Quote of the day/week/however long

"Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does."
~William James

Friday, November 19, 2010

Call My Embassy!

From one of Madam's favorite web sites, a photo that reminds her irresistibly of a typical Amcit emergency.

Of course, the rental agent assured the tourists that the car-top carrier was perfectly aerodynamic, could hold all their luggage, and would not fall off.  There is, however, no mention of its being burglar-proof.

And which of the monkeys is eating the passports?  Ah, that one.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Talking to Them

Consular sections find so many ways to communicate with the public, and Madam has yet to hear of a single method that either failed or that the section regretted.

Here are just two totally random samples: 

The first is someone's personal web page that has linked to the official embassy web site's emergency evacuation information, in a country where evacuation could be a serious issue.  While the consular section didn't deliberately draw attention to its page, it did at least make the information available to be found.  How many consular sections have any such information available to the public at all?  Sadly, very few.

The second example is more forward:  a regular feature in a local newspaper, no doubt negotiated and agreed to by the consular section and the paper itself.  Notice that the the newspaper filters the possible massive flood of queries (it is, after all, Jamaica), a flood that the consular section might struggle with, and the result is win, win and win.

Consumer-friendly consular sections also hold periodic warden meetings, public meetings with the Amcit community, even open public information sessions with whomever wants to come.

In places with high rates of student applicants, consular officers meet regularly with groups of students to explain the visa process and - if the F1 refusal rate is high - to encourage students to not put all their eggs into single baskets.

Some consular sections participate in on-line lists and groups, or at least follow them to see if misinformation is being passed around, and to correct those errors.

Some write regular columns for the local newspaper.

Some hold press conferences.

Some schedule regular "ask the consul" on line forums.

One section, in a country where it was rumored to refuse all NIV applicants, simply posted its monthly issuance numbers on its outdoor bulletin board.

Every consular section that has used any one (or several, bless their hearts) of these methods has found that the phones ring less and the public hostility scales back.  The worst that has happened, in Madam's knowledge, is that a few individuals in public meetings became aggressive, and were deftly brought under control by their fellow countrymen.  Communicating actually reduces the workload rather than increasing it.  And it makes it appear that we have nothing to hide.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Please Put Them On

Two different IG reports describing similar conditions but very different results recently came to Madam's attention.  Both reported semi-absentee consular management, but in one this absenteeism had created chaos, open cruelty, crying in the rest rooms and possible resignations while the other had caused first tour officers to band together to produce quality products on their own.

What was the difference?  What crucial management behaviors allowed ELOs to soldier on in one case, while forcing them to offer up one another for human sacrifice in the other?

Madam contends that there was no difference that mattered.  No one made the out-of-control ELOs rip at one anothers' jugulars; no one allowed the Little Ship Steered From the Engine Room to stay reasonably on course.  To work and behave as they did were the choices of the officers themselves.

While management in the Lord of the Flies-like post received a well-deserved trouncing from the OIG (as did that of the Little Ship, but far more lightly), in the end it was still the officers' own responsibility to implement the training they had received, use the FAM as it was written, and behave civilly and adult-ly to one another, to consular customers, and to the local staff exactly as their mothers probably once had taught them.  WTF did their parents pay for college educations for, if these children reverted to savagery at the first opportunity?  And what do these reversions imply for the children's professional futures?  One shivers to anticipate a DCM who found the Flies posting to his or her liking, and is carrying those lessons to a position of power.

Does Madam even have to write a conclusion here?  How about this?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Going Walkabout

Once upon a time there was a consular section with a very high NIV refusal rate, a customer base that insisted on queueing up at 3 AM, and a layout that required consular officers coming to work to pass that queue.  Habitually, the officers would stride along the sidewalk with a no-nonsense gait and eyes firmly fixed anywhere except on the waiting applicants.  One officer, however - a large and naturally cheerful soul - would smile, make eye contact, and greet the people as he rolled along.  They would respond with smiles, straightened posture, and startled hope.

When he interviewed these applicants he refused nearly all of them, exactly like his colleagues did.  Interestingly, however, although the culture was one of determined complaint in the face of any adversity, this officer's refusees only rarely complained.  And when the did complain, they always complimented him and only griped about the law.

Is there a lesson here?  Well, of course, and here it is:   A very small amount of effort can yield positive feelings, even in the face of disappointment.

Do positive feelings matter, especially now that the NIV process is so complex that officers don't often even make eye contact with their applicants?  Madam would insist - and often does - that positive feelings are more important now than they ever have been.  American's current reputation in the world is very low; more than anyone else, a consular officer can lift that reputation for the applicants he meets.  And Madam would argue - long, loudly, passionately and tiresomely - that he should.  Rather, he must.  Period.

How do you like us now?

Appointment systems were one of the first innovations to improve applicants' experience.  (Never mind that that wasn't usually the systems' goals.  They still worked that way.)  So why are they so often so badly done?  It does no one good to give a customer an appointment that you have no intention of honoring.  And yet that is the effect of most such systems.  Does it annoy you when your doctor or dentist lets you sit in the waiting room for an hour or more?  So why do consular officers routinely do that to their customers?  There is no good answer to this, and it should not occur.  Not ever.  Your appointment system is dysfunctional?  Fix it.  Period.

What else could be fixed to make customers' experience more positive?  That's a very good question, and one that could be easily answered by any knowledgeable consular officer who is willing to get off a chair, come out from behind a computer, walk through the process as if he were an applicant - that is, a real human being who made an appointment and has other things to do today - and determinedly fix any hiccup that slows him down.  Period?  Yeah, period.

Friday, October 22, 2010

And The Answer Is ...

A 2004 GAO report estimated that one-third of illegal residents in the US - some 2.3 million - had entered with valid visas or through the VWP, and then had overstayed.  Efforts to refine this number were only partially successful, but all pointed to high rates of overstay:  31%, 27% and 57%, not taking into account the large number of Canadian and Mexican visitors who did not complete I-94 forms, nor the numbers of visitors who overstayed for relatively short periods of time and then went home.  And these numbers don't all account for changes and adjustments of status by those who entered with B1/B2s.

While this and other such reports emphasize security and terrorism concerns to justify efforts to track overstays, we must remember our role in this:  security risk, terrorist, or Greek restaurant dishwasher, many of these individuals received visas after interviews with consular officers.

Making it worthwhile, Madam believes, to remember that in a visa interview, the correct answer to a consular officer's inner "I don't know" is 214(b).

A note - if a reader knows of more current or accurate stats, please post links in the comments.  Thx!!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

"Welcome to the Electronic System for Travel Authorization Web Site"


Friday, October 1, 2010

One Officer's Paradise ...

... is another's Luanda, we sometimes say, and vice versa.

And Barbados?  Pretty nice gig, one might presume:  sun, sand, sea, fresh fish, fancy sailboats, gorgeous new facility that isn't too small yet ...

 ...but a consular schedule that might daunt the most hardened travel lover.

