How can I get to know U.S. military culture? Details inside.
April 12, 2008 7:06 PM   Subscribe

How can I get to know U.S. military culture? Details inside.

I have a great new job as a "high level" contractor with the U.S. military. I work (and live) on base and 80% of my co-workers are military officers.

The problem is that I have zero experience with the military and servicemen. I grew in an area with no military bases and in fact I had not spoken to someone in the military at any length until my first day on the job. My unfamiliarity with the military culture, structure, and language is embarrassing and making it more difficult to get stuff done.

I am looking for some sort of "crash course" on the US military. Let me be specific, I do not need a list of military ranks or an introduction to "war". What I lack is familiarity with the unofficial "culture" of the US military. For example:

- I know ranks for the services, but I do not know how "important" each rank is. For example, is the corporate equivalent to an Army Major a middle manager or a vice president?

- Often my co-workers will use acroyms I don't know, even more simple things like "Yes", "No", "I'm Done", "I'm on it" etc... I would really love to have a cheatsheet for these rather than not understand them.

Any good resources, books, etc.. on getting familiar with the unofficial military culture?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (20 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
The acronyms take a little getting used to. Everything has one, even simple things. Just ask for clarification on every one.
posted by sanka at 7:14 PM on April 12, 2008

Making of the Corps will not help with the specifics (ranks and acronyms etc) but it will help you get some perspective on the culture (and is a fascinating read). Mostly Marine-specific but touches on all branches of the US armed services, where they come from, how recruits are trained and how this creates the culture you have landed in.

As a Pinko Commie, it really helped me communicate better with and relate to my military family members with more respect and compassion.
posted by quarterframer at 7:43 PM on April 12, 2008

Acronym list from Married to the Army.
posted by The corpse in the library at 7:55 PM on April 12, 2008

I know ranks for the services, but I do not know how "important" each rank is. For example, is the corporate equivalent to an Army Major a middle manager or a vice president?

This analogy isn't going to work. In fact, it'll probably be insulting to any traditionalist military personnel, (though the "new" military is less dismissive a corporate culture). First of all, all officers are leaders (in fact, pretty much anyone E-4 and definitely E-7 and up are leaders). A common mistake is to think of them as just military guys who happen to have college degrees (not at all rare in the civilian workforce). The amount of investment made in them has no comparison in civilian culture, though (save maybe the NSA and CIA). Even the desk jockeys among them are treated in their own community as if hundreds of lives depend on every decision they make. This doesn't mean they can't have a sense of humor about things (as I'm sure you've already observed), but it does mean that things can get serious quick. You should be wary of that.

They're going to assume that they treat their job much more seriously than you do, (because that's definitely the case with most civilians they work with). They come into the relationship with a lot of prejudices about you guys, basically thinking you come in and do your job till 5PM while they come in and do their job until it's done.

As much as you do end up learning about their culture, the best advice you can get is that you should never get presumptuous about it. You'll obviously never know what it's really like in their position, and they'll assume you can't even come close to imagining it. Your unfamiliarity with their culture may be embarrassing, but nowhere near as embarrassing as you giving them a fake salute or trying to mimic anything they say or do.

Anyway, if you're looking for help on, say, the slang...there's Wikipedia.
posted by aswego at 8:28 PM on April 12, 2008

Annnd for the general military mindset check out Mind you this is Air Force, but they do have some army folk that post. There are a lot of military similarities across the board.
posted by konolia at 8:47 PM on April 12, 2008

I think that the right way to go about this is to learn-while-doing. And be sure to leave your preconceptions at the door. Like your totally wrong preconception that the military is just like a big corporation.
posted by Class Goat at 8:51 PM on April 12, 2008

When I was in the Navy, I used to look in used bookstores for interesting Navy books...there was a strange Navy Wives etiquette guide which was fascinating for its odd viewpoint...since I was on the "inside" it was a little odd for me...but might help you....they are still out there:

The Army Wife Handbook
By Ann Crossley and Carol A. Keller
2d edition, published by ABI Press, 1996
A guide to Army life including general information on interpersonal skills as well as military etiquette and protocol, living overseas and community living.

You'd think that they'd change the name to the Army Spouse's handbook...but it works just the same :)
posted by legotech at 8:57 PM on April 12, 2008

Look into introductory textbooks for reporters; they definitely contain some of the proper forms of address.
posted by acro at 9:22 PM on April 12, 2008

Books written by service members about their time can be helpful. I read "Inside Delta Force" very recently and it was illuminating on the topic.
posted by Doctor Suarez at 9:33 PM on April 12, 2008

It would be easier to answer if we knew which service you are primarily working with: army, air force, etc.
posted by Jahaza at 10:01 PM on April 12, 2008

I've been in the Navy for over 7 years, as an enlisted man. At least for us squids, we lead a very work hard play hard kind of lifestyle, despite what the "new" Navy would want you to believe. I can answer any questions you have, as honest as possible. I also have a Navy-centered blog at Just an offer.
posted by jimdanger at 11:00 PM on April 12, 2008

You can get to know the US military by watching and experiencing. No need to be intimidated by acronyms. That is simply a ploy to see how you"adjust". Or would that be called "acclimate"?

Cohesive groups expect new folks to go through their "paces", including making sense of short forms of the queen's english.

If you dive right into their "YES, Sir!", you will do just fine.

