Marine etiquette

October 14th, 2009

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?


13 Responses to “Marine etiquette”

  1. Eeeeka on October 14, 2009 8:48 am

    Oh, good, someone else who is really bothered by a lack of flag etiquette! I hate seeing old ratty flags out in all weather. It’s just sad. If you care enough to buy a flag and a flag pole, you should care enough to display it properly and with a proper show of deference.

  2. EA Week on October 14, 2009 9:49 am

    I found myself LOLing at the remarks on “small college” culture. I work at one, too, and while I always enjoy the warm and personable culture, sometimes the small talk can get on my nerves. Murphy’s Law dictates that when a co-worker is feeling especially chatty is always the very moment the phone will start ringing off the hook, 20 people will line up outside my office door, and 100 email messages will flood my inbox. If you could see the thought balloon over my head, I’m sure it probably says something like “I’m thrilled that your garden is coming along just splendidly; now, if you’ll please excuse me, I have a dozen crisis situations to deal with.” Sheesh.

  3. occhiblu on October 14, 2009 12:08 pm

    I just moved to a small-ish town, and I’m still having difficulty with the small talk thing. I often hear people talking to my back after I’ve walked away, because I’ve assumed we’ve concluded our business and are done and the other person apparently thought we had just started our conversation. I’m getting better (or maybe people have just given up on me!), but I still haven’t found quite the right pacing to fit in around here yet.

    As for the rest of the article, I disagree with the author that sympathy is a sometimes-food — I tend to see compassion as our overriding responsibility in life — but it’s really interesting to hear someone describe their evolution toward having more of it.

  4. Robin on October 14, 2009 1:38 pm

    Occhiblu, I agree with your disagreement! I’m very curious as to what I would think of this person if I met him. I did have to appreciate this line: “It’s also worth noting that I may just be a weirdo and the Marine Corps is an innocent bystander in this mess. Don’t think I’ve discounted that option.”

  5. occhiblu on October 14, 2009 2:02 pm

    I did have to appreciate this line: “It’s also worth noting that I may just be a weirdo and the Marine Corps is an innocent bystander in this mess. Don’t think I’ve discounted that option.”

    Hee, me too! And right there, that seems to be part of that evolution, of recognizing that maybe he can’t claim as much certainty about X causes Y that he’d like.

  6. Shulamuth on October 15, 2009 5:01 pm

    Another Flag Code caring person here. My particular peeve (other than general disrespect) is inappropriate use of the flag as decoration or on clothing, although I admit much of this comes from being harangued as unpatriotic by people who are doing so.

    FWIW, burning the flag, besides being a powerful form of protest, is also the preferred way to ” destroy.. in a dignified way” a flag that is no longer fit for display. All those poor ratty antenna flags should be respectfully burned.

  7. Robin on October 15, 2009 10:13 pm

    I *did* know that, in fact! Isn’t it bizarre, Shulamuth, how completely topsy-turvy the flag thing has become?

  8. Carolyn on October 16, 2009 12:17 am

    “and where social status was indicated by clearly marked rank rather than shifting tides of popularity,”

    –”I’ve learned that in civilian life many people want to banter about nothing for about 90 seconds before discussing anything of substance.”

    I’m seeing a connection here: the reason many people want to banter about nothing is that it helps them establish rank of some kind, in the absence of those clear markings. Or sometimes, I mean, ‘relationship’ rather than ‘rank,’ but in either case, I’d say this habit springs from the pack-animal part of human nature.

    In the case of rank, I’ve seen bosses driven crazy by workers who can’t ask a question without a subordinating preface. “I was wondering, do you mind if I ask, if you have a second….”
    The worker does this because, since he was a kid, it’s been a good idea to make sure he has the senior person’s attention before trying to say something, or find something out.
    In the military context, the subordinate would have the assistance of rules about who talks when, and would be dead wrong to use that kind of warm-up speech–but the worker may not be so wrong.

    It’s just a lot harder in civilian life to assume a common rule about how much social lubrication is enough, and how much is too much. I found myself being a bit over-apologetic the other day, while I was trying to change the date of an appointment: “I wonder if it would be possible to reschedule…” which got the response “Of course.” The scheduler was not snarking me; it just would have been perfectly fine for me to say, “This is Yours Truly, and I would like to change my appointment…”

    I reckon I’m on the more-chatty side of the equation about sixty per cent of the time, and I can live with that.

  9. Robin on October 16, 2009 9:35 am

    That is a really interesting connection of the two ideas, Carolyn. I can be a small-talker, but I am definitely one of those people driven nuts by apologetic preambles. If you’re concerned that you’re going to waste my time, don’t waste even MORE of it by apologizing!

  10. Shulamuth on October 16, 2009 2:07 pm

    But if they achieve the goal of making sure the speaker has your attention, they are not wasting your time. Irritating you, maybe (and I’d really rather have someone say “There’s something you need to know” than “excuse me, could I tell you something” any day on pure aesthetic grounds) but still serving a function.

  11. Courtney M. on October 17, 2009 12:24 am

    You taught at Emmanuel! I’m currently a student there and never knew and oh goodness I am so giiiiidy! :D

    Anyhow, referring to the constant need to apologize, I am finding that more and more people frequently state “I’m sorry!” for completely insignificant things that don’t require apologies (among people in late teens and early twenties I’ve observed). Frankly, it’s aggravating but it also makes me wonder what spawned it. It seems to be more than just a colloquial habit.

  12. Robin on October 17, 2009 2:49 pm

    Shulamuth, I mean people who go on and ON. As opposed to, “Hi, can I have a minute of your time” or whatever is appropriate.

    Courtney, yes! I taught psych there for two years. Take a peek into Dr. Fiebig’s office sometime and see if she still has a statue of a little terrier dog in there. We started the same year, and she had this little dog statue that came with different costumes for different holidays/times of the year. (Pilgrim for Thanksgiving, Santa for Christmas, etc.) She said in the whole two years that we worked together, I was the only person who noticed that the dog’s clothes changed.

  13. David on October 21, 2009 4:47 pm

    I am a member of the US Army Reserves and if there’s one thing that I’ve noticed in the Military is that respect for the flag is not confined to either civilians or military. Technically whenever a member of the armed forces walks in front of an ‘official’ (that is correctly displayed flag on a pole) we are required to salute. Following this has often gotten me weird looks coming when passing post offices, even on post. And to add to Shulamuth’s comment, burning is the correct way to retire a flag, however, at that point it is no longer a flag. First you must separate the stars from the field and all the stripes from each other. Than you can destroy the cloth remnants of what was a flag in a pyre.

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