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U.S. State Department Flickr
U.S. State Department Flickr

What Does a Foreign Service Officer Do?

U.S. State Department Flickr
U.S. State Department Flickr

The unfortunate and untimely death of a young Foreign Service Officer in a suicide bombing on April 6 in Afghanistan’s Zabul province has drawn attention to the careers of U.S. diplomats, a topic already on the consciousness of much of the U.S. population following the success of the critically acclaimed foreign service flick Argo.

Twenty-five year old U.S. diplomat Anne Smedinghoff was on assignment at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan since July, a post for which she had volunteered following a tour in Caracas, Venezuela. When her convoy was attacked, she was en route to deliver books to a school. "I wish everyone in our country could see first-hand the devotion, loyalty and amazingly hard and hazardous work our diplomats do on the front lines in the world's most dangerous places," said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in a statement following the attack.

The work of U.S. diplomats, a term interchangeable with Foreign Service Officers (FSOs), can range from an assignment like Smedinghoff’s—promoting literacy—to issuing new passports to U.S. citizens living or traveling abroad. FSOs are stationed at any one of 265 embassies, consulates, and mission stations around the world, and are living and working in both hostile, war-torn nations and amicable, peaceful countries. Broadly defined, all of the work falls under a mission statement that the official Department of State literature defines thusly: “The mission of a U.S. diplomat in the Foreign Service is to promote peace, support prosperity, and protect American citizens while advancing the interests of the U.S. abroad.”

Diplomats select one of five different career paths—consular affairs, economic affairs, management affairs, political affairs, and political diplomacy—that inform their day-to-day work. Consular work includes facilitating adoptions; economic officers tackle subjects like environmental issues; management officers head up real estate and budget, for example; political affairs focuses on the host country; and political diplomacy officers interact with locals, particularly leaders and officials, to promote U.S. policies. More information on each is available here. New FSOs are Junior Officers, and their first couple assignments are considered entry-level. In other words, Junior Officers are likely to be the ones interviewing hopeful travelers planning a trip to New York City for their visas.

While diplomats place preferences for their career tracks and bid for location assignments, they must be willing to work wherever they are placed regarding both job role and destination. Posts vary in length, from about 6 months in certain places, such as war zones, to up to a few years in other places. The Department of State arranges for FSO's housing and coordinates transitions with the goal of making moves as seamless and comfortable as possible. Still, prospective officers are warned that the standard of living in different posts varies widely, and based on the country, can be cushier or rougher than what they are accustomed to in the U.S.

Certain agencies, including the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), United States Department of Agriculture Foreign Agricultural Service and Commercial Service, individually hire and employ FSOs, as well. The careers, assignments, and work are specific to those agencies. The vast majority of FSOs, however, work for the Department of State.

Foreign Service Officers, also referred to as diplomat “generalists,” are one professional pillar of the U.S. Foreign Service. Ambassadors, Foreign Service Specialists—such as doctors and human resource specialists—and Foreign Service Nationals that include citizens of the country where the embassy or consulate is located, are among the others.

The application process to become a Foreign Service Officer is exhaustive, and as is to be expected for a government position, includes an extensive background check. The first hurdle in the process is sitting for the Foreign Service Officer Test. Test results determine whether candidates advance to the following rounds, which include submitting a personal narrative and taking an oral assessment. More information about the application process is available here.

For those considering a career as a Foreign Service Officer, there’s also an app for that, official and provided by the U.S Department of State, where candidates can tap around to, for example, review general information about the Foreign Service, try practice test questions, and locate diplomats.

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Big Questions
How Are Rooms Cleaned at an Ice Hotel?

Cleaning rooms at Sweden’s famous ICEHOTEL is arguably less involved than your typical hotel. The bed, for example, does not have traditional sheets. Instead, it’s essentially an air mattress topped with reindeer fur, which sits on top of a custom-made wooden palette that has a minimum of 60 centimeters of airspace below. On top of those reindeer hides is a sleeping bag, and inside that sleeping bag is a sleep sack. And while it’s always 20ºF inside the room, once guests wrap themselves up for the night, it can get cozy.

And, if they’re wearing too many layers, it can get quite sweaty, too.

“The sleep sack gets washed every day, I promise you that. I know it for a fact because I love to walk behind the laundry, because it’s so warm back there," James McClean, one of the few Americans—if not the only—who have worked at Sweden's ICEHOTEL, tells Mental Floss. (He worked on the construction and maintenance crew for several years.)

There isn’t much else to clean in most guest rooms. The bathrooms and showers are elsewhere in the hotel, and most guests only spend their sleeping hours in the space. But there is the occasional accident—like other hotels, some bodily fluids end up where they shouldn’t be. People puke or get too lazy to walk to the communal restrooms. Unlike other hotels, these bodily fluids, well, they freeze.

“You can only imagine the types of bodily fluids that get, I guess, excreted … or expelled … or purged onto the walls,” McClean says. “At least once a week there’s a yellow stain or a spilled glass of wine or cranberry juice … and it’s not what you want to see splattered everywhere.” Housekeeping fixes these unsightly splotches with an ice pick and shovel, re-patching it with fresh snow from outside.

Every room has a 4-inch vent drilled into the icy wall, which helps prevent CO2 from escalating to harmful levels. Maintenance checks the holes daily to ensure these vents are not plugged with snow. Their tool of choice for clearing the pathway is, according to McClean, “basically a toilet brush on a stick.”

When maintenance isn’t busy unstuffing snow from that vent hole, they’re busy piping snow through it. Every couple days, the floor of each room receives a new coat of fluffy snow, which is piped through the vent and leveled with a garden rake.

“It’s the equivalent of vacuuming the carpet,” McClean says.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Why Did We Start Wearing Pants?
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iStock

It’s a question that has plagued Donald Duck for decades: Who decided pants were necessary? Did the motivation stem purely from modesty, or was there another reason we started climbing into trousers?

Over at Discover, author Sarah Scoles has offered a plausible explanation by describing a 2014 archaeological find in China’s Tarim Basin. Researchers with the German Archaeological Institute excavated what is believed to be the oldest example of pants ever unearthed, made from wool and dating back 3000 years.

The pants themselves held no clue as to why they were made, but their location did. The research team found them buried at the Yanghai cemetery along with a number of other artifacts, including horse-riding gear that was in the same grave: a wooden bit, a bow, and an axe. The pants-wearer was surely someone tasked with galloping around and slaying animals for food—likely necessitating apparel that would allow him to mount a horse without being encumbered by clothing.

A screen shot of Donald Duck near a door
Disney

That idea eventually bled into Greek and Roman culture, where those on horseback sought out a comfortable and practical way of avoiding chafing. (The grave’s proto-pants also appeared to be an early example of being fashion-conscious. While mostly practical, each leg had cross-stitching that appeared to be purely decorative.)

Whether the Yanghai discovery is considered the earliest example of pants depends on how one defines pants. Ötzi, the European iceman first discovered in 1991, lived roughly 5300 years ago and died wearing goatskin leggings. We know a cartoon duck who has a lot of catching up to do.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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