my profile, I like to have a planned and organized approach to life. This is probably why I was anxious about the offsite. We were not told a lot about it, so I didn’t know what to expect, and that condition took me outside my comfort zone.

Our class had been speculating about the offsite among ourselves. Some of us were imagining a boot camp-like experience, with obstacle courses, rope lines, survival training, and the like. Others thought that it would be a retreat, almost like a religious retreat.

It was neither. I don’t want to write too many details about it. Even though we weren’t explicitly told to keep details of the event secret, it seems to be part of the Foreign Service culture not to talk about it. Sort of like the rules about Fight Club, maybe?

The offsite was good and useful, but intense. We started early in the morning, and went until late at night. We did a lot of exercises. Some were more abstract team-building work, and some were simulations of situations that we will encounter when working in embassies. The final exercise was a simulation in which various departments in the embassy had to coordinate communication on a number of levels in order to accomplish a specific task. In the debriefing session afterwards, we were assured that it rarely gets that intense, which was a relief. The biggest takeaway for me was that I definitely selected the correct area of specialization. The Public Diplomacy aspect of the Foreign Service is responsible for communication and public relations.

We arrived back in DC late on Friday afternoon. I spent most of Saturday by myself, recharging my energies. I guess that means that my personality profile was accurate in that I have strong introvert qualities.