How to Communicate with Private Sector Employers

Parsha [Passage of Scripture] Nugget [Precious Idea] Chayei Sarah – Genesis 24:29 Many civilians consider the way we speak to people to be too formal and stiff. What military people think of as respectful can make non-military people uncomfortable. For veterans of World War II, the Korean War, and even Vietnam this divide was small. How do we handle its widening?

Everyone Used to Speak Formally

The conversational divide didn’t start 40 years ago. For millennia, people have broken the customary rules. Parshas Chayei Sarah records an early example:

“Laban ran to the man, outside to the spring.” (Beresheis/Genesis 24:19)

Abraham sent his servant, Eliezer, to Haran to find a wife for Isaac. When he arrived there, Eliezer encountered Rebecca. Soon he realized G-d had chosen her to marry Isaac. So he gave her valuable gifts of jewelry. Then Rebecca took him to her father’s home to stay overnight. When her brother Laban saw the expensive adornments, he ran to greet Eliezer.

Laban appeared to show hospitality and honor to a guest. But by craving to get close to the wealthy stranger, he disrespected his father. As the leader of his home, Bethuel had the privilege of greeting Eliezer. His son took that away.

You can see military rules come from these ancient roots. Among them, a junior defers to a senior when speaking. This tradition of respect and deference continues. People outside the military used to follow such rules out of politeness. The two realms differed because service members were more direct and used profanity.

Since the 1970s, fewer people defer to age, education, or other norms when addressing another person. Conversely, civilians swear more than ever before. But these patterns vary by industry and company. How can you figure out what to do?

Know a Company’s Level of Formality

To find out an organization’s manner of speaking, do a little intel gathering. Focus on:

  1. How did the receptionist address you? Did she use your first name or Mr./Ms. and your last name? How was the person you’ll be meeting referred to? Gather clues about the organization’s level of formality by listening to the receptionist.
  2. How do others at the company speak? Don't rely solely on how the receptionist speaks. When you conduct informationals, collect information on what people say and HOW they say it.
  3. Review the organization’s website. How formal is the language? On the pages telling about people who work there, are they referred to by their first name?
  4. Ask your inside contact. If you got the meeting to discuss a job through an insider, talk to the person about how formal the company is.

None of these steps will take you very long. But they’ll provide you with the intelligence you need to know what to do. You may not have to alter your manner of speech. Or you may have to be on your guard to talk in a less formal way.

In general, start by speaking a little more formally than you assess the organization to be. That way, if you’ve assessed the level too informally you can tighten up. Otherwise, plan to relax into a less formal manner as the meeting progresses.