The diplomatic life…all you thought it would be? I get a lot of emails from students and aspiring diplomats and those getting ready to move their families abroad, all with a lot of genuine questions about how to prepare for the life or how to keep their career, and above all, a lot of enthusiasm for the adventures to come. But at the same time, each time we go to a dinner or function or even the grocery store, there’s often someone who wants to know what the life is “really” like. Hopefully this blog as a whole sheds some light on that, but I also wanted to address the things I come across most often that are just flat out misconceptions. And if there’s anything you’ve ever wanted to know about being a diplomat, just go ahead and ask -after, one thing that is not a myth is that the job is really all about sharing what we do.
For some reason, this is probably the number one thing I’m asked about. All the time. No, we can’t park where we want. And yes, we have to pay parking tickets. At least, that’s the US policy, and I should know since I amass parking tickets like they’re going out of style, and in fact just got one the other day to the tune of $150 for a 10 minute infraction (I just can’t remember to correctly set those Danish timer clocks!). I can’t speak for other countries services but generally speaking, we try to operate within whatever the local laws are, and if we break them and incur fines, we pay them. In some posts, having a car with diplomatic plates still means you might get a little leeway (for example, in Salzburg we were allowed to drive all the way up to the entrance of the music festival) but generally speaking, if you’re not the ambassador headed to a special event with an official car, you can park with the meter just like everyone else.
Sadly, no we don’t go to parties all day. And since I love a good party, no one is more bummed about that than I. There can certainly be some events to go to but we don’t really go to that many, and we don’t host that many either. For us, we tend to host quite a bit privately but that all comes out of our own pocket, i.e. we have friends over just like we would have friends over at home. Diplomatic invitations are getting harder and harder to come by – budgets are constrained across the board and so often not everyone gets invited. And when you do, they tend to be less than glamorous affairs with everyone crowding around a small hummus bowl. You don’t need that many party dresses, if any depending on post, and national day parties require business attire anyway. From time to time there might be a really fun or lavish party if your Ambassador is an entertainer (and again, you’ll be surprised to know that many of those functions are out of their own pocket), but I think compared to earlier years when functions were the primary way to meet people, there just aren’t that many, and when there are events, they compete with a million other things that are going on anyway.
We most certainly do not make piles of money. If someone has a lot of it, they had it before they took up this job because diplomacy definitely does not pay big bucks. There are benefits that come with it – like getting your housing provided or some cost of living adjustments or education for school aged children and those can certainly be significant, but the pay itself may not quite be what you think it is. Like everything related to pay, it’s all relative but it can certainly be less than the private sector for some jobs, so many people take a significant pay cut when they come in from other jobs. And while the benefits help, you also spend quite a bit each time you move, your spouse often has to give up or scale back work so you forfeit a second salary, etc. At the end of the day, while there is certainly enough to go around, people don’t do this for the money. People do this job because they love it and they believe in it.
I think the biggest misconception is that if you’re a diplomatic spouse, you are somehow riding the easy train, spending the above money that we don’t actually get to host those parties we don’t actually have. The truth of the matter is that if you have a family, moving for foreign service life really is a two person job. The whole system is really built on the assumption that there is another person organizing the myriad tons of paperwork that go along with moving, that there is always someone at home to open up for maintenance and movers and security companies and what not, that there is someone who will go and view and interview schools and pick up kids and come to briefings at 10am. All of this has to be done while your spouse is actually doing their diplomatic work, which usually starts right away after a move. But if you’ve ever moved, even if its across the street, let alone across the world, you know that there is a slew of things that go along with moving in terms of set up and take down and for us, this happens about every two years. We’re perpetually in a state of coming or going and getting all that organized, and especially once you have kids or pets or more family members, it really does become a team effort. And while we don’t entertain officially a ton, we still do some and that most certainly falls on the spouse to prepare, set a plan, do the shopping, do the cooking, and do the cleaning. This used to be a more official requirement of the spouse, which they can’t really do anymore (do you know you used to get evaluated on your spouse?), but de facto, it still usually falls to the spouse. I’m always sensitive about this one because I don’t want to complain – the foreign service life has been good to me and I love the adventure that I have because of it, but I do want to point out that even if you are not actually the one working for the Foreign Service, you’re still working on everything that goes along with it behind the scenes.
Ha! This is always my favorite one only because life would certainly be more glamorous if we all were. But no, as it turns out, most diplomats are just that, bureaucrats who are out there trying to make a difference in international cooperation and understanding which pushing around a lot of paper and looking for a good party or two to attend. That doesn’t make for as good a movie or folklore but it does make for a really interesting intersection of adventure and career.
PS – The image above came from this source – its’ actually from a publication that was done in Tanzania about the “good life” of diplomats…looks like they’re having a lovely time, but no, that’s not quite what we look like day in and day out.