The post just announced an upcoming consular visit to the British Virgin Islands to provide US citizens' services.

Still not impressed?  How about the fact that US Embassy Barbados is accredited to seven different countries - more, as the State OIG points out (see pages 4 & 5) than any other mission in the world - and has varying degrees of responsibility for numerous other European possessions.  The chart on page 5 of the OIG report should serve to put Paradise in perspective:  it's not only warm and sunny; it's diabolically complex, with consular responsibilities for Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, British Virgin Islands, Dominica, Grenada, Guadeloupe,  Montserrat, Martinique, Netherlands Antilles (Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao, St. Maarten, St. Eustatius and Saba), St. Barthélemy, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Martin, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

Never mind that, stuck all together, the total land area of consular responsibility hardly adds up to Kansas:   that is a lot of air time (much of it requiring third-country transit, all of it requiring at least one and usually two overnight stays) many times per year.  But the consular section soldiers on.  Fly on, Barbados!

Thursday, September 30, 2010

A Whisper in My Ear Said “Give Up!”

Every consular officer has had to read or listen patiently to seemingly endless complaints about how difficult some customers find the US visa application process to be.  But Madam has never, so far in her life, seen a complaint as complex, detailed, thorough and probably even true as that of Mr. Kenneth Best, whose  journey in search of a Schengen visa appears to have encompassed nearly all of West and Central Africa and finally resulted in - a visa!  Kudos to Mr. Best for his persistence, patience, and grace under extreme aggravation.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Lucky Thirteen

Not long ago, the Department formulated a list of the qualities it looks for in FSO candidates.   No harm is done by an occasional review of this list by those who have succeeded in joining the service, and so Madam presents it here for your thoughtful consideration.

If Madam had to choose a personal favorite, it would have to be "Judgment," which  she suspects falls in mid-group simply because the list is in alphabetical order.  But no favorite you might choose can possibly be wrong.  Enjoy.  And let's always remember:  this is why they hired us; it's what they pay us for.

Composure. To stay calm, poised, and effective in stressful or difficult situations; to think on one's feet, adjusting quickly to changing situations; to maintain self-control.

Cultural Adaptability. To work and communicate effectively and harmoniously with persons of other cultures, value systems, political beliefs, and economic circumstances; to recognize and respect differences in new and different cultural environments.

Experience and Motivation. To demonstrate knowledge, skills or other attributes gained from previous experience of relevance to the Foreign Service; to articulate appropriate motivation for joining the Foreign Service.

Information Integration and Analysis. To absorb and retain complex information drawn from a variety of sources; to draw reasoned conclusions from analysis and synthesis of available information; to evaluate the importance, reliability, and usefulness of information; to remember details of a meeting or event without the benefit of notes.

Initiative and Leadership. To recognize and assume responsibility for work that needs to be done; to persist in the completion of a task; to influence significantly a group’s activity, direction, or opinion; to motivate others to participate in the activity one is leading.

Judgment. To discern what is appropriate, practical, and realistic in a given situation; to weigh relative merits of competing demands.

Objectivity and Integrity. To be fair and honest; to avoid deceit, favoritism, and discrimination; to present issues frankly and fully, without injecting subjective bias; to work without letting personal bias prejudice actions.

Oral Communication. To speak fluently in a concise, grammatically correct, organized, precise, and persuasive manner; to convey nuances of meaning accurately; to use appropriate styles of communication to fit the audience and purpose.

Planning and Organizing. To prioritize and order tasks effectively, to employ a systematic approach to achieving objectives, to make appropriate use of limited resources.

Quantitative Analysis. To identify, compile, analyze, and draw correct conclusions from pertinent data; to recognize patterns or trends in numerical data; to perform simple mathematical operations.

Resourcefulness. To formulate creative alternatives or solutions to resolve problems, to show flexibility in response to unanticipated circumstances.

Working With Others. To interact in a constructive, cooperative, and harmonious manner; to work effectively as a team player; to establish positive relationships and gain the confidence of others; to use humor as appropriate.

Written Communication. To write concise, well organized, grammatically correct, effective and persuasive English in a limited amount of time.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Come to America; Bring Money

There was a time when Madam believed that there were still depths to which the USG would not stoop.  No more.  The new ESTA fee has finally served to reach those ultimate depths.  At least this month.

In case you might have missed it, the Travel Promotion Act of 2009, signed into law earlier this year, implemented a new "public-private partnership" between the U.S. government and the nation’s travel and tourism industry.  (Since said industry is so responsible with its cash, apparently, and since similar ventures have worked so well in the past.  Please excuse Madam while she gags.)  That partnership will be financed by $10 of the $14 ESTA fee. 

Never mind, if you wish, that every visitor already spends an average of $4,000 in the US per visit.  Never mind that tourism revenues total $120 billion per year and support more than one million American jobs.  There had to be a way to get more.  And sure enough.

As Steve Lott of IATA told CNN, "It's like inviting a friend over for dinner and then charging them a fee at the door.  If the idea is to make the United States more welcoming and to increase tourism, raising the entry fee seems to be counterintuitive to what you're trying to do."

Mr Lott should be teaching at Diplomat School, he is so tastefully gentle with his wording.  Madam, on the other hand ... more than a year ago, you may recall, she complained bitterly and in detail about the proposed fee, which purported to be earmarked to 'promote travel to the US.'  She might have mentioned in the course of that complaint that it seemed extremely unlikely that any of the money would ever see the light of day as far as foreign travelers to the US might ever observe.  The US is widely considered one of the least welcoming of destinations to foreign travelers; creating a new public-private behemoth bureaucracy to spend $10 of every VWP traveler's money to make him glad he came ... what is the 47th degree of the word "counterintuitive?"

And to think that Madam remembers the days when US missions and the Department worked so hard to eliminate reciprocal visa fees.  How naive she was then.  And were we all.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Of All Places...

In the interest of complete disclosure, Madam must admit that she actually lived in Los Angeles for several years.  She also grew up with a father who used to say, "It's obvious that California is the lowest part of the US.  Loose nuts always roll downhill."  There's balance for you.

Even so, that well-known, long-time provider of non-news, the Los Angeles Times, recently carried a thoughtful and pretty complete article on the 14th amendment and immigration enforcement.  Unlike most recent immigration-related rants*, Charlotte Allen seems well aware of existing laws and acknowledges the difficulty involved in changing the Constitution as well as in determining how, then, US citizenship might be determined and adjudicated.  Of course, much more thought and planning would be required, but this is not a bad start.  Well done, Ms. Allen.

Why, a consular officer might be asking, do I need to know about all of this discussion/debate/ranting going on in the US about these issues?

Because you are a consular officer and they have to do with citizenship, nationality, and legal status in the US, three things out of many others that you should be up on and should be ready to discuss - quietly, rationally, and with a sense of history and balance - with whomever brings them up at any public or private gathering, including on the beach or at a grocery store.  You're an expert.  People look to you for valid information (not uninformed opinion and prejudice) on deceptively complex subjects.  Being able to explain all sides equally lucidly is part of your job.  You will be practicing diplomacy.

