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American Diplomacy
Foreign Service Life

April 1999

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by Gene Schmiel

DID YOU EVER WONDER WHY Reader’s Digest has a section every month entitled “Humor in Uniform” about the military but not one entitled “Humor in Striped Pants and Morning Coat” about the Foreign Service?

The easy answer is that Foreign Service people never do or say anything that is humorous or worth joking about. That is because, as everyone knows, every single man and woman in the Foreign Service is inherently dour, serious, staid, sedate, and, let’s face it, downright dull. Why, I’ve even heard that for many years, during the entry physical for the Department of State, the doctors would remove the funny bone as a prerequisite for employment!  

Perhaps that is a slight exaggeration. However, I well recall commenting on this issue during the two years when I was in charge of Foreign Service “Boot Camp,” the A-100 course orienting new officers to the diplomatic corps. I told each and every class that diplomacy was a serious business. As a result, I emphasized, humor was a commodity traditionally in short supply in the Foreign Service, one which they should use sparingly — “once or twice a year,” I remember saying. On the other hand, I underlined, every ambassador and secretary of state appreciated a bon mot or witticism in a formal message on (rare) occasion.  

I mentioned some examples to the eager neophytes:

  • There was one time when I was serving as a desk officer in the Department of State’s Africa bureau. A distinguished diplomat, who later became an ambassador and an assistant secretary of state, had been sending in his usual erudite and incisive reports from the African nation for which I was responsible. Thus, we were paying careful attention when he sent in a report describing a critical meeting with a rotund revolutionary leader. In the first three or four paragraphs, the author brilliantly and pithily described the reasons for the meeting, the atmosphere in the room, the attitudes of the leader’s aides, etc., in his traditional, straightforward reporting form. Then, suddenly, in the middle of the message, he wrote, “I greeted Mr. X with my outstretched hand, and he returned the favor by offering me five fat sausages masquerading as fingers.” I told the class that I immediately stopped reading, stunned, and read the sentence again several times. Yes, I verified with my colleagues in the bureau, it was identifiable Foreign Service humor! We on the desk repeated it to ourselves for several weeks afterward. 

  • Then I told the students of another incident in a nearby African nation. A young first-tour officer was, by happenstance, serving as chargé d’affaires for a day or two. At that time there was a message sent from the Department of State to all posts in the world asking that every embassy advise Washington immediately of the reaction in each nation to a speech by the President on a topic which was of no interest to that particular small nation. Discretion would have dictated that our young friend wait for the return of his superiors to send a response, even one which said, in a terse and pithy 500 words or so, “this nation has no interest in that issue and did not react.” However, the neophyte officer, who also eventually rose to the ambassadorial level, decided to act promptly, and humorously. He wrote a telegram in response which said, simply, “Country XXX slept on.” His ambassador was not, apparently, amused. 

The ability to use humor effectively is not necessarily limited to career officers, I assured my classes. There was the time, for example when Adlai Stevenson, then U.S. ambassador to the UN, was asked what he thought was the essence of diplomacy. His response? “Alcohol and Protocol.” However, I told the new officers, that aphorism had since been expanded to reflect the realities of modern diplomatic life, to “Alcohol, Protocol, U-Haul, Cholesterol, and Geritol,” and usually in that order. 

After I left that position, I continued to collect the occasional examples of Foreign Service humor. Once some “wise guys” in INR (State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research) decided to be clever in titling President Bush’s briefing paper for the February 1990 state visit of the President of one of Africa’s last Marxist states. You should know, first, that the flag of the People’s Republic of the Congo consisted of a modification of the Soviet hammer and sickle. A hoe replaced the sickle, and the bright red field left the viewer with no misunderstanding of the ideological bent of the government—at least on paper. Actually, this “people’s republic’s” leaders had been known for years as “champagne communists” who exploited their nation’s extensive petroleum reserves to support a well-heeled lifestyle for themselves. However, they had watched the destruction of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and probably sensed the impending decline and fall of their Soviet patrons. Now, they were telling us, they had seen the light and wanted to leave behind their Marxist past for a new, westernized, capitalistic, free market, and, of course, foreign aid-filled future. 

So what did our INR comedians title the President’s memo? “Westward (Hammer and) Hoe!” Not surprisingly, that title didn’t survive the ever-careful clearance process. 

Even stranger was the time a diplomat from North Korea, an entire nation known for its lack of a sense of humor, made two jests within the space of a few minutes. It was enough to change one’s entire mind-set about the “Hermit Nation” and its diplomats. 

It was at an academic conference in 1991 where both the North Korean and I had given papers about the situation on the divided peninsula. As we were having drinks afterward, he raised his glass in a toast to President Bush, saying, with a twinkle in his eye, that with relations between the two of us improving so rapidly, he’d soon have to find housing when his nation’s embassy opened in Washington.  

He then surprised us all by saying that during his previous visit, a year before for another conference, he had met with President Bush. We naturally scoffed since we had no formal relations with North Korea and meetings even at the desk officer level were rare. However, he then proceeded to pull out his wallet, pluck out a picture, and with a cunning smile show us a photo of himself with his arm around a smiling President Bush in front of the White House. Of course, the picture was of a cardboard-figure Bush and our North Korean friend, a trick which tourists regularly used to impress their friends at home. But the images were so realistic that only a resident Washingtonian would have seen through them. As a result, we joined the director in laughter, which significantly eased any remaining tensions.

In sum, through these few examples it should be clear that Foreign Service people can on occasion be as humorous as the next person—or at least as the next North Korean diplomat! 

Read more Life in the Foreign Service  


Author Retired Foreign Service officer Gene Schmiel has frequently contributed to American Diplomacy. Portions of this vignette first appeared in his 1998 book, Welcome Home: Who are You? Tales of a Foreign Service Family,* co-authored with his wife, Kathryn.
The author's book, Welcome Home: Who are You? Tales of a Foreign Service Family, is available online from amazon.com. It was reviewed by Publisher Frank Crigler in the Autumn 1998 issue of this journal. ~Ed.

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