Quote of the day/week/however long

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

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

America's Desk Drawer

 Social media?  Ho hum.  MySpace is history, your mom is too cool for Facebook, YouTube still has its moments - mostly capturing people doing stupid things they shouldn't tell their best friends about, but put on line for millions to see instead.  (Famous last words in the US:  "Here, hold my beer and watch this!")

But there is another web site that is not so personal, yet is still more than worthy of exploration.  It's vision, it claims, is 'to liberate the written word.'  What does that mean?  It means, it appears, that if the Smithsonian is the nation's attic, this place aspires to be the nation's bottom desk drawer.  (You know the one, at home or the office, where we dump the things we're going to sort out some day very soon - the hotel receipts, dog licenses, half-finished letters, birthday cards, manuals for electronic toys, broken pencils, half-used 2003 calendar pads, new fillers for long-lost pens, obsolete forms, printouts of thinky cables we really meant to read and think about, dead calculators, expired Cup-of-Noodles, old shopping lists, new panty hose, the first draft of The Novel - which turns into years and years).


A scholarly look at modern Estonian death cults

The 1934 study of psychic phenomena in Jamaica

The 1944 report on intelligence activities on Saipan

No interest?   Then how about...

ICE's 2009 lesson plan on consular notification

The top secret CIA OIG report on interrogation and torture of Al Qaida suspects

The memorandum of conversation between two State OIG inspectors and the consular officer who issued visas to 11 of the 9/11 hijackers.

An article on the murder of a key witness, the Clinton dictatorship, and a shot spotter device.   Put on your tinfoil hat.

And enjoy.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Spooks Among Us - Quick, Who Can We Blame?

Ten "illegal" individuals who lived in the US as American citizens for years were recently arrested and charged with espionage on behalf of the Russian government, after seven years of investigation by the FBI.  Apparently their work involved the clandestine exchange of briefcases, secret codes, invisible ink - all the best features of truly cheesy '60s and '70s fiction, but for real.  Their own children, it is said, did not know what the parents were up to.  This group worked for so long that they apparently began some low-key squabbling - as sometimes happens in extended families that live too close together for too long. 

The government of Russia has rejected the accusations.

Who is willing to bet that in a few days some US lawmaker won't be leading a baying pack demanding the resignations if not the heads of whichever consular officers or passport agency employees issued visas or US passports to these characters more than a decade ago?  Madam has $1.50 on Chuck Grassley.

Friday, June 25, 2010

The Tenets

* Inspire

* Model Integrity

* Develop the Next Generation

* Delegate Authority - but Not Responsibility

* Communicate

* Build Great Teams

* Lead by Example

* Follow Courageously

* Learn Constantly

* Practice 360-Degree Diplomacy

There are a few consular managers out there who might post this list on the wall, but seem unaware that the items on it apply to them.  Some are a bit careless of them.  Some seem to work quite hard to purposely violate all of them.

For those who work for such managers, please don't lose track of the fact that the tenets apply to all of us equally, from the most senior managers to the newest ELO. And while it is an excellent idea to follow good examples, following bad examples is a singularly bad idea.

It can be extremely difficult to practice excellence in a careless, unrewarding or even punishing atmosphere. It can be extremely easy to fall in with the dog eaters.

One of the bad things about the Service can also be a good thing:  arriving for every new assignment one can feel as if - and feel one is treated as if - we were just born in the airport, with no knowledge, no skills, and no experience.  That can be extremely annoying sometimes, but that blank slate can also be a clean slate - and an enormous relief for officers who have previously and rightly felt abused and poorly led, and need a serious change of atmosphere.

Before arriving at that post where we can start over, though, we must do our best to NOT pass badness down, even in a place infested with badness.  We must do our best to practice the tenets anyway: with one another, with other mission sections, and especially with our local employees.  We must follow the old Girl Scout tenet of leaving a campsite cleaner than we found it, never mind who else is littering.  And look forward to that next airport.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Hunter Comes Home

He refused to sign a PAW so CA/OCS/ACS isn't talking, but his brother delivered the news:  Gary Faulkner, the intrepid American who trekked to Northern Pakistan armed with nothing more than a pistol, a sword, a set of night-vision goggles, plus probably exasperated impatience and a keen sense of righteousness, has been released by the (perhaps bemused) government of Pakistan and will be home soon.