* By the way, this is one of Madam's all-time favorite public rants.  She is ashamed to admit that she would have tasered the good pastor, too, and probably far faster than the cops did.  Especially when he got to the part about "some dog."  Harumph.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Service? Who, Me?

The Town Crier, who is far more courteous and diplomatic that Madam, recently reposted an article from a local newspaper somewhere out there in the world that announced the following:

Notarial services at U.S. Embassy


The Consular Section of the U.S. Embassy has started offering a special notarial service session.

The service, which is only available by appointment for non-U.S. passport holders, is open every Tuesday and Thursday, from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.

All non-U.S. passport holders seeking routine consular services from the American Services Unit will be seen by appointment only during these hours.

Customers will need to make appointments on their website and enter through the embassy’s side or visa entrance and proceed to the third floor.

The embassy hopes that this change will make better use of consular section space and reduce crowding and wait times for all its clients.

United States citizens and those who need to accompany for the services are recommended to observe the consular department’s normal appointment-only hours from 8:45 a.m. to 11:15 a.m. Monday to Friday. Walk-in hours are from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays except Wednesdays.

 The Crier posted this with no comment except the slightly snarky title "SIT DOWN UNTIL WE CALL YOUR NAME !"  Madam, however, can think of plenty of comments and a couple of questions.
First a comment:
For example, since when is limiting time so strictly that an applicant will need a stopwatch to get there on time "special?"
Since when is limiting the time available for a service that we are responsible for providing to 1/10 of available hours "special?"
Since when can such limitation reduce crowding and wait time, especially since anyone can correctly guess that it will create an instant backlog and the accompanying worry among customers that if they aren't there early they will miss their chance and have to make a new appointment, probably for several weeks in the future?
And wait, don't tell me:  since a normal notarial takes less than three minutes total customer time to accept, process and finish, all of those "appointments" are probably for the same exact time.  Since when is it a "special service" for a customer to show up for a purported appointment and find a hundred other individuals with the same "appointment?"  And bloody since when is that going to reduce crowding?  Perhaps in some sweet ELO's dreams.
In a major ACS unit for which Madam was responsible not long ago, one LES, one cashier (who also served other units) and one ELO routinely provided more than one hundred notarials per hour, and could do that for eight hours every day if necessary, without breaking a sweat and including a regular lunch break at lunch time (a different LES and the ACS chief took over the windows for that hour).  That was their job, and they were good at it.  Total customer time from walkin to walkout was about ten minutes.  There were always seats available.  Anyone in the country who suddenly learned that he or she needed a US notarial service could zip over and get it at any time during the normal working day.
There was no need to separate American from non-American customers, and no need for those customers to use a protractor and a volume of Kierkegaard to determine when exactly they might reasonably expect to obtain the services they needed.
Exaggerating?  Madam doesn't think so.  Consider again, if you care to, what a normal American might think of the hours that the embassy is willing to provide a service he or she needs:  is it 8:45 to 11:45 Monday to Friday?  Is it 1 - 3 Monday, Tuesday, Thursday or Friday?  And what - utterly unthinkable, perhaps - if the American or non-American doesn't know what the word "notarial" means, but just knows that he needs a signature witnessed or to file an affidavit of support?    Madam has long believed that our customers should not have to learn our jargon to obtain our services...efficiently, generously, pleasantly, professionally, and at their convenience.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Planning Outside the Box

Once upon a time a clever and very successful DCM gave Madam some advice. 
The subject was Careers with a capital C, and he said two things that she has found to be extremely useful in the ensuing years.

First, he said, it's okay to not share others' ambitions.  You might feel weird or wrong if your A100 classmates salivate over, say, an extended tour as political counselor in Brussels or ambassador to London or Tokyo, while you hunger for a DCM-ship in Ulan Batar or econoff in Ouagadougou.  But you aren't wrong.  Just as one FSO's hellhole is another's paradise (and vice versa) one's dream job is not another's.   It's okay to want what you want.

Second, no FSO's professional journey is straightforward.  Look, the DCM said, for steps that will be fulfilling in themselves and will also carry you obliquely toward your goal, that dream job.  Move to the right bureau or to the same area of the world; find a job that will get you the language; get training in that subject or one closely related; read up; tell your boss what you want (if he or she is trustworthy); volunteer to fill a gap or to go there to help if a disaster occurs.  If you can, go there simply as consular cannon fodder very early on.  It is extremely common for an ambassador, DCM or counselor to have three tours in his or her favorite country:  as a JO, at mid level, and for that final dream job.  Such progression gives an alert and professional officer a markedly superior understanding of the place and its people; it also introduces the officer early on to local fellow worker bees whom he or she will meet later as equals at the peaks of their own careers.

What this all means is simple:  know your objective; be patient; gather the tools, the expertise and the reputation for professionalism; luck favors the prepared mind.  So does the broadest possible thinking and planning.

Happy Hunting!!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Yes, Go!

Continued from yesterday ...

But you've done nothing but visas for three years.  How will you show what you can do out in the world of grownup FSOs?

Let's count up a few possibilities:

- You interviewed an average of X visa applicants per day for Y days, with patience, courtesy, and efficiency, never losing sight of the importance of your work.

- During six months in ACS you met with police, immigration and local officials, speaking The Language exclusively during all these encounters.

- You were an integral part of a team (not "led the team" unless you did) of officers and local employees.

- You referred Z cases for investigation.  Q percent of those proved to actually be fraudulent, a higher percentage than any other officer's.

- You tweaked the appointment system to save every visa applicant at least 30 minutes at the embassy.

- You handled the case of an American citizen's suicide with sensitivity and tact.  The family wrote a letter to the Ambassador thanking you by name.

- You rearranged the intake/221g/reapplication process to save time by reducing the passing of paperwork back and forth from four times to two.

- You faced every crowd every day with energy and professionalism, knowing that you represented the US to these people, and were in a large part responsible for their opinion of your country.

- You knew that consular work, for all its stress, repetitiveness, and apparent lack of direct relationship to that senior political counselor job you covet, was an essential part of your apprenticeship, and you welcomed the rigor, the discipline and the challenge as well as the reward of knowing you did your job well.

- Add specific, personalized, true details as you can.   Find a balance between clarity and modesty, and stick to it.

- Remember that the quiet girl with whom you share a cubicle could be Bill and Hillary's niece who just wants to be loved for herself but will remember every Hillary joke she heard, and who told it.

- As in a resume', if you find yourself writing lots of "I" sentences, go back and edit for the "understood I":  drop the "I" and start the sentence with an action verb.  Such as, solved the long-standing case of a missing American; worked with PD to  introduce the I-160 through press releases and TV spots; was an integral part of the NIV team that processed the most NIVs in 2009 with the fewest system rejections ... you get the idea.  And you can probably write them to make them more catchy and compelling.

