The great thing about being in the military is accumulating so many stories! And any time you get two or more vets in a room together, such tales are bound to be told. But what about interfacing with the “civilian world?”
If you’ve spent years in the service, then you’ve probably mastered the art of icebreaking with other vets. But if you’re transitioning out, then it’s time to brush up on your civilian networking skills!
One of the biggest problems for vets shifting into the civilian world is being able to translate skills and experiences. In the service, there’s a common lingo and a sort of verbal shorthand which exists. Communication flows naturally and it’s easy to come up with a topic of conversation.
Various civilian fields have their own jargon, too, though! If you’re going to be in an area filled with people working in a certain civilian field, why not brush up on some of the terms they use? Think about it. When you deploy to a foreign country, you usually receive some familiarization training—what to “do” and “not do” around the local nationals. You might memorize some expressions and learn a bit of the language as well. And when you get to that country, your efforts pay off!
Do the same when you’re about to insert yourself in a situation where there’s civilian networking potential. Don’t jump in blindfolded. Get familiar with what you’re about to dive into. You don’t have to be an expert, but have some situational awareness of what’ll be going on, who will be there, what are their protocols and what is some of the terminology they’ll be using. You can learn a lot of that terminology from reviewing the O*Net Online Military Crosswalk.
Going to a career fair or hiring event? Try to find out in advance which organizations will have booths there! Then do a little homework on the ones you find interesting.
You see the United States Forest Service will be there? Check out their website, read up about career options and get familiar with the jargon. Run a little recon. Be ready.
Yes, of course career fairs exist to help give you information, so you don’t need to know everything in advance. But—many people show up and don’t know how to approach a booth, so they sort of hang back and gawk from a distance. That doesn’t work!
Get in there, smile, stick out your hand and introduce yourself. Let them know who you are and what you want to know about their business. Do not be “ho hum” about it, or they’ll be “ho hum,” too. Be decisive, because they came there for you and you never know what position they hold with the organization!
On occasion, a company will have HR staff on-hand to take applications and maybe even make on-the-spot offers! Even if they don’t, if the representative sees you are truly interested and enthusiastic, they’ll go the extra mile to give you some tips. Take their contact info and give yours.
At the Office
What if you’ve landed a job and want to quickly expand your in-office network? As with the above example, a bit of recon goes a long way.
Get your hands on that organizational chart. Study it. Read the web pages featuring info about personnel and find out who’s who. Be able to put names to faces, so when you encounter someone you’ll already know who they are and maybe a little biographical information about them.
Communication is much easier when you how who you’re talking to. In the service it’s easy to learn a good deal of information about each other by looking at rank insignia (that guy is an Army major; there’s an Air Force staff sergeant) and by learning the person’s career field (“Oh, you’re with the Corps of Engineers? We worked with them in Afghanistan!”).
In the civilian world, people aren’t usually wearing nametapes, rank, badges and patches to clue you in. Everyone is a mystery. Unless you already conducted some research (“tee hee!”). Find some trivia which stands out or that you can relate to, then ask them about it when you meet. Is that creepy? No, that is workplace initiative! (“Hey, I was skimming through the leadership bios online and saw you went to UCLA. So did I!”).
Be relaxed and use confident, positive body language to make a solid first impression as you break that ice!
Out and About
You never know who you’ll run into. And you can’t prepare in advance for every situation… or can you?
If you find yourself in a situation where you’re next to a person you’re interested in networking with, there’s one trick that always starts a conversation. Ask them a question about themselves.
It is human nature to want to talk about ourselves, and we’ll usually accept any excuse to do so. But timing is everything. You don’t want to interrupt someone if they’re clearly busy, but if the moment looks right, use the opening to pop a direct question (“Hi, aren’t you one of the speakers at the XYZ thing today?”) or an indirect question (“Hey, are you here for the XYZ thing? Oh, you’re speaking at it! Wow, what do you do?”).
Honestly, the concept of “breaking the ice” is more than a little silly, because we’re all aware that it’s happening! Not to get too deep into human psychology here, but for various reasons we have built up social norms which dictate our behavior and how we talk to one another. We have etiquette to follow and protocols to initiate if we want to open a channel of communication. So there’s a little song and dance to get the dialogue flowing, and everyone is well aware of it.
The thing to remember is that how this works in the military is sometimes different than elsewhere. And every person is different, so it may take a little trial and error until you perfect the art of ice breaking. Just be sincere, be yourself and be ready to engage!