He's not crazy, the brother says, and who are we to disagree...we who see really, really crazy so often?

Bin Laden himself might want to think about worrying.  Maybe hiding in a cave isn't enough...

 On the other hand, five younger American men were convicted and sentenced to ten years in prison in Pakistan.  According to evidence and witnesses, they were planning to participate in clandestine attacks against Pakistan and its allies.  The article fairly notes that the US government "has a duty to insure justice for its citizens" while it also has "pushed Pakistan to crack down on militancy."  These are not, of course, mutually incompatible goals; for consular officers, the only goal of concern is the first one:  see that they are treated no worse under the local laws and local care than a local person would be.  See that, if convicted and sentenced, they are safely and adequately cared for.  Follow the PAW and the FAM.  All else is future.

And if they carried any Groucho glasses and noses in their luggage that they don't want any more, check into donating them to a worthy cause.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Certainty and Un-

The extremely clever Malcolm Gladwell did consular officers an inadvertent favor with his best-selling book "Blink" which extolled but also warned about high stakes, instant decision making.  His "New Yorker" article "The New-Boy Network," anthologized in the 2009 book "What the Dog Saw," goes a bit further to second guess such decision-making, and is worth a look by anyone required to make major decisions based on personal interviews.  Such as consular officers.

Gladwell starts by describing studies that show how a first impression - created by nothing more than a smile and handshake - appears to hold up through the course of a long personal interview.  But then he looks again, with the help of further studies, and writes, "That people who simply see the handshake arrive at the same conclusions as people who conduct a full interview also implies, perhaps, that those initial impressions matter too much - that they color all the other impressions that we gather over time."

Fundamental attribution error - the tendency to understand behavior as a function of personality and character rather than situation - and confirmation bias - the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms our preconceptions - can act together to cause us to make faulty decisions, especially in visa interviews.  The solution is not, however, longer interviews; we simply use those - unconsciously but faithfully - to further harden that first impression.  The solution is better questions.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Trust Me. I'm a Consular Officer.

We are the only game in town; do our ACS customers really need to trust us?  After all, they can't go to some competing consulate down the street if they don't like us.

But of course they need to trust us, or they won't accept what we tell them. What, in our world, inspires trust for our ACS customers?
How about knowledge, fairness, patience, and a willingness to hear them out?

There are so many possible ways to greet Americans at the ACS window.  The most effective greeting by far, Madam has found, whether cold at the window or when you've been fetched by an FSN who is fuming over the way the jerk talked to her, is, "Hi.  Can I help you?"

This colloquial language, coupled with a businesslike but not stiff air and a friendly look, is a never-fail tension cutter and stress reliever.  It portrays us as informal, open, willing, and unaffected by his having made our favorite FSN weep with fury.

It proves instantly that we are 'real' Americans. This is critical for customers whose brains freeze when they have to try to communicate with other-than-native American English speakers, or who are inclined to distrust foreigners in general. They know for sure they will be understood, and will understand what we say.

It proves that we intend to help them with whatever their problem is.

It proves that we probably know what we're doing, and they will be safe in our hands.

And it requires the customer to tell the story from the top.  That - oddly enough - is a stress reliever in itself.  After all, if the customer has acted like a jerk, he probably realizes that he has, and this opening shows that we have not been primed to scold them or to be defensive, or that we have a canned response to trot out.

Finally, this greeting makes the customer start with either, "Yes" or "I hope so," the mere vocalizing of which lowers his guard and turns the stress level down. If he comes back with, "Didn't she tell you?" we can answer calmly, "Yes, but I want to make sure that I understand."  Mollified, he will usually go on with "I'm trying to.." or "I need to..." or "I want to..." or a similar entrance which forces him to articulate what he wants materially rather than encouraging him to launch an unproductive gripe about the perceived inadequacy of the service he's gotten so far.

Once we have him talking reasonably and in an organized way, all we have to do is not blow it.

And after what our FSN had to put up with, that should be a piece of cake.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Playing Disaster

Want to liven up the ho-hum weekly consular section meeting, one of those in which officers and FSNs sit quietly and politely, desperately trying to look as if they're awake?  There is nothing easier.  Just tape to the nearest wall a large-font printout of 7 FAM 1881's "Primary Rules:"

• Get to where you can best assist the affected U.S. Citizens/U.S. noncitizen nationals ASAP.