For the diehards who still dare to scoff at the work they have done for the past few years, final advice:  shut up about that, and get a clue.  Did you really miss the entire point of your baptism by fire?

Remember, you don't know which office director, which DAS, which COM is a consular-coned officer, or just loved his own baptism by fire in Addis or Manila, remembers it with delight, and will be permanently put off by any hint of a sneer.

And remember that word gets around.  A second tour officer who shows that she thinks she is too good for the visa line will be remembered by those she least wants to be remembered by, probably permanently.

Now go forth and conquer the world.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Ready, Set, Go

Not long ago it was correctly said that, despite the explosion of electronic communications (email, cell phones), 70% of business communication was still face to face.  Madam has not seen any recent statistics, but whatever is going on out there in the rest of the world, in the Foreign Service that is doubtless not so any more, if it ever was at all.

For all ELOs who thought you had a job when you got here, it's time to go job hunting.

And here, from the collected wisdom and experience of many mid- and senior-level FSOs, are a few ideas for a successful hunt.

First and most important, research, research, research.

Make sure you understand what the job you are considering really entails, not just the job title, which can be very misleading.  Ask your CDO, ask your classmates, lunch friends, your boss, the DCM.  Someone will know someone who had that job before, and can describe it to you.

Try to find out who you will be working for.  Note, please, that working FOR someone can be very different than working WITH someone.  If you can, find someone who knows that person and can tell you what it's like to work FOR him or her.  The notion of Kiss Up Kick Down is alive and well in the Service.

Find out who will decide.  You're sure you don't know anybody who knows the person who will have the say on who gets the job you covet?  You would be surprised.  Hit the list above, and ask.  They might not know that person directly, but will certainly know someone else who does.  Then email the decision maker.

Three very short paragraphs is all you get, no more than three sentences per paragraph - and no run-ons, or cheating with semicolons.  Introduction, description, closing.  Like a good resume, it should leave the recipient with a desire to know more.  It should take no more than 20 seconds to read, should include lots of white space, and it should consist of:

- Introduction:  Where you are and what you're doing, what job you are interested in, why (you get only half a sentence for the 'why' part).

- Description:  What you bring to the job you want.  This is the place to put your education, your previous experience in and out of the Service, and no more than two or three of your proudest accomplishments and how they relate to the job you want.  And they do relate, if for no other reason than that they demonstrate your decisiveness, your grasp of complex regulations and how to apply them correctly, or your appreciation for how good customer service affects relations with the host country.  Note:  do not exaggerate, and for heaven's sake do not make things up.  Everybody knows almost everybody, and not only is this extremely easy to check, but a fib will give you a hallway reputation you might never shake.  For ideas, Google "elevator pitch" or "elevator speech."

- Closing:  Obliquely ask for the job, without asking directly or presuming that the recipient will respond to you.

Do not write the email and send it.  Doing so will almost guarantee that you will wake suddenly in the middle of the night in a white-hot panic of regret.  Write it, save it as a draft, review it tomorrow, run it past someone who knows the system and will tell you the truth.   Adjust as necessary.  Then send it, cross your fingers, and good luck to you!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

How's that again? The Shortest Possible Guide to Effective Interpreting

Interpreting, translating – what’s the difference?  Most people tend to use these words interchangeably, but the interpreter translates orally, while a translator interprets written text.  In consular work, officers who are not fluent in the local language must sometimes depend on local employees for both skills, but interpreting is by far the most difficult to master.

Interpreters must be excellent, discerning listeners; they must be able to process and remember several sentences, and repeat them accurately in another language.  They have to possess excellent public speaking skills, and the ability to transform idioms, colloquialisms and other culturally-specific references into analogous statements the target audience will understand.  And they must be able to do this for speakers who are not trained to use interpreters, and so tend to speak in paragraphs, forgetting the interpreter.

Madam once watched a news broadcast of Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, making a statement.  He was slouched comfortably on a small stool; next to him sat a younger man, his interpreter.  As the ambassador began to speak, the interpreter sat up very straight, concentrating on the speaker’s face and voice, clearly preparing to accurately and completely render his boss’s Pashtun to Urdu.  But the ambassador spoke, and spoke, and spoke without pause.  The young man’s forehead creased, his hands tightened into fists, his back tensed, his eyes widened.  After well more than a minute, with no break in sight, it was the interpreter who broke.  He suddenly let out his breath, closed his eyes, opened his hands, and surrendered.  There was no way he could do that job, and he knew it.

Zaeef and his interpreter in better days

As consular officers, we cannot afford to leave our interpreters – our local employees – so dispirited.  After all, we need the information that the person we are interviewing will give us, and we need to pass accurate information back to him.  So here are the rules:

The officer:

It is you and the customer who are having the conversation.  The interpreter is not a member of that exchange.  Look only at the customer, glancing at the paperwork or computer screen as necessary, but never look at or speak to the interpreter.

Use simple, clear sentences; no convoluted, stream-of-consciousness, rambling.

Pause after every declarative sentence or two, and after every question, for the interpreter to catch up.

Wait for the whole response from the customer, and then wait for its interpretation.

If you want to consult with the interpreter about the possible veracity of the customer’s answers or for any other reason, get up and leave the window together, have that conversation, then return and resume.

Rinse, repeat.

The interpreter:

Stand or sit to one side, slightly behind the officer; your presence should be minimal.  Your voice is the officer’s tool.  You as a person are not there.

Translate only the exact words used.  Do not preface any sentence with ‘The consular officer wants to know…” or “He says that …” 

If the interviewee addresses you directly, continue to translate exactly what he says.  For example, if he says directly to you, in the local language, “Oh sister, please please help me,” what do you do?  You repeat, “Oh sister, please please help me,” in English.

Thursday, August 5, 2010


It is known as the American War, and the majority of citizens were born after it was over.  But its memories and ghosts survive, as do far more corporeal proofs that it occurred.

In nine years, the US dropped about two million tons of explosive ordinance on Laos, about 30% of which did not explode but remain in and on the ground, killing and maiming people - mostly children - and animals to this day.

On the other hand, Madam was recently approached by a perfect stranger who thanked her for the 1944 liberation of Paris.

There are forces at work that consular officers can at least partially overcome by treating all customers with efficient, pleasant and professional courtesy.  Among the easiest to overcome are rumors and anecdotes about abuse and disrespect of previous visa applicants.  Among the hardest are "Baywatch" reruns, and history.

Americans often feel they can fix just about anything by pulling up their socks and making some effort.  This tendency is considered both a virtue and an annoyance by our friends and neighbors.  But while lousy TV shows can be lived down and laughed off to some degree, history - both deserved and undeserved - cannot.

