- The Essential Military-to-Civilian Transition Resource

Silence is Golden: Mastering the Civilian Interview
by Janet Farley, Contributing Editor

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In “Crimson Tide,” the 1995 action-drama blockbuster movie, actors Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington find themselves topside on a nuclear submarine, watching a magnificent sunset, just minutes before submerging into the ocean’s depths.  Captain Ramsey, a seasoned Naval officer, played by Hackman, explains to the young upstart Commander Hunter, Washington’s character, that this moment, “right here, right now” is his favorite part of
any voyage.

Hunter simply stares ahead in silence at the colorful dusk as he tries to avoid choking on his first cigar. A few quiet moments later, Ramsey congratulates him for knowing when to “shut up and enjoy the view.”  He goes on to say that “most eggheads would talk it away.”

Whether Hunter wisely chose to be silent or was simply trying to avoid death by smoke inhalation is debatable.  What is not up for debate, however, is the idea that silence can indeed be golden.  In a job interview, you might do well to follow Hunter’s lead.

Add it to your list of worries...

In addition to worrying about showing up on time, sweaty palms and turning off your cell phone, you should also prepare for those awkward moments of silence that frequently occur during a civilian interview.   It will happen to you at some point. The interview chitchat will be going along just fine and then nothing.  You may be tempted to fill the void with inane chatter vaguely related to the reasons you should be hired over someone else.   Do yourself a favor and avoid that particular misstep. 

Silence, intentional or not, happens in a civilian interview for a couple of reasons.

One possible scenario is the interviewer wants to watch you squirm.  Injecting an uncomfortable moment of silence into the fray gives him or her an indication of how you might respond under pressure.  While decidedly sneaky in nature, give this technique some credit for effectiveness and ingenuity.

A second, less sinister reason for silence involves good, old-fashioned distraction. A telephone phone rings. A colleague pops in to ask the interviewer a question. A conflicting thought intercepts.  Someone just loses his or her place in the whole interview question-and-answer schematic. We are all human – it is going to happen. Your mission, should you wisely decide to accept it, is to handle the moment as gracefully as possible.

How to a handle a moment of silence

Take a tip from Commander Hunter and do nothing. It is a bold move and not necessarily an easy one to pull off. You need self-confidence and your nerve barometer must be operating on full power. You can do it.

Avoid the urge to compensate for the hush and give the silence a chance to play out for a minute or so. While it may seem like an eternity in jobseeker time, it is not. If you can avoid squirming in your seat and appearing clueless during the calm, then you will emerge the competent victor in this little showdown, regardless of why it occurred in the first place. The underlying message will be clear. Silence does not intimidate you and neither will the demands of the job.

Should you instead opt to “talk the moment away,” do so intelligently considering the circumstances of the moment. For example, if you are asked a question and you cannot respond quickly enough, ask the interviewer to repeat the question.  That may buy you a couple of seconds to gather your thoughts.

If, on the other hand, the interviewer seems stumped then you can jumpstart the conversation by asking for clarification of a previous point or relating some particular skill or experience you have that can work for the company.  You may just be able to pull it all back with a simple, “you were saying...” remark.

While you may not be able to completely avoid the sound of silence during a civilian interview, you can certainly minimize any potential damage resulting from it by preparing for it in advance. Practice answering basic interview questions. Prepare thoughtful answers and be able to offer them up naturally as needed.

Do your homework on the company before you show up. Know who the main players are as well as their management style. Have a firm grasp on the company mission and goals. Be well-versed in any related news headlines beforehand. Just looking through the company literature in the waiting room before the interview will not cut it. Investigate the company as if you were going to invest money in it – if you do get hired, you will be investing your time and expecting a financial return as well.

So, go ahead. Enjoy the view and do not talk the moment away.


Janet Farley is the author of "The Military-to-Civilian Career Transition Guide” and she writes the JobTalk column for the Stars and Stripes newspaper.  She can be reached at for comments and/or column suggestions.

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