"Civilian" is my Second Language

Mel O'Sullivan - November 20, 2020

The reason given for my Performance Warning was "poor communication skills". It was my second strike and a Performance Management Programme was instigated.

Like Jerry Maguire, it all started with an email. The fact is that my written communication skills in this case were far too good. Too clear, too concise, and laser targeted at the responsible parties. The incident had its roots in ethics, poor leadership and mismatched expectations of accountability. Management and I simply were not "speaking the same language". Even my best friends will admit that I am not known for my diplomacy (although treatment for anxiety has enabled me to make significant strides ahead in this area). I refused to back down and I found out later that the only thing that saved my job was my exemplary performance record. Management did not like what I was telling them - they particularly did not like the language I was using to communicate my concerns.

Skip forward a little and I found myself on the balcony of a convention centre at Luna Park in Sydney talking to an ex Combat Engineer. Both of us were taking a little time out from the noise and bustle of the WithYouWithMe Networking event. It was a beautiful, clear blue water, sunny day and the view towards Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House was breathtaking. Sydney going about it's business and being Sydney in all the best ways.

He had a week old beard, hadn't had a haircut in quite some time and although he was wearing a suit, he had not ironed the shirt. He looked and behaved like a really nervous, kind of beaten down, man. He had walked into the conference and sat himself in the corner as far away as possible from everyone else in the room. Like many Combat Engineers he had discharged with knee and ankle problems. As we got to talking I found out that finances were not his problem. He didn't need to work to survive - he admitted to being bored out of his brain. A single man, all his friends were still in the Army and he had not managed to make any new ones post discharge. He couldn't find anything in common with anyone he talked to, had no hobbies and no volunteer interests. He had very little reason to leave the house and engage with people in any meaningful fashion. He was overqualified for the landscaping roles he felt he was suited to and, like me, was looking for a clearer, more meaningful purpose.

I found myself telling him about the day I found myself sitting at a table in the main street of my country home town feeling like a complete foreigner, with nothing in common with any of the people walking past.

I saw a switch flip on his face when I made the comment:

"Your home town feels like a foreign country. You no longer speak the native language. You need to relearn how to communicate, move and survive in this foreign place you call home".

Skip forward a little more to guest speaker Matt Prasad on "The Tech'd Veteran Podcast", dropping a little comment:

"Civilians do your head in."

I'd like a dollar for every time a Manager has said to me "Mel, you're doing my head in! Why are you asking me all these questions? You are too direct and rude in your communications! You need to remember to say "please" and "thank you"".

I'd like a dollar for every time I have been "lost in the translation", for every time I have been a heartbeat behind the conversation while I translated the context into "military". A dollar for every time I have added the courtesies as an afterthought or forgotten them all together.

I've always admired people who speak more than one language. I've always considered myself a bit ignorant because I have only ever spoken English. Last week I realised I am smarter than I thought.

"Civilian" is my second language - that is why I still get lost in the translation.

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