What can individual officers do?  Be mindful in everything we do, at every moment:  we can't carry our trash to the curb without someone reaching some conclusion about us.  Carry it well.  Realize that they judge us just as we judge them, by tiny gestures more than by headlines.  Realize that they might forgive far faster than we might.  Pay careful attention during area studies.  And hone that courtesy.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Ruminations on Creativity and Innovation

In a former life, Madam was once tasked with the fairly enviable responsibility of enlarging her work unit.  She interviewed several likely candidates and hired one, but the applicant who sticks in her mind after all these years is one that she didn't hire.  This woman came with a reasonable pedigree and education, but when the unit's work was described to her she shook her head and said, "I don't know if I could be involved in such work.  I am very creative."

Here is a near-rule that Madam has developed from this and many other experiences:  When someone openly describes him- or herself as creative, he or she probably is not.  This job applicant wore a number of scarves and had that thin, aesthetic, artistic look about her, but her conventionality was painfully clear:  she saw 'creativity' not as a continuum, but as a free-standing unit untouched and unaffected by the real world.  She could not see the application of creativity to that real world, except as art to observe, or to hang on a wall.  She could not imagine the innovative possibilities of the work being done (which, by the way, the successful candidate did, and leapt into with joy and with wonderful results).

Madam might be confusing creativity with innovation, but although one sounds all artsy and the other fairly plodding, to her mind these are not two separate things.  Creative thoughts are useless if they don't or can't lead to something material.  Innovation without creativity is just Lotus 1-2-3 version 6,734,321.

So the lesson for today might be, don't worry if you secretly would love to be considered 'creative' but don't feel conventionally so.  The proof of creativity is in genuine innovation, not in how many Indian pillows you might scatter on your sofa, or where on yourself you might glue a few sequins.  Go ahead and wear that Ann Taylor black suit or those polished black wingtips; behave yourself at meetings; learn to write cable-ese.  The proof will come when you suddenly think, "Hey, maybe we should try..."  And that kind of creativity is always welcome in the world, even, eventually, in this one.

Which leads to the second lesson on this subject.  This one can be very briefly stated, and was never explained better than by Howard Aiken, who said, "Don't worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you'll have to ram them down people's throats."

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Learning the Language

While individuals might have personal complaints and frustrations about individual FSI programs - Madam herself has experienced mixed results, depending on the methods used to teach one language or another - the place as a whole is generally skilled and pretty reliable.  Go in intending to get a 3/3, and you will most likely come out satisfied, if stressed and exhausted.

For those who need a bit more, however, there are some outside resources that many don't know about but can use to good effect without buying a whole separate course like Rosetta Stone.  Here are a few:

Trading language learning with native users

The daily newspaper, as the language is written today about all sorts of subjects (not just pol and econ like most FSI handouts)

Local radio, for listening comprehension and all sorts of subjects:  joining is free

Plus, of course, finding small and varied ways to use the language as much as possible before leaving the US:

Monday, August 2, 2010

"My Card"

Last week Madam briefly mentioned dual-language business cards.  Today she elaborates, starting with a mercifully brief history lesson.

Before 9/11 made the idea of kindness to our customers and efficiency in their treatment blasphemously unpatriotic, there was a movement in the US consular world called "best practices."  These were ideas and processes that could be incorporated into consular work to increase, yes, kindness and efficiency.   Conferences were held to present such ideas and promote their use.  The CA web site displayed them prominently.

If you can find the best practices web page nowadays, many of these ideas continue to be good ones.  One of the best is 'the card,' which is still used at many posts and deserves to be used at all of them.

While the ritual business card exchange at the beginning or ending of a meeting seems mandatory, the cards themselves are only rarely used again.  But what if they were more useful?

Okay, maybe not THIS useful.  But some consular sections print up business-card-sized cards with information on them such as the post's web site, the NIV section or call center number, IV information numbers, ACS hours, how to make appointments, and the after hours emergency number if it is different from the mission's daytime number.  For good measure, cards can be printed on both sides:  English on one, the local language on the other.

Savvy consular sections not only distribute these cards at the service windows, but also give them by the handful to non-consular officers to distribute whenever a contact asks about visas or ACS.  They relieve our political, econ and management colleagues of the burden of  explaining - or avoiding explaining - visa processing.  And they do it using the 'give them something' rule, the one that says that courtesy often consists of not giving a person what he wants, but giving him anything he can use.  It saves our colleagues from having to wriggle out of long conversations about a contact's cousin's wife's maid's hairdresser who was refused a visa, and how unfair that was, and getting back to whatever they actually want to talk about.  And it guarantees that the information is accurate using the simplest and surest possible means, the written word.

Friday, July 30, 2010

They Shouldn't Be Alive

 Have you signed your Privacy Act Waiver, sir?

A group of Scouts and their leaders walk into the Grand Canyon with too little water, no marked trail and no survival plan.  A pair of teenagers in a junky rowboat paddle directly into a massive ocean rip tide.  A father and son in Turkey go skiing without checking the weather report.  An ATV lover drives into empty desert alone, crashes his vehicle and is pinned underneath for days.  Newlyweds take a walk in the Amazon jungle, arguing too intensely to remember to drop cookie crumbs behind them.

You got the optional rental insurance, right?

Madam is only a moderately rabid survivalist, preferring a dinner of veal oscar and a nice white wine to wickety grubs, and she would rather sleep on 500-count sheets with a scented candle in a quiet room than on a hippo-ridden jungle mud bank swarming with starving mosquitoes.

Nevertheless, she is riveted to the Discovery Channel to watch people for whom that river bank doesn't seem such a bad deal at the moment, and to Animal Planet to watch Darwin Award nominees like the fisherman sticking his fingers into a shark's mouth, since it must be dead.  A man flapping a newspaper at a rutting bull elk.  A wildlife photographer clicking off half a role of shots of a grizzly bear and two cubs advancing upon him with clear purpose.  An out-of-shape and drunken American targeted by a very fit and clear-headed bull in Pamplona.  A woman shooting flash photos directly in a half-tamed elephant's face.  A large man mauled by a very small pony who has finally had enough of this.

Wonder what he's going to do next.

There are times that Madam is convinced that not only should these individual humans not have survived their personal attacks of freeze-brain, but the entire human race is doomed to face a revolution in which all other animals will rise in exasperation and stomp us into paste, every one of us.  Any limping, disoriented survivors will be driven away from air conditioning, central heating, hand-knit fisherman's sweaters, pizza delivery and chemically treated water to suffer the fate of the terminally out of touch.

And well deserved, would say the three-pound Chihuahua who shouldered the responsibility of administering Madam's most recent reminder of what animals really think of us.

Until that particular Revolution, however, we consular officers need to remember to stay in regular, positive touch not only with police and hospitals, but also with tour companies, public bus stations, cafes and coffee houses in all population centers however modest, and hoteliers of all levels from the Sheraton through respectable B&Bs to the owner of the four rooms over the train station, reminding them that should lost or troubled Americans wander into their facility, we will be happy to take the Americans' calls.

