Marine etiquette

This blog post on the New York Times, by a returning Marine, is a fascinating read. The traditional narrative of the returning soldier’s readjustment tends to follow one of two lines: either that of a person so damaged by the horrors of war that they have been rendered unfit for life in polite society, or that of a person whose sense of discipline and honor is so refined that they are repelled by civilian sloppiness and laziness. This post is neither. Entitled “Let Me Get Right to the Point,” it focuses primarily on the difference in communication style between civilians and the military — and the different philosophical assumptions that underlie those differences:

One of the biggest changes I’ve undertaken has been relaxing my communication style. The Marine Corps values clear, direct, and accurate communication. Senior officers have little tolerance for meandering around your point, and they have zero tolerance for trivial or deceptive nonsense. Junior Marines are similar, except they can perceive this better than most field grade officers. I’ve learned that in civilian life many people want to banter about nothing for about 90 seconds before discussing anything of substance. I don’t necessarily like it, but now I can handle it.

At the root of the issue is that I strive to employ the Golden Rule: I treat people as I want to be treated. I do not want anyone to waste my time, so I try to be extremely respectful of others’ time.

There is much more in the article, but there’s so much to unpack just in those two brief bits!

For one thing, note that the communication style that the author, Jeffrey Barnett, considers respectful, many people and cultures (from national cultures to corporate ones) would consider distinctly rude. Even within the same city — Boston — and the same industry — academia — I have noticed this difference. I went to graduate school at Boston University and worked at Harvard during my last years of grad school, and in general, when dealing with the administrative staff, I tended toward Mr. Barnett’s mode. “Hello, Payroll Person. You clearly have several hundred other problems to solve, so I will present mine as concisely as possible and do my best to give you all the information you need, but no more, so that you may get on with your work.” Then I taught at wee little Emmanuel College for two years, and quickly realized that big-bureaucracy etiquette was not the same thing as small-community etiquette. At the big schools, you showed respect to Payroll Person by not wasting their time; at Emmanuel, you showed respect with a little small talk to acknowledge that they weren’t only Payroll Person, they were Sam or Betty, and had their own life outside of Payroll, thank you very much.

(This may have been slightly complicated by the fact that I was faculty at EC, instead of a lowly grad student or fellow administrator, and therefore very much needed to avoid copping Faculty Attitude. But I think the size had more to do with it, because you see the same difference in small towns versus big ones.)

The directness and clarity of the military, the strength of its culture, is part of why it has excelled, as an institution, at integrating people from many different ethnic groups and walks of life. The identity of “Marine” overrides that of race, creed, or color. And there must be a certain comfort to knowing so clearly how you are supposed to communicate, and why, and who is in charge of what at all times. I wrote recently about how, although I am neurotypical, moving around a lot as a kid gave me the same sense that people with Asperger’s have that the social world is mysterious and unknowable. Maybe this is part of why in high school I was considerably tempted to join Naval Junior ROTC, despite my manifest unsuitability for military life. The idea of a culture where the rules were explicit and clear, and where social status was indicated by clearly marked rank rather than shifting tides of popularity, seemed awfully soothing to me.

Please go read the post, and let me know your thoughts on it. I’ve been unable to get it out of my head for days, which is probably why it took me so long to get it on my blog — I couldn’t decide what of the essay’s many riches I wanted to focus on.

I’ll only mention one more, which is a particular pet peeve of mine — flag etiquette! Mr. Barnett, please know that at least one civilian gets it. I don’t know why it bothers me so, but people who own a flag and do not follow the flag code drive me nuts. It’s more respectful of the flag to burn it in protest (which acknowledges its power as a symbol) than to leave a battered flag out in the rain, or keep a flag out 24 hours a day without lights. I’m not saying one should necessarily respect the flag, but presumably, if you are displaying one, you do, so why not do it right? I’m particularly irritated by the soi-disant patriots with their sad, tattered antenna flags and ratty post-9/11 bumper stickers. Perhaps “These Colors Don’t Run,” but they do fade, so think about the message you’re sending, eh?

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