• Arrive well equipped.

• Do your best to assure that all U.S. citizen/ U.S. non-citizen national victims and families at the scene get appropriate, timely assistance and care.

• Keep your mission and the Department updated - report early and often.

Give everyone a moment to absorb this list.  Then say something like:   "It's three AM.  You wake to the screaming of a thousand sirens.  You go to the window and see that the biggest tourist hotel in the city is burning against the sky."

Pause, then nod to the seniormost ACS FSN and ask, "What one thing will you do first?"  Then to an experienced officer, "What will you do first?"  To the seniormost visa FSN, "What will you do first?"

In very short order the group will get away from their personal actions (call relatives, pack an emergency suitcase in case the fire spreads, wake the spouse to drive the children to grandma's) to their professional impulses prompted by the list.  And you're off.

Don't move smoothly around the room but between people arbitrarily, including everyone, asking "Wait - what have we forgotten to do?"  "What then?  And what then?"  Anything and everything, as discordant and out of order as possible, keeping everyone thinking and re-thinking.  If you started this correctly, voices will almost immediately start interrupting, correcting, adding, re-sequencing. There will be excitement, eagerness, fast thinking, even laughter in the face of made-up catastrophe.

Let it run.  There are no wrong answers today, no flip chart, no black- or white board, no written notes, no instructions.  Time enough later - tomorrow - to rebuild your disaster SOP. The group that does that will be infinitely better prepared from having thought this through as if it were real, on the fly.  The document itself will not sit dead on the shelf, but will be remembered and instantly available in everyone's minds if they should wake some night to the sound of sirens.  And they will know what to do.

7 FAM 1800

Wednesday, June 16, 2010


You've probably already seen this story, and perhaps it reminds you of one or more of the teetering heap of truly execrable novels churned out in the past nine years about Delta Force members or writers or teenagers or hijabbed women or detectives or writers or - heck, who knows, maybe Condaleeza Rice - trekking into Pashtunstan to find and take out Osama bin Laden.  But this story is real.  Frankly, one can admire the gumption of a man armed only with night-vision goggles, a pistol, a sword and probably a powerful sense of righteousness and impatience, going forth to right what he sees as one of the world's great injustices.
But, of course, the most disturbing part of the story is the last part, about how Mr. Faulkner needs regular dialysis.  Somewhere nearby, a consular officer is already sleepless.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Family Album

This might not be new to you, but it certainly is to Madam, and she couldn't be happier to have discovered the Library of Congress's already-fabulous oral history collection includes a wonderful assortment of interviews with diplomats.   

(Motor pool?  What's a motor pool?)

These are not exotic strangers: they are our own aunts and uncles, our kindred in this business. Their stories are excellent, as are their lists of assignments and the highlights of each.  They read like pages of a family album. Relive the old days, good and bad, before motor pool, before email, before anything but one's wits, reliability and elegance under fire.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Joining the Scrum

A great philosopher once said something like, "If it weren't for habit and assumption, I couldn't walk across the room."  What does this mean?  It means that most human behaviors - including conversation - will follow certain very predictable patterns.  Know the pattern - which for conversation is actually fairly universal - and success will follow.  Words?  We don't need no stinkin' words!

Here's an example.  That first out-of-office conversation Madam referred to yesterday happened when she pulled up to a ferry, asked the man obviously in authority, "Where do I buy the ticket?"  He answered something that didn't matter because he was pointing to a nearby building.  "Thank you."  Madam drove to the building, walked it, approached a woman behind a counter and said, "One person and one car, please."  The woman named a sum - incomprehensible, but noticing Madam's hesitation, she displayed the appropriate tickets with the costs clearly imprinted.  Madam paid - in exact change! - thanked the woman, drove back to the boat, and offered the tickets to the man.  He accepted them, tore them, and handed the stubs back.  Madam asked, "Where do I go?"  He answered, "As you are going" and did that pointing thing with a flattened vertical hand.  That seemed to mean "straight ahead" so that is the way Madam drove, trusting that if she was wrong, someone would loudly correct her.  As she parked and got out, she suddenly realized that those people all (all two of them) absolutely believed that she spoke the language.  And so, in fact, she did.

What other way to practice linguistic success?  How about a local bus station?

There might be no scarier place to wander into, but think about it:  what does everyone working there want?  To make sure that you get to your destination.