Our wardens are masters at distributing such dual-language business card-size reminders listing numbers for ACS and the duty officer, and the ACS email address that is closely monitored by a bright and savvy ACS local staff member.  So that until the ponies and Chihuahuas and the earth itself finally get their turn, we'll take their calls and assist however we can.  However hard we laugh as soon as we hang up.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Show Jumping Fail

Quick, raise your hands, everybody who knows a lot about show jumping.  Yes, that thing that people sometimes do on horses.

Hmm.  Not many of you.  Okay then.  Raise your hands, everybody who didn't raise your hands before but still think there is something very wrong with what's happening in this photo.

See?  You don't have to be an expert to know when something doesn't look right.  And most of the time - says one of Madam's favorite laws, the one about William of Occam's razor - if something doesn't look right, the simplest and therefore the most likely explanation is that it's wrong.

Remember this the next time you're buried to the ears in a hard-bound multi-colored tabbed 6-inch binder about an H or L case.  Even if you aren't an expert in the employer's field, if something looks or feels or smells wrong, you're probably right and it probably is.  Follow the scent; you'll find the proof right there.  It might not be as obvious as, say,

but you'll know when you see it that it's a 'fail.'

And all the rest of the time, keep your head up and your heels down.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

"A free press can iron dirty laundry..."

"...but then you'll pay for the heat."

Faithful followers might remember long ago when Madam wrote,

"With apologies to the half-dozen highly competent immigration attorneys that Madam knows -- what the heck is with the rest of them? Is there no test of competency or even basic knowledge before an 'immigration attorney' can hang a shingle?

[American Immigration Lawyers Association] conventions one can only be stunned by the incredibly clueless questions some attorneys ask, and the information they try to offer. In panel presentations, it is not uncommon that audience members are so ignorant of the law and so instantly hostile toward US consular representatives that their fellow attorneys have to shush them and drag them back into their seats.

"A hint: if you have to use six different fonts in a letter expressing your indignation about a case that hasn't been going your way; if you can't find relevant legal decisions and so quote - at length - decisions that actually have no bearing on your case; if you find yourself insulting, name-calling, and quoting at length from an interview that you did not attend; maybe you need to consider one of two things:

"one, maybe your applicant is not going to get a visa for some very good reason, such as he doesn't qualify under the law.

"two, maybe you need to go back to the books and learn what you're trying to practice."

That was a very fun rant to write.  But now here is another that puts Madam's little pique-fit to shame.  It was written to an AILA-members-only info board by a disgruntled and disillusioned AILA attorney, and it is a doozy.   It is quite long, but a positively rolicking read that, like all great literature, hints at deeper, wider issues of the utmost seriousness.  Enjoy.

AILA’s InfoNet Message Center (MC)

    Let me start by confirming what many of you already know: I am not a big fan of the organization known as AILA. But I digress.

    The Message Center is another of AILA’s attempted suppression of free speech and its almost vitriolic hatred of the Federal Government and how it tries to enact, interpret, and enforce its immigration laws. It’s not even remotely an open question anymore, for AILA as an organization and too many of its individual members don’t even recognize the concept of the “loyal opposition” (to wit, those who don’t think the government is automatically wrong, 100% of the time.). This can be seen on an almost daily basis on the MC.

    (And, by the way, let me here insert an interesting tidbit, to reinforce what some of you may already think about me. I only started recently posted on MC because I learned that Google uses website listings on blogs and places like the MC as part of its algorithms for rankings, and thus every time I post something on the MC and use my website address of www.rinzler.com, it helps my business. In short, it’s free advertising, but at least I am honest about it. While I also enjoy being a mentor, I have found that effective mentoring generally requires the attorney to call the mentor to discuss the facts of the case in detail, rather than posting some ridiculously incomplete statement of “facts” on the MC. This rationale would seem, of course, to put me and every other MC poster in violation of the MC’s laughable “Terms of Use”, specifically “[When posting a message, you must agree] (e) not to use the Message Center for advertising of products or services.” Everyone who posts on the MC is advertising themselves and the opinion they have to offer as much as anything else. Yes, we all know that many, if not most, people who post do it out of the goodness of their hearts, but from where I stand many more seem to do it because they like seeing their name in print and it’s a contest as to who can post the most and the fastest.)

    That being said, the MC Rules open with “The message board is designed to provide an informal open forum to AILA members for the exchange of information, experiences, and ideas.” It also states that “reproducing or publishing any contents of the Message Center in any other forum or forwarding contents to others is strictly prohibited.”

Under Terms of Use can be found: When posting a message, you must agree: (b) not to use the Message Center for the posting of any material that is defamatory, offensive, blasphemous, or obscene;
The statements you post may be actionable for defamation, invasion of privacy, or other legal cause of action. Readers must avoid comments that are false and injurious to others.  
Repeated violations of these standards may result in the Member being barred from access to the Message Center.

    Please tell me this overly broad, incredibly subjective, and completely unenforceable language was not written by lawyers, especially lawyers who are supposed to be champions of free speech. Even the U.S. Supreme Court has recently ruled that one may say curse words on TV. And “blasphemous”? Are you serious? Did AILA get that suggestion from the Pope or from Al-Qaeda? When did AILA become the keeper of the public’s morals? Who gets to determine when someone is offended and, if so, whether it merits 40 lashes or just ten?

    As for not “forwarding contents to others”, then we might as well close up shop. How about emails between colleagues? Listserves? How about all the so-called liaisons sharing information with those evil U.S. Government (USG) personnel in an effort to help the membership? What about the talks I have with my mom, my neighbor, my Congressman? But those are technicalities, and not what I really want to discuss here.

    I do not feel constrained by the MC’s mostly stupid, yes stupid, rules, and thus I do not feel the need to abide by them. That statement should be enough to get the conspiracy theorists in a lather. And as for explicitly and/or implicitly agreeing to them by using the MC, I’d offer the analogy of when one installs software on his computer: if you don’t “agree” to the 10,000 word license and click on the “Next” button, you ain’t getting to Kansas, Toto.

    So please, moderators and other keepers of the faith, stop telling us what the MC rules are, and how that if we share what we read, we will not only burn in hell but might have our posting rights revoked. It’s not for you to decide and it’s an unwarranted infringement of the right of freedom of speech, as well as simply undermining AILA’s credibility in so many ways. If you feel you’ve been personally defamed, then sue. Otherwise, move on. And as for the constant reminders that MC postings are sacred texts not to be shared with anyone, I suggest you enter the 21st century. Any adult who posts on the internet, anywhere on the internet but especially to a forum where one knows that at least 5,000 members or so have unfettered access, has no expectation of privacy. If you don’t want it spread around, then don’t post it. You’re afraid of breaching attorney-client privilege? Don’t post it. You don’t want someone else to talk to an FSO and say “watch out for this future applicant’ or have your statements possibly misinterpreted, then don’t post it. You want confidential advice from a colleague, pick up the damn phone, don’t post it. Again, it’s not rocket science. And, ironically enough, anyone who follows the blogosphere knows that the State Department has already punished numerous FSO’s for their blogs and for not toeing the party line. One would hope AILA would be above that.

