Avoid the Buddhist dog adoption guilt trip

So, here’s a little piece of free advice for you.

If you ever find yourself in the city of Changchun, and you happen to wander into a Buddhist temple, avoid engaging the monk in a conversation about how he has adopted 10,000 street dogs to prevent them from getting slaughtered, because he will try to convince you to adopt 100 of them, and will guilt trip you if you refuse. Even if you insist that there’s no way in hell that the DEA would ever let 100 street dogs from China into America, he won’t believe you. 

Believe me, you just don’t want to go down that road.

I wrote a “cable”

The State Department, like any large organization, generates a lot of written reports. Part of our job as diplomats is to report what we see and do at post, adding to the US Government’s understanding of what’s happening in the countries in which we serve. We are the eyes and ears of the government (but we aren’t spies. Really, we aren’t).

The reports that we write are called “cables.” This is a throwback to the old days of using telegraph to send in reports.

We don’t use telegraphs any more. Nowadays we use email. But we still call them cables.

Most first-tour officers like me are hesitant to write cables, because they become part of the permanent record, available to everyone. As arrogant as most of us are (myself included), we don’t want to look like idiots (myself very much included) if our analysis is wrong. But we are encouraged (almost required) to write, so I screwed up my courage and wrote a cable.

In the process, I discovered that writing cables is a lot like writing academic papers. In academia, before a paper is published, it goes through a peer review process. In the State Department, cables are “cleared” by your manager, section chief, and chief of mission (ambassador or Consul General). It also has to get cleared by country-level managers of your subject area. In fact, compared to an academic paper, which may have two or three peers comment on it, cables have to be “cleared” by many more people before it’s issued.

Also, similar to academic papers, a cable is not a magnum opus, a summary of everything that you know. A cable is supposed to be a report on a particular topic, a contribution to the overall knowledge base of the US Government.

The Consul General, who is a great boss and who goes out of his way to foster entry-level officers, gave me some great feedback on my cable, and suggested a snappy title.

Here’s a huge difference between writing cables and publishing academic papers: cables are released instantly, through a special channel in the email system. As soon as a cable is issued, it’s available to anyone in the Department.

The biggest and most important similarity to academic papers is this: your greatest fear is that no one will read your cable.

Within minutes of my cable being released, I started getting positive feedback from my coworkers, A-100 classmates, and people that I don’t know who are serving in other posts.

The cable is short, about 3 pages long, and it’s a simple study on a certain type of traveler to the US. Nothing ground-breaking, just an interesting (I think) facet of the big picture of tourism to the US. The cable will not change our foreign policy, won’t lead to new treaties or start a war (I hope), it’s just a small contribution to the Department’s collective knowledge.

And thanks for asking, but no, you can’t read it. It’s an internal report. You could file a FOIA request to get it, but believe me, it wouldn’t be worth the effort.

Now that I have my first cable under my belt, I hope that I have the self-confidence (and time) to write the next one.