 So dive in.  Walk with confidence up to a man who is relatively well-dressed and -groomed and has some item of authority - walkie-talkie, clip board, uniform vest, whatever - and no luggage.  Say carefully, "Excuse me.  I want to go to Xburg, please."  Whatever he says next, you say, "I do not have a ticket ('yet' is optional but helpful)."  He will either point toward the place where tickets are purchased, or will say something that includes the words "buy" and "driver," meaning that you pay on board.  Then you either ask, "Which one is the bus to Xburg?" and he'll point, pause, then lead you there if you look puzzled; or else you go to the ticket kiosk/tent/window and repeat, "Excuse me.  I want to go to Xburg, please."  Once you've bought the ticket, check it to see if it tells you where the bus is.  If you can't figure it out, ask the ticket person, "Sorry, but where is the bus?"  If she is busy selling the next ticket, then go back outside and show your ticket to anyone, really anyone, and make that hopeless shrug you're getting used to by now.  He or she will happily lead you to the bus.

Then, as great-grandpa used to say, "Quick as Bob's your uncle" you're on the right bus, headed to where you want to go.  Taxis?  Rental cars?  Embassy vehicles and drivers?  Who needs them?

Well okay.  That's fine for bus tickets.  But how will this help with visa interviews which, even Madam will admit, are just a tad more complex?  By giving you cultural confidence and a knowledge of conversation patterns, and letting you relax enough to recognize words you know when they fly past you.  Major steps on the road to fluency.  Tres bien fait!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Yes, You Can SayThat

 Some readers might recall a posting some time ago in which Madam complained about the politico-econ leanings of language training, never mind the responsibilities to which the learners might be assigned.

After all, consular officers spend their work days in conversations that almost never relate to NATO, inflation, or elections.  As she wrote at that time, consular officers need more than the first four or five lessons' "good morning, how are you, where were you born, are you married, do you have children," to help them handle "interviews with accountants, archaeologists, musicians, machinists, mechanics, cattle farmers, and chicken sexers. Not to mention the sensitive and urgent on-the-fly handling of airline hijackings, automobile crashes, emergency surgery, beatings by prison guards, pet murders, taxi scams, rapes, dismemberments, child abductions and lost luggage."

That aside, of course, as we say these days, "It is what it is."  And being tongue-tied just won't help the queue of customers get home on time tonight.

Madam has known officers who used translators for every interview from the day they arrived at post until the day they left; she has known others who arrived with exactly the same ability, vocabulary and test score, and immediately started interviewing on their own - fumbling at first, but learning with every exchange and quickly totally independent.

What was the difference?  The willingness to speak as if they could speak.  And - since Vonnegut was right - soon they truly could.  She remembers the sense of triumph she felt the first time she held her own in a casual conversation outside the office.  She remembers her pride when she overheard her ELOs discussing where they might go for lunch and why - in the host country's language.  And very recently she reacquainted herself with a language she hasn't spoken in many years and was delighted as it came trickling back - in overheard conversation, on road signs and billboards, and in simple exchanges leading to more complex ones.  Nearly everyone there speaks some English, an easy trap to step into, but Madam is proud to say she did not succumb.

And you don't have to succumb either.  Rehearse exchanges in your mind.  Review conversations that fumbled, figure out the flaws, and realize that you COULD have said what you meant to say, if you had tried it THIS way.  Walk through the streets assembling little speeches about what you see ("There is a dog over there.  He is not barking.  His collar is blue and his leash is red")  Loosen up.  Untie the tongue.  Talk with the FSNs in their language, despite their fluency in yours.  After all, what's the worst that can happen?  You've been laughed at before and survived.  And it will never be a mean laugh, but an understanding laugh, with appreciation that at least you tried.

So say something and watch the response - confusion, or an appropriate answer?  Be willing to try a different way, until the eyes light up with comprehension.  There's no feeling like it.  And yes, you can say that.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

I Know It Might be Schadenfreude, But I Like It

If you're one of the few US consular officers on the planet who has not yet seen the National Geographic channel's "Locked Up Abroad," you NEED to remedy that flaw.

LUA describes its heroes as "unsuspecting travelers who embarked on what they thought would be a vacation, only to barely make it home alive."  Um, and how do we define "unsuspecting" in English, again?  Stuffing eight pounds of heroin into our underpants at the behest of three young men we met ten minutes ago?  Swallowing a double handful of raw diamonds just before walking through airport security?  Strolling down a road known as the fishing grounds for kidnapping terrorists, hoping to snap a few local-color photos?  You mean THAT 'unsuspecting?'