    And speaking of intentionally or unintentionally sharing postings with the government, when did Uncle Sam become AILA’s enemy? Why are government attorneys prohibited from joining AILA? Not that any rational one would want to, but are they not one of the key groups we need to work with in this life? And as to the State Department’s Foreign Service Officers (FSO’S), why is it that the only thing AILA and the overwhelming majority of its ignorant, yes ignorant when it comes to the realities of what FSO’s do and the conditions and expectations they operate under, membership ever says about them is that they are relentlessly incompetent, inefficient, uncaring, and opposed to letting anyone – anyone – into this country at any time and for any reason? With the exception of the late Steve Fischel, it is almost impossible to find a positive reference by AILA and the majority of its members to an FSO. And this from a group who is relatively clueless about how American diplomatic posts operate, who have generally not been to a consulate unless it’s to the ACS window when they lost their passport while overseas or Aunt Tilly kicked the bucket in Florence and they need to ship the body home, who have not ever witnessed first-hand a visa interview or have had to face the difficult decision of whether some applicant might be the next terrorist or is “simply” someone who might be lying through his teeth. The FSO’s don’t make the laws; they are charged with enforcing them. And they don’t get a commission for every applicant they reject. And by actually living and working in-country, often under quite trying conditions, and by speaking the language, they are actually often more knowledgeable than an attorney from the U.S. who can only cite regulations (often without understanding the rationale behind them) and who unquestionably believes every single thing his paying client tells him, to the point that if Lady Macbeth came in for a consultation with blood covering her hands the first and maybe only question the attorney would ask after accepting payment was if she needed a napkin for that.

    The stated mission of AILA is “to promote justice, advocate for fair and reasonable immigration law and policy, advance the quality of immigration and nationality law and practice, and enhance the professional development of its members.” How is that possible if we always treat the government as the enemy? And how is that possible if AILA believes that virtually any violation of the immigration laws should be forgiven by a waiver so that anyone can get a visa or remain in this country, that an attorney should virtually never say to a prospective client “Hey, I may not turn you in but I sure as hell don’t want to represent you”, or realize that some clients lie or at least conveniently forget key facts and couldn’t/wouldn’t accurately relate what transpired in a consular interview if their lives depended on it (which they sometimes do).

    This past week there was a posting on MC which raised some very serious ethical issues as well as freedom of speech ones. It appeared that a CBP officer had broken the law in some quite serious ways, thus potentially opening himself up to extortion attempts and other national security issues as he is a law enforcement officer on our Southern border. I struggled with whether I should contact law enforcement authorities on this, and I advised the poster to give her course of action a lot of thought about what he/she might want to do. I also commented that I thought it was “sad” that so many of our colleagues were more concerned with the theoretical aspects of how to help this client accomplish his objective, rather than with the possible ethical and security considerations involved about having personal knowledge of someone who is charged with protecting our country’s security. Only one other poster thought I raised some valid concerns, while another made a joke about grabbing a firearm and making a citizen’s arrest on the officer. But at least there was some discussion, and then at one in the morning the string vanished.

    Since then I have learned the how and why of the string’s deletion. In short, one of the moderators thought he/she was doing the right thing; a motive I respect, but I question as to why we feel the need for someone to have to be in that position in the first place. Also, why was my posting removed, rather than just the original poster’s; do I not have any say in the matter? The original poster didn’t see the need to delete (because, as explained to me in an email from that person, after posting he/she didn’t feel the need to be on the MC the next day), so why should AILA? I can only think that the primary reason was that too many members were afraid that someone would contact the government or that the government was monitoring the MC. You know what, maybe the government does. Why the hell do we care? Again, if you don’t want it out in the public realm, don’t post it; AILA cannot and should not be the big brother (in all senses of the term) in such matters.

    I know many FSO’s, both professionally and personally. Living in Washington, DC, and having travelled to forty countries helps account for that. Some of them are fantastic at what they do, some less so, and a few are, frankly, terrible. Funny, but the same can be said about AILA members. The difference is, however, that the typical FSO understands the attorney’s purpose in the visa process, and even enjoys working with those attorneys who show a modicum of respect for the FSO’s responsibilities, display a decent amount of competence and evidence of having done their homework, and try to see the case from the FSO’s point of view. Unfortunately, in my experience – and in that of most FSO’s --the same cannot be said of most AILA members. And if you think FSO’s are naïve enough or vain enough or stupid enough that they will show favoritism to an attorney simply because he tries to curry favor with them, well then you just keep on believing it because I have no energy nor desire to correct the limitless misconceptions held by AILA when it comes to FSO’s. In closing, I’ll even let you in on a little secret: while security concerns are one valid reason why some posts don’t like to admit attorneys absent exceptional circumstances, the overwhelming reason is because too many attorneys have proven to be incompetent, abrasive, and arrogant. The real reason posts have been limiting attorney access is because the people promoting it the most for the past 20 years are the same ones who have pissed off the most FSO’s. And consider this: we won’t let them into our house, why should they let us enter theirs?

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Got The Bug?

The temptation is a powerful one.  Most long-term consular officers (that is, those who keep doing tour after tour as conoffs, whatever their cone) have been hit with the bug.

An extraordinarily strange day on the visa line will do that to you.  A perfectly ordinary day in ACS will, too.  Closing down at the end of such a day, any consular officer can be forgiven for thinking, "Some day I'm going to write a book about this stuff."

Consular work gives would-be writers a generous supply of unique material, sometimes every day.  Even if you remove the fussy law-related details that readers don't understand and don't want to learn, many consular stories are powerful enough to stand on their own as riveting just-so tales about the human condition and its complexities.  In fact, any story that will make listeners laugh out loud and want more when related in a friendly bar, can also make readers laugh out loud and want more.  (A tip:  the very best parties are the ones attended by both consular and DHS officers.  Each of us knows half of a great story.  We know the opening, they know the punch line.)

The US diplomatic community has, of course, proven itself to be an eager consumer of these stories, as recent editions of both the Foreign Service Journal and State magazine have proven.  So why not reach beyond  the choir, and tell them to the rest of the world?  With a few exceptions - such as this absorbing tale from O Henry - this can prove more difficult than we envision.

First, of course, is the difficulty of writing.  The world - as everyone knows - is divided into two groups.  In this case those two groups consist of those who want to write, and those who actually do write.  Writing is a surprisingly difficult and bossy taskmaster that, if it doesn't suck up every speck of your mind, energy and time, will go sulking off to afflict someone else and leave you with ten pages you will never get beyond.  As a dear and often-published friend of Madam's says impatiently to those who claim that they 'want to write', "Look.  You're either a writer or you aren't.  A writer writes.  Everybody else talks about writing.  Choose."  The British writer/impresario Alan Moore says, “It’s just constantly raising expectations for myself, to the point where, inevitably, I must surely collapse under my own mass and become some sort of creative black hole.”  Unless this observation makes you nod in rueful agreement, you're not likely to add much to those ten pages.