...and so it goes... and so it has always gone.
posted by LiveLurker at 11:00 PM on April 12, 2008

One tip: if a Colonel (eagle rank) or General (stars) walk in the room, always stand up and acknowledge their presence. This courtesy is appropriate for civilians and contractors.
posted by davidmsc at 11:50 PM on April 12, 2008

I do not know how "important" each rank is

Wikipedia has a list of different military echelons, with typical personnel strength and leader rank. This can be highly helpful in understanding how these all fit together.
posted by grouse at 3:54 AM on April 13, 2008

Frankly, it's going to all depend on what type of unit you are working with (infantry, supply, medical etc.). They all have their own little subcultures and role responsibilities.
posted by i_am_a_Jedi at 5:51 AM on April 13, 2008

Don't ask us, ask the folks you're working with. In my experience as a contractor with no military experience working with current and former members of the military, most heavy-jargon situations fall into two categories:

1) The speaker assumes you're ex-mil. This may seem nutty to you if you don't fit the active-duty mold, but former members come in all shapes, sizes, postures, and hairstyles. If this is the case, you want to break that assumption up front to avoid bad future situations.

2) You may have offended the speaker in some way, and he/she is lording his/her inside knowledge over you.

In either case, the best approach is to ask about the meaning of the jargon. Don't use it yourself unless it's clearly applicable, and even then err on the side of caution.
posted by backupjesus at 6:20 AM on April 13, 2008

What is kind of odd about ranks is that they do not map directly to importance. Instead, my experience has been that the job that the person of rank fills indicates their importance. I can't really explain except by example. When I was a junior infantry officer, I had a company commander (a captain), a battalion commander (a lieutenant colonel), a brigade commander (a colonel), and a division commander (a 2 star) going up my chain of command. As far as my unit was concerned, the division commander might have been God. We rarely if ever saw him, and he was in charge of tens of thousands of people. My brigade commander was like God's Right Hand, and you only really ever saw him if you were in bad trouble or he happened to come by when you were in the field. He was in charge of about 1500 people.

But each of these commanders later went off to the Pentagon to fill some staff position, and there they were, well, probably less important that I was. There were so many colonels and low-ranking generals there that they didn't have many, if any, soldiers in their direct command. In fact, they might have been among peers in terms of rank, and been among the most junior people present.
That doesn't mean that they didn't get respect because of their rank, but they didn't hold lots of power.

As a sort of recognition of this, the Army green dress uniform includes a way to tell who is a commander. When you look at someones rank on the shoulder, they will have a green felt backing under the rank if they are in a troop leadership position. They should not have it if they are not.

I don't know about how this applies to your situation, but you should know that rank is relative, not absolute.
posted by procrastination at 6:48 AM on April 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

There are helpful hints here in this thread, and of course, lots of resources on the internet.

That being said - and this goes for any regime that relies on jargon and acronyms - my advice is to just ask the speaker what something means. Of course, save your questions for an appropriate time, you may not want to hold up a meeting with fifteen people while someone explains something other people find very basic.

Most folks are very happy to explain things like that if you ask in a positive and respectful way. Also, you can pick up a lot of the subtle connotative meanings by asking a human instead of reading text. People like to feel like they know things and like to offer advice and information - again, don't inconvenience people. You can make some friends by putting yourself in a vulnerable position like that, but more importantly, you will develop a reputation as an honest person who asks questions, and isn't afraid to expose their own ignorance. Having a sense of humor helps.

While this will take longer, there are a couple of benefits to doing things this way. You can absorb the important stuff over time, and learn it better, especially if you are older and slower, like me. One of the other benefits is that you will discover that many people that use lots of jargon and acronyms, frankly, don't know what the hell they are talking about.

I work in the AEC field - Architecture, Engineering, & Construction. There's a large amount of jargon, acronyms and arcane information, as you can imagine. While working at a large corporate engineering firm, I would always make it a point to carry around a couple of questions in the back of my mind, and ask the appropriate people when it was convenient. I learned a helluva lot from a lot of different people. Of course, it was always a source of amusement when you'd ask a group of people in the coffee room what some term meant, and they would all disagree - leading to lots of "learning"! Especially learning who was full of crap. It was very disconcerting to discover that people who really should have known the answers to questions I had about their work, really didn't know their jobs very well.

Military acronyms are the worst. There are many that are pretty much universal, and many that are highly specific and particular to a small group of people. Nobody on this planet knows all the military acronyms. Nobody. Some people know a lot of them, but nobody knows them all.

And don't sweat the ranks, either. Treat everybody with respect. As a civilian, you aren't "required" to say "sir" to officers, but you will be able to tell the ones you do say "sir" too - the same way you would in a professional civilian environment where everyone wears the same corporate suit. You'll learn the ranks soon enough. Good luck.
posted by Xoebe at 10:51 AM on April 13, 2008

xoebe's last paragraph pretty much says everything you need to know.
posted by gjc at 7:48 PM on April 13, 2008

Not to be an annoying self-promoter, but I wrote a book on military life, called Life in the US Armed Forces: (Not) Just Another Job. It talks about what it's like to be in the military, from recruitment to retirement, and also how military life got to be the way it is now. It won't help you so much with all the acronyms, but if you are interested in the institution as a whole, it might suit.
posted by annabkr at 5:44 AM on April 14, 2008

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