Madam will not say whether one of her own favorite WTF-were-you-thinking Americans is featured on any LUA episode, but the inevitability of the characters' stumbling/wandering/staggering into disaster is riveting and hypnotic - even more so than the eye-wideningly ghastly decisions made by PMATNBs (people meeting animals that are not Bambi) on the other, wildly entertaining, "How the Heck can I Still be Alive After Doing Something so Incredibly Stupid" programs.  And who said that American TV is going downhill? Not Madam!

What might be best about LUA is the familiarity of the quiet, tremulous-but-brave voices that tell these stories, the voices we know oh so well from answering the telephone at 4:48 PM on any given Friday, with "American citizens services.  Can I help you?"

Pity, sympathize, empathize, even weep a little for the babes in the woods, but still enjoy.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Work in Progress

Of course, no one needs a gentle reminder that FAMs are always works in progress.  The web-based editions show every section or paragraph's latest revision date.  There are updates that are well-publicized, like the welcome major 2009 revision of 9 FAM Appendix K which was announced by worldwide cable.  But there are also small revisions underway all the time, most of which don't make the nightly news.

For a while there were monthly summaries; a list of revisions large and small.  This list is still a useful reminder that even the most basic entries might be subject to tweak without fore- (or post-) warning.  With on-line FAMs so easily accessible and searchable - and State's official on-line editions kept up to date so there is no need to trust a law firm's or anybody else's older postings - there is no reason to depend on memory, and going back even to old favorites can sometimes yield new surprises:  for example, the requirement that consular officers confirm funding for student visa applicants.  Especially if one has been out of the consular business for a while, even a fairly short while like, for instance, a year in Iraq, an assignment in another cone, sick leave, leave without pay, a teaching gig, a year-long language or other class, or a hundred other possible temporary distractions, looking it up is a very good idea.

Also an excellent idea for any consular officer who's been away for any of the reasons above or for reasons even briefer - such as you went out to buy coffee and had to wait in line - is enrollment in the short consular courses, such as automation and name-checking.  Things seem to change daily, all for the better these days.  You will be amazed and delighted and will have lots of fun.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Of Course I'm Sure. I'm Supposed to Be.

"A weak man has doubts before a decision, a strong man has them afterwards."  
- Karl Karus

 With all due respect, Mr Karus - however much that might be - are you from Austria, or from the Planet Zarkon?

Better, in all ways, to pay attention to Jonah Lehrer, a rational Earthling:

"It feels good to be certain.  Confidence is comforting.  This desire to always be right is a dangerous side effect of having so many competing brain regions inside one's head.  While neural pluralism is a crucial virtue - the human mind can analyze any problem from a variety of different angles - it also makes us insecure.  You never know which brain area you should obey.  It's not easy to make up your mind when your mind consists of so many competing parts.

"This is why being sure about something can be such a relief.  The default state of the brain is indecisive disagreement; various mental parts are constantly insisting that the other parts are wrong.  Certainty imposes consensus on this inner cacophony.  it lets you pretend that your entire brain agrees with your behavior.  You can now ignore those annoying fears and nagging suspicions, those statistical outliers and inconvenient truths.  Being certain mean that you aren't worried about being wrong.

"The only way to counteract the bias for certainty is to encourage some inner dissonance.  We must force ourselves to think about the information we don't want to think about, to pay attention to the data that disturbs our entrenched beliefs.  When we start censoring our minds, turning off those brain areas that contradict our assumptions, we end up ignoring relevant evidence.
"The certainty trap is not inevitable.  We can take steps to prevent ourselves from shutting down our minds' arguments too soon.  We can consciously correct for this innate tendency....

"...when making decisions, actively resist the urge to suppress the argument.  instead, take the time to listen to what all the different brain areas have to say.  Good decisions rarely emerge from a false consensus.  Alfred P. Sloan, the chairman of General Motors during its heyday, once adjourned a board meeting soon after it began. 

'Gentlemen,' Sloan said, 'I take it we are all in complete agreement on the decision here ... Then I propose we postpone further discussion of this matter until our next meeting to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and perhaps gain some understanding of what the decision is all about.'"