Second is the Privacy Act.  Some stories are so unique that we can't help but give away who the fool citizen was who got himself into such a pickle.

Third, and the highest hurdle to get over, is the fact that so many of our fellow citizens, safely moored in the warm and amiable harbor of the US borders, find it extremely difficult to grasp the situations in which their fellows find (or bury) themselves:  they are truly great stories, but who will believe them?  When we finish with some of them, even we can hardly believe them.  When we think of telling our consular stories, we remember that most often it is our fellow officers who roll on the floor laughing; even our own loyal family members smile politely but uncomprehendingly.

Should these difficulties stop us?  That's up to us and us alone.  You're either a writer or you aren't.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Get Out of the Office and ...

Try Geocaching

Run with The Hash, from Singapore to St Louis

The Sort of Official Hash Page

Harrier.net to find your closest club

Adopt a new pet

Learn to dance

Practice the language with a native speaker

Teach someone a new skill


Make yourself useful


Or just get some fresh air

Friday, July 23, 2010

Always Something

Americans, bless 'em.  They will...

Gather together smarts enough to get a passport and obtain a visa for some exotic country, but not smarts enough to actually READ the visa.  Like the part that says how long they can stay.

Pack 45 changes of clothes for a two week vacation, but not their antipsychotic medication.

Spend the whole hour on the bus from the airport to the hotel criticizing everything they see out the window.

Rent a car in a foreign country, then use it to try to teach all the 'locals' how to drive correctly (as it is done in Ohio or Oregon) instead of the way they actually drive there.

Fall in love with a ragged, ratty, diseased and completely undomesticated pet-type animal from the streets and expect to take it back to the US on tomorrow's flight.

Fall in love with a ragged, ratty, diseased and completely undomesticated human from the streets and expect to take him/her back to the US on tomorrow's flight.

Publicly and loudly complain about the quality of - or total lack of - toilet paper.

Believe that food cooked in front of their eyes on the street must be poisonous, but food that wanders out of an unseen hotel kitchen must be germ-free.

Bargain like pit bulls over 37-cent taxi fares.

Laugh at the local money because it looks funny, is funny colors, feels like play money, and they can't figure out what it's worth in 'real' money.

Stick cameras into the faces of innocent people without asking.

They will also...

Laugh at their own sorry efforts with the local language, but keep trying.  Especially 'Please' and 'Thank You.'

Give coins to beggars.

Try scary food.

Try to save the lives of ragged, ratty, diseased and completely undomesticated pet-type animal from the streets.  No matter how drunk, they would never do this.

Help old or infirm local people cross the street or carry heavy packages home, in directions the Americans were not going.

Smile at everybody until the locals think they must be crazy, but secretly like it anyway.


Pay their hotel bills without arguing and go home on time.  Usually.

Show up on Friday at 4 PM to ask for help with a problem they created on Tuesday morning.

Yep.   That's ACS for you.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Great. Now Everybody Will Want One.

Once in a medium-sized, busy consular section a visa applicant went crazy.  Now, Madam knows this is not an extraordinary event; but wait.

The woman had made an 8:30 appointment.  She got to the embassy at 8:20.  She was admitted at 9:15.  She turned in her passport at 9:45.  She was still waiting for her interview at 10:20 when she lost it.

She flew out of her (hard, uncomfortable plastic) chair, ran to the intake window, hurled her coat and handbag to the floor, and started to yell.  The intake FSN, startled and a little wary despite ballistic glass, backed away.  Everyone in the waiting room sat up, suddenly alert and glittery-eyed, like hungry predators recognizing weakness.  The woman yelled something like, "I made an appointment for this and it's been two hours!  I have an important meeting!  My secretary doesn't know where I am!  I have a lunch appointment!  I - I - I "

What might have happened then happens far, far too often:  the section chief might have gone to the window, defended the (slow, ill-planned, disrespectful) visa application process, engaged in a criticizing contest, and finally might have called the local guards to send the woman away.

Instead, a new, first-tour consular officer, at post only a few weeks, went to the window, eased the FSN aside, leaned forward, made eye contact, and said, "May I help you?"

Panting and glaring, the woman shouted a shorter version of her rant.

The officer said - get this now - "I am so sorry.  Would it help if you could call someone?"

"Call?  Call!  They took my phone away at the gate.  I can't call!"

The officer reached into his pocket, took out his own embassy-assigned cell phone, slid it through the teller window, and said, "Use this one."

The world did not end, but it caught its breath.  The woman stared, then grabbed the phone, turned and began punching buttons.  The officer waited a moment to be sure the phone was working for her, then returned to his desk.  The world lurched back into its normal rotation.

A few minutes later, the intake FSN returned the officer's phone.  The woman got her interview, during which she was brisk, polite and good humored.  She left the embassy a little flustered but also satisfied with her experience there.  A crisis was - and perhaps lifelong dislike and resentment for the US in general were - averted by the most basically courteous gesture one person can make to another:  recognizing and acknowledging the other's distress, then acting decisively to relieve that distress in the simplest, most direct, most practical manner possible.

May we all view our customers as people first, visa applicants only a distant second.  And may that smart, quick, humane and sensible officer enjoy a long and entertaining career.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Stumbled Upon

Have any readers noticed how Madam sometimes throws in FAM references to bolster her complaints and admonitions?  Are you tired of it yet?

Well, too bad.  Here she comes again.  Her new favorite FAM item, encountered purely by chance:


(TL;PER-292; 9-15-95)

The treatment of our customers is an important aspect of how we are perceived as an agency. Because people will generally treat each other the way they are treated, good customer service must begin with the way we interact with each other. It is the policy of the Department that our employees must treat each other, as well as our external customers, with proper respect and courtesy at all times.

Did you see that?  Did you see how this little paragraph assumes that we treat our customers well, and so uses that as a basis to remind us to treat one another well, also?  How quaint is that?  And yet it was written in 1995, not in the 19th century...and not in the 21st, in which it sometimes seems that everything is always about somebody who can't be convinced that he is responsible for the consequences of his own selfish, myopic, arrogant behavior.

Madam hates to be a nag (well, not really) but she is happy to take this opportunity to repeat, yet again, what we were all told in A100, in ConGen, and in at least a hundred different places on the CA intranet:  treating customers well is mandatory, period.  The Department even promises - yes, promises, read it yourself - decent treatment to applicants in public, in print.

A consular officer might be the first American that a visa applicant meets.  The experience of making and attending an interview appointment can be momentous; people dress up for that.  They fret and worry.  And then - without consciously meaning to - they sometimes can't help but judge the entire US by their treatment at the US embassy, just as we might do if the situation were reversed.  When their anxiety is met with efficiency, patience, understanding and courtesy it's not only the perception of the agency that benefits, but it's the US as a whole.

After all, consular work is not about consular officers; it's about consular customers.  Yes, all of it.

This little saying is too cute, too trite, too old, and too still true: