Canada Day or How to Be a Big Deal

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Old photos 004 (2)
Canada Day, cerca many years ago.

When I was growing up, Canada Day meant a giant cake in the park, face painting, and a parade featuring kids on bikes and all three of the fire trucks. Sometimes, there were even potato sack races and candy tosses.

This year, I painted my face and straightened my hair. I hobbled around in stilettos, the equivalent to the amount to skill needed to win a potato sack race. And the tiny raspberries desserts served on silver trays were better than any sort of candy toss.

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I like to think that my makeup abilities have improved.

When one of my bosses gave me her invitation to the Embassy Canada Day reception, I was delighted. It was finally my turn to put the etiquette classes I had taken in Ottawa to good use, to dress up, to snoop around inside an Ambassador’s house and to put Canadian tax dollars to work.

Being at the Ambassador’s home was a whole other type of culture shock. Besides the most delicious ceviche in the world, the entire second floor was full of important people; the room was so crowded that I literally rubbed elbows with the Dutch ambassador. Business cards were flying and the back deck was full of highly decorated military officers from Central America and Mexico. Every conversation circled around professions and connections; the single fact that I was there meant that I must be a Big Deal.

I don’t know if it’s because I’m Mennonite or just have low esteem of what I do, but I find the culture of networking based on self promotion challenging. I am far better at being awkward than being a Big Deal. My only party trick is to tell people that I am from the Yukon. Unfortunately, tales of -50 and sled dogs do not translate well into the desired outcome of an exchange of business cards and a potential business partnership.

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The Canadian ambassador.

My jobs here have trained me to listen and generally take a back seat to the Colombians that I work with, whether that is in Bogota or in a community. I’m still more comfortable exalting local food and asking questions about people’s daily life than I am praising my peacebuilding abilities. My love language is words of affirmation, I enjoy attention, and I love to tell stories about the organizations and communities that we work with, but I don’t know how to translate that passion to an official reception or a formal event.

I just finished my last ever mid-year evaluations with Justapaz. Every six months, we all sit down and give an oral and written report on what we have accomplished during that period. How is our working helping Justapaz reach the goals laid out in their strategic plan? Confession: I highly dislike those meetings. While I fully understand the need for keeping everyone informed, sometimes the methodology of these evaluations turns the exercise into one that feels more like self promotion and justification than an honest overview and dialogue.

I find it incredibly difficult to present my own work because I don’t want to get caught up in self promotion, but the very fact of not presenting well what I actually do means that my work ends up appearing to have little value, especially for the organization I am trying to support. I struggle to find the balance.  How do I talk about MY work when what I try to do is support the work that is already going on in my office? As an accompaniment worker, how do I promote those around me while also being aware and proud of my own efforts?

Heels!

After all, I am a strong woman. I do work hard, not only at producing communications materials, but at understanding office culture, making sense of a complicated and constantly changing context, finding the right greetings to begin and end emails, creating small talk at dinners in local restaurants, and understanding when to address someone as usted and when as tu. None of those factors, however, are included on an evaluation form or make good talking points at a networking reception.

As we pulled out of the ambassador’s street on the way home the taxi driver turned around and asked, “What kind of a place is that? A club of some sort?” I didn’t really know how to respond, so I simply replied, “Yes, a kind of Canadian one.”

Sneaky cheese platter picture
Sneaky cheese platter picture

If given the chance, I would go back. The cheese platters alone justify the cost of business cards. But I don’t want to think of myself as belonging to an exclusive club, where the price of admission is acting like a Big Deal. Yet the work that I support should be seen as important by the people that influence policy, such as the members of High Society at the reception, or simply in evaluation meetings at work. Right now, it is up to me to figure out how I want to talk about it, high heels or not.

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