Friday, June 25, 2010

Hobnob


The most common idea that Filipinos have of diplomats are foreigners who are fond of attending parties that are full of wine and chitchat. The activities of a diplomat to Filipinos often seem to fall on their idea of "sosyal." The idea that diplomats handle the sensitive job of fostering bilateral or multilateral relations seems to lag behind.

I will admit, attending diplomatic receptions are part of the job of a diplomat. It provides a venue for members of the diplomatic corps to meet each other and discuss the latest events, whether personal or work-related. Wine does keep flowing in these events and waiters walk around the venue offering food to diplomats who jabber on and on. Seems fun right?

Well, it really depends on your personality. If you're born to socialize and have natural talent in working a room, you'll love receptions. Admittedly, this stereotypical diplomatic activity is one of those I look forward to the least. I'm a private person, and it's only my love for writing that gives me courage to write a blog. I enjoy company when they are of a small number. I appreciate the sense of closeness a small group brings. And more importantly, I'm at my most comfortable observing and not participating too directly.

But that's me. I have a batchmate in the Foreign Service who exhibits ease and comfort in social situations, immediately making friends the moment she steps into a room and being the life of the party. Making friends is like breathing to her. Another one is a diplomatic thoroughbred, who seemed to have been born with diplomatic skills and swagger. He can greet strangers with a "hey" that sounds like they've known each other all their life and immediately develop a connection where none exists. I like to think that I'm a mutt who happened to be mixed with diplomatic purebreds, though a proud mutt at that.

Diplomatic receptions are held either in a hotel or diplomatic residences. And you're either invited alone or with the Mrs. It's always easier with the Mrs. for me, as we can act move around and talk to people I know or she knows. Otherwise, I have to play the grouping game.

Let me tell you how grouping usually works for me. When I come a bit early and there's no familiar face around, awkwardness hits. Which produces awkward smiles and awkward hellos. I'd grab a drink and do my best not to look like a wallflower in the party, something I've had a lifetime of training on.

The first thing that usually happens is that I group with my ASEAN colleagues. It's always most comfortable when hanging out with neighbors. Maybe it's DNA that links us. Maybe it's the ASEAN temperament that creates a friendly atmosphere. But it's just like that for me.

Once the ASEAN group is formed, it's time to link up with the +3 of ASEAN +3: China, Japan, and Korea. After that, we usually welcome the countries in the Indian subcontinent next.

The Asian group, which often does not include the West and Central Asia because they have their own groupings, then meets up with the EU group (which often includes Aussies and Kiwis), followed by the South American and African groups.

When the ASEAN group is formed, individual members are more comfortable meeting up with known personal friends from other groups and return to the main pack after some time.

Receptions are more merciful to guys like me who aren't so good with names. There's a joke in receptions that everyone is named "Your Excellency" until he says otherwise. In my case, I'm familiar with most Embassy no. 2s as we routinely meet up or contact each other. The bosses are a bit harder to identify. Just call an old looking person "Your Excellency" to be safe. He'll correct you if you are mistaken. Though it really helps to be good with names and faces.

As I said, the drinks here just keep on flowing. However, I happen to be a teetotaler. The bartender, who's probably mastered hundreds of mixes to please drinkers, asks me "What'll it be, Sir?" "Coke please," I would answer.

"Coke?," he would ask perplexed. "Yes. Coke," I'd repeat.

"Coke with what?" the bartender would ask, trying to get a more "acceptable" answer. "Just coke," I'd repeat, with a hint of emphasis. And he'd serve me my cola with a bemused look. So much for his mixing skills. My case reminds me of the skit in old Western films where a tough-looking cowboy would enter a saloon to ask a barkeep for a drink. With everyone expecting the cowboy to order liquor, he instead asks for milk.

Older diplomats will often tell younger ones that drinking is part of a diplomat's like, implying that not drinking makes a diplomat a lesser animal. They feel drinking leads to better rapport with fellow drinkers. I don't subscribe to this. And don't get me started on smoking. It's a filthy habit. Even smokers who learned too late will tell you that.

It's been my experience that the caterers or hotel staff are usually Filipinos. I'm always happy to meet hardworking Filipinos who have chosen to leave home to earn a living. A smile and a gentle hello are the least I can do for my kababayans. Plus, extra passes where I am by the waiter serving finger food is a big thing. They're probably tired of my joke of asking them to leave their platter on our cocktail table by now.

For bachelors, attending receptions means free dinner for that evening. For married couples, it means the Mrs. can cancel her date with the kitchen that night.

And just so you know, I doubt if the host really gets to enjoy his party as much as he wants. Unless it's his kind of thing. He has to stand for a long time by the entrance of the venue to personally welcome all the guests with a friendly greeting and a handshake. And when the party is over, he has to stand by the entrance again to say a friendly goodbye and a handshake to everyone.

I'm usually one of the first to get that goodbye handshake, as I would like get back home to read a good book. A good read is a party in itself.

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