If you are a new employee on a power line crew, a construction crew, in the lifeguard cadre at the local pool, on a fire crew, a police squad, or in a military unit, one thing makes you the same as all the other “new guys.” In each of those circumstances, you arrived in an insular, esoteric, rule-bound, culture-steeped micro-environment in which you are sure you will never be accepted, nor loved, nor even possibly tolerated. You are a man or woman (I hereby declare ‘new guy’ a gender-neutral term until a suitable replacement is found) alone on an island, surrounded by the sharks, trying simply to find some small bit of acceptance, respect, and possibly even belonging.
I will be honest, it’s not easy at first. Notions of you as the alien, the invader, the interloper, are pervasive. There is cold, icy silence from some, pedantic and quasi-hostile “coaching” from others, and boldfaced animosity from the rest. Only the team leader seems at all interested in your wellbeing, or in bringing you up to speed and within the circle of trust. You get the sense that this tolerance is due only to his or her promoted position of authority. It is as if the leader knows they are supposed to make you a part of the team, and against their better judgment and wisdom, they are resigned to do so.
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The good news buried beneath this avalanche of anxiety and self-doubt is that there is a relatively painless way to navigate the choppy waters of this “new guy” ocean of the outcast. It is only relatively painless because there will always be some degree of initiation rituals (hazing), reluctance to accept you, and disdain at your temerity for even attempting to be a part of the group. That is just human nature, and the phenomenon is heightened and even more acute in high-risk fields like firefighting and the military.
The painless way to which I refer is adherence to seven simple rules as you serve your sentence as the “new guy.” These seven tips, if you allow them to guide your behavior during the often undefined period of “new guy” suffering, will help you to survive the ordeal, move into the phase of trusted confidant and vetted team member, and maybe even shorten the time it takes you to shed the dreaded scarlet letters: “FNG.”
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1. Default to keeping your mouth shut
It seems harsh to say “just shut your mouth,” but these rules are not supposed to be nice. Rather, they are supposed to act as a guide, and if you want to avoid incurring the wrath of the others on your team, the easiest way to do that is to listen more and talk less. The old adage that “it is better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and prove it,” definitely comes into play here.
No one cares about your winning touchdown throw in the high school football game last year. No one cares what your opinion is with respect to solving some complicated problem the team faces (even if it might be a valid one). No one cares about your opinion on religion or politics. Regarding the latter, there is no surer way to piss someone off than pontificating on those subjects when you’re brand new. Just resign yourself to being the shy, non-talkative type for a time. Trust me that it will make things go easier.
2. Develop thick skin
No matter who you are, your background, your level of expertise, or how you got the job, you are still the “new guy.” With that position comes some degree of verbal harassment, derision, mocking, playful (and not so playful) teasing, and general little brother/sister-like treatment. That is normal, it should be expected, and truth be told, it is a way for the non-new guys to relate to you in a way that both buttresses their position as senior members of the team, initiates you as a new team member, and reinforces the official and unofficial hierarchy within the team. That can be healthy as long as it does not descend into destructive and unreasonable torment.
What you as the new guy need to do is develop a thick skin. Inure yourself to the teasing, find the way to respond to it that best suits you and acknowledges that you’re a good sport, write in your sadness journal at the end of each day, or cry into your pillow and tell yourself it will pass. Whatever you do, learn to cope with it. It will pass. And here is a little secret: sometimes the ribbing even means that they really like you, and enjoy teasing you as a means of conveying that affection. Does it make sense? No. Does it happen anyway? Yes.
3. Volunteer… for everything
What the non-new guy members of the team really want from you is for you to show that you want to be there, that you want to do the job, that you’re willing to carry your load, and that you want to prove yourself as a worthy member of the team. The easiest way to convey that message is through your actions, and volunteering for all of the worst, dirtiest, nastiest, hardest tasks will endear you to those around you quicker than almost any other action. Make no mistake, you are going to be assigned those tasks anyway, so you might as well jump on them without being told, show eagerness, and make the best of it.
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4. Be first… in everything
This rule is somewhat related to the above, in that you should be the first to volunteer. Beyond that, however, you should also be the first to complete tasks, clean up, finish eating, start washing dishes, start washing the truck, start cleaning the barracks, and all the rest. This is often called “taking the initiative” in the jargon of leadership and followership. No matter what you call it, an eagerness to lead from the front in those tasks in which you are qualified early on to lead — usually limited to menial, custodial, low-level tasks — shows that you are cognizant of your role on the team, and willing and eager to fulfill it.
5. Absorb everything
For a good place to start on this tip, see Rule 1. To absorb involves listening, and to listen, you must keep your mouth shut. While you are refraining from talking too much, you should also be learning. Observe the dynamics of the team, the vernacular, the left and right limits of conversation and social interaction. Try to discover who the informal leaders and the subject matter experts are, then learn from them. Absorb everything you can not only about the job, but about the team itself. Each individual unit/crew/team is its own self-contained society. There are all sorts of established social and interpersonal dynamics, violations of which — even when unintentional — can result in your prolonged social suffering. To prevent this, observe, listen, learn, and absorb.
6. Never be told twice
This is a fairly simple rule. When someone with moral or official authority tells you to do something, do it and do not make them tell you twice. If you are told, “clean your gear after every fire,” then that should be the last time they have to tell you that. If they say, “clean your weapon after range day,” then for God’s sake, get that thing cleaned. You will quickly develop a reputation as a lazy, unreliable, and difficult rookie if you cannot adhere to simple commands and complete simple tasks without being reminded. Don’t be that guy or gal.
7. Be patient
For some of us, this author included, patience is not a virtue that comes naturally. You will quickly find yourself tiring of your role as the “new guy.” In no time at all, you will be sick of the ribbing. After only a short period, you will be ready for it to end, and for some other newly-arrived “new guy” to accept the albatross of rookie status. Have no fear: despite how it might seem in the throes of the ordeal, you will not be the “new guy” forever, or even for very long. Pretty soon, you will be the reliable and steady eight-year firefighter, the venerated and highly-respected 15-year Soldier, and then, believe it or not, the “salty veteran.” Just trust me that it will go fast. It goes so fast, in fact, that it is almost as if I should say to you, “enjoy your time as the new guy.”
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