We’ve all been there before. You arrive in a new place full of people who speak your language — sort of — and are a lot like you, but not quite. They came from different backgrounds, endured different challenges, grew in different directions. So despite all you have in common, you end up talking past each other.
Now: Superimpose military service atop that scenario. Add specific experiences unique to the military, and attitudes and outlooks learned over years of necessity and repetition. And vocabulary: Throw in a lot of words and sayings that resonate with only a certain peer group.
Is it any wonder that service members encountering civilian life for the first time in years — sometimes for the first time in their adult lives — can struggle with communication and mutual understanding with friends, neighbors, colleagues, employers? The language they’re speaking — and the identity that is producing it — are similar but, in crucial ways, occasionally different.
“What else produces so many words, acronyms and utterances than fighting wars and preparing to fight wars?” Alan Axelrod wrote in “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot: The Real Language of the Modern American Military,” his affectionate 2013 glossary. “Over many years, soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen have built their own language.”
Adapting to civilian language
Shawn McGinley, 