By Patricia Linderman (archived from “Personal and Confidential,” an advice column that ran on this website for two years.)
Dear Personal and Confidential:
Upon receipt of my Master’s, I plan to enter the Foreign Service. I am 22, single, and excited about the opportunity to serve abroad. My question comes from a struggle I face daily, and it has to do with dating.
Few people I interact with know about the Foreign Service. What little they do know has come from knowledge I have shared. When I tell girls I want to become a diplomat, they seem to shy away. This occurs perhaps because of their need to have stability in a relationship, or maybe even because of news coverage that tells often of embassy bombings, threats, or deaths of diplomats abroad. This struggle I face daily has put a damper on my dating life. It seems like a career that hasn’t even taken off yet is already affecting me in ways I am not quite comfortable with. Should I be concerned? What type of person can handle the stress of being the spouse of a Foreign Service officer? Are there any particular traits I should look for, or stray away from? Should I just plan on staying single until I enter the Foreign Service?? hahah.
I think your column is great.
Concerned in Dallas
Thank you for your kind words about my column. It’s very nice to know I have already gained loyal readers!
I sympathize with your dating dilemma. As residents of a large country with oceans on both sides, Americans in general seem not to know much about the Foreign Service and what it does (“State Department? Which state?”). And when they do think about American diplomats, the image seems to be one of formal cocktail parties, spiced with the imminent danger of assassination. Not exactly a lifestyle the typical college woman would wish for herself. Meanwhile, of course, if you are still dating when your work sends you abroad, you will face all the challenges of a long-distance relationship, further complicated by unique difficulties such as expensive flights and visa requirements.
I appreciate your honesty with the women you meet, but personally, I wouldn’t raise this thorny subject too soon with a casual date. You aren’t in the Foreign Service yet, and who knows what might happen? You might just say that you plan to work in the foreign affairs field.
Once you’re getting close to someone, and you decide to have The Conversation, you might want to compare the Foreign Service lifestyle to more common activities. How about these lines (not so snappy, I’m sure you can do better):
“The Foreign Service is sort of like the military, but with more choices, more prestige, higher pay, and nicer housing.”
“It’s like moving around for a corporation, except you get to live in other countries instead of other states.”
“It’s like taking tours to exotic places around the world, but they’ll pay me to do it!”
It might also be helpful to use some support material to help explain what you have in mind for your life. The latest edition of the book Inside a U.S. Embassy, recently released by the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), does a great job of explaining the work of U.S. diplomats. And two efforts I’ve been involved with-the book Realities of Foreign Service Life and the website Tales from a Small Planet (www.talesmag.com)- have attempted to shed light on “what it’s really like to live there.”
Your significant other can also contact some flesh-and-blood Foreign Service spouses, for instance through the message boards or discussion groups at Tales from a Small Planet, or through AAFSW once you pass your exams.
Now, what are, exactly, the benefits and drawbacks you are offering the potential woman in your life? In spite of a few terrible incidents, I don’t think danger is as big an issue as it seems to many of our concerned relatives and friends. As we’ve all known since 9/11, terrorism can strike anywhere. Crime is a serious threat at many posts-but many others are safer than cities in the United States. I think it’s true that you face a slightly higher risk of getting killed abroad-but it’s mainly because of the dangers of car accidents in countries with unsafe roads and poorly-regulated traffic conditions.
The main downsides to life as a Foreign Service spouse, in my opinion, are:
- Having to move every few years to a new country, which means living out of suitcases for weeks or months, learning to cope with a new culture (and maybe language), figuring out the details of daily life all over again, developing a new circle of friends, finding new work opportunities (maybe), and so forth.
- Facing all sorts of barriers to a well-paid career, including frequent moves, work permit and licensing restrictions, ridiculously low salary scales in some countries, etc.
- Spending many years living far away from extended family, old friends, and familiar places.
- Knowing that your social “prestige factor” tends to be lower than that of your officer spouse. You might have been equal partners back in the States, but overseas, the officer is a diplomat doing a highly-regarded job while, for some people, you’re “just the spouse.”
- Having your spouse’s job control many aspects of your life-your housing, your employment opportunities, the security precautions you have to take, where you might live in the future-even though you don’t work for the State Department yourself.
On the other hand, the potential benefits, in my view, include:
- Traveling and seeing the world. During our 13 years with the Foreign Service so far, I’ve lived in four foreign countries and traveled to 15 others. And we had small kids during that time and are definitely not independently wealthy. We never would have had that kind of opportunity if we’d stayed in the States. (Added bonus: we often stayed with Foreign Service friends, saving money while benefiting from an insider’s view of the country.)
