by Hannah Becker, Guest Contributor
I recently got a crash course in making friends with non-military folk (aka “civies” or civilians) following a cross-country, non-military move.
All my fellow #milso of strength, the great group of spouses that were scattered across the country, weren’t within a day’s drive. I was stuck, alone, in a non-military world, forced to interact with civilians—people that don’t get the military life (beyond a few Hollywood representations + a binge watch weekend of Army Wives).
Making friends with other military spouses is easy, as there’s always that instant trust within the military community. While we may all come from very different walks of life, our commitment to serve supersedes many cultural, ethnic, education and religious differences. Plus, the shared lifestyle provides much common ground on which to build a relationship–instant connection.
Making friends with civilians isn’t so easy; in fact, it’s down right hard!
Building trust with others takes time and finding common ground can be more difficult, as our lives are characterized by very different paths. Here’s a few tips for making new non-military friends:
Translate the Lingo
The military has a language unto itself. Remember when you first met your soldier? And how all the acronyms and terminology left you with a quizzical look on your face? PCS, IED, PX–I was lost.
This is how civilians feel when you start venting about Tricare, deployments, the VA and any of the other military-specific events and challenges that have characterized your life for the past so many years.
When communicating with potential new friends, nix the secret club lingo.
Translate the necessary terms and describe the acronyms in detail or interchange with civilian-friendly terms. Replace “PCS” with “move” and “deployment” with “going overseas.”
While it may take some doing to get in the habit of communicating effectively with non-military people, this type of inclusion speak will establish an approachable persona that will lay the foundation for a positive relationship.
Find Points of Connection
While your new peers may never understand what it’s like to watch your loved one board a plane bound for a war zone or spend 18 months where the only forms of communication with your spouse are 3-week late mail and occasional chats on a burn phone with poor reception, try to find common ground in which you can connect.
Maybe you like the same types of books (historical fiction, anyone?).
Maybe yoga is a shared stress-reliever go-to.
Maybe New Kids on the Block dominates both parties’ playlists.
Find the points of connection and build on them, no matter how small and seemingly irrelevant (FYI: NKOTB is never irrelevant.) Connection points with your military spouse pals are surviving deployments, PCSes and other life-changing events. Common ground with civilians may not be as dramatic, but can be just as effective in forging a friendship.
Focus on the Feelings
While your civie friends may still not know what the PX is or why all your relationship milestones correspond with your spouse’s leave time (I know I’m not the only one!), they can understand what it feels like to miss a significant other, move to a new city, struggle with work-life balance and some of the other life challenges that may characterize some of the many seasons of milso life.
Focus on sharing your feelings about such struggles and don’t get wrapped up on “how much harder” you’ve had it vs. them.
Unless they’ve loved someone in the military, chances are they won’t have experiences of the same magnitude as yours, but they may have encountered similar feelings. Identical experiences are not required to forge great friendships.
Initiate Friend Dates
Military base life is awesome. You see the same people, in the same places, at the same time. There’s so many “forced interactions” within the military. Going to the gym and a FRG meeting was all that was required to get my “friend list” established when my husband transferred units. Military spouses are all transient and most are very receptive to making new friends.
It’s like, “Your soldier serves with my soldier? OK, you’re cool. Welcome to the club.”
Civilian friending is way different. The majority of civilians haven’t traipsed across the U.S. at Uncle Sam’s beckon call every 2 to 3 years; instead many live in the community that they have grown up in.
These homeboys aren’t necessarily looking to make new friends, as their quiver of buddies may be at peak capacity. Unlike base life, new friends won’t just happen; you will have to initiate it.
Following our first non-military move, I set a goal of inviting one new person out to coffee, over for dinner or on a Saturday bike ride once a week. My success rate wasn’t awesome; only about 50% of the invitees followed up on our friend dates. However, after a couple months of active “friending,” I had more than a dozen civilian pals to hang out with!
Become a Groupie
Don’t be afraid to join groups. Civic, hobby, professional, philanthropic—whatever floats your boat.
When my spouse was on active duty, we didn’t live anywhere long enough to really get “plugged in” to non-military community organizations. However, as a transitioning military family, we’ve discovered many benefits to becoming involved in organized groups.
While investing, long term, in one geographical location wasn’t something my family has been able to do while my spouse was on active duty, putting down roots has many positive effects in terms of building a solid network. Dive in to community groups and invest in the long haul.
Have you befriended a civilian in the past? What tips do you have for making new non-military friends?
Hannah Becker is a serial entrepreneur, MBA grad and proud military spouse. Author of The Motivated Millennial: An Entrepreneurial Guidebook for Generation Y and Founder/Consultant at HCB Consulting, Hannah is committed to encouraging others to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams. Learn more about Hannah’s career and publications at www.themotivatedmillennial.com. Follow Hannah on Twitter: @MotivatedGenY or on Facebook.