- Having the freedom, in many cases, to choose not to work. The free housing and other benefits abroad are often enough so that spouses can pursue their own interests (art, music, writing, horseback riding, travel, crafts, etc.) or stay home with their children instead of working full-time. And as a bonus here, at a low-wage post, a spouse may be able to take painting lessons from one of the country’s top artists, for example, or enjoy quality time with the children while a housekeeper does the at-home drudge work of mopping floors and cleaning bathrooms.
- Gaining a global perspective for yourself and your family. Living in another country, especially if you speak the local language, opens you up not only to new foods, holidays and traditions, but new ways of thinking and approaches to life. If you have children, they may become fluent in several languages and be able to deal naturally and easily with different cultures-a priceless gift, in my opinion.
- Having an interesting life, no matter what. If you crave more adventure and diversity than the usual suburban routine, you’ll get it as a Foreign Service spouse. I’ve swum and snorkeled at deserted Caribbean beaches; watched sea turtles lay their eggs; joined the huge crowd in Berlin on the tenth anniversary of the fall of the Wall; ridden horses in the Andes; sampled dates and fresh flatbread at a traditional market in Kuwait; taught English to East German children as their country emerged from communism; danced in Carnival parades; relaxed with my whole family, buck-naked, in European saunas; been followed by Cuban spies; visited the anti-American museum at the Bay of Pigs; visited the Galapagos Islands and Machu Picchu; hosted a U.S. congressman overnight at my house; taken sleeper trains to Vienna, Budapest and Amsterdam; had calypso singers perform in my living room, and much, much more.
So what kind of woman would think that these benefits outweigh the disadvantages listed above? The question pretty much answers itself. Some qualities you might look for in your ideal Foreign Service partner are:
- Flexibility, a love of adventure, and boredom with the idea of the steady-job-and-minivan routine.
- Willingness to give up the idea of a professional, well-paying career, or to be very flexible in its implementation.
- A possible interest in becoming a Foreign Service officer herself (thus making you a “tandem couple”), working for another international agency, or taking a temporary job in the embassy or consulate where you are assigned.
- Creative interests which she would love to have the time to pursue.
- A desire to stay home with her kids, if she has any.
- An interest in travel and other countries, cultures and languages.
- Willingness to live far away from her hometown and extended family (I’ve seen this become a career-breaker for both spouses and officers).
- The ability to deal with hardships and unusual situations (lost shipments, bureaucratic tangles, shortages of common foods, extended power and water outages, beggars at the door, scorpions in the bathroom…), preferably with creativity and a sense of humor.
- The self-confidence to cope with being dismissed as “just a spouse” by some over-inflated people. (I’ve had trouble with this one myself…)
Last but not least, your prospective Foreign Service partner will need an excellent relationship with you. You’ll both need lots of support from each other to get through the tough times in temporary housing when you’ve just arrived in a new country-you with a demanding new job to learn from scratch, and she pretty much having to construct her entire daily life all over again. To keep her happily on the team, you’ll also need to be sure you can respect her choices and activities and even to view them as equally important as yours, even if they don’t bring in the fat paycheck our culture often seems so obsessed with.
I hope all of this long-winded advice will help you in your search for the potential sharer of your international adventure. But if you don’t find her before you enter the Foreign Service, don’t worry. There will be many fellow officers, Embassy staffers, and local women for you to choose from. Once you’re working abroad, you’ll probably find yourself more, not less, desirable to the eligible women you meet. Your colleagues will be glad to date someone who understands and shares their unusual lifestyle. And in the eyes of host-country women, you’ll be a glamorous foreigner with a high-prestige job (and likely quite wealthy compared to the local average).
Finally, the close-knit communities that develop abroad make it easy to meet and get to know people. The Marine House or another venue will probably host weekly happy hours, where Americans, third-country diplomats, international workers, and local Embassy staffers mix and mingle. There will also be sports and activity groups, such as tennis teams and the Hash House Harriers (an international running-and-partying club). Join a few groups (even if you’re not the greatest tennis player, for instance) and participate in a few events, and you’ll soon find yourself with a network of new friends and contacts.
Good luck, and I look forward to welcoming you (single, attached or married) into the Foreign Service community!
-Personal and Confidential
Longtime AAFSW member Patricia Linderman is co-author of The Expert Expatriate: Your Guide to Successful Relocation Abroad, with Melissa Hess, and co-editor of the AAFSW book Realities of Foreign Service Life, likewise with Ms. Hess. She is also Editor-in-Chief of Tales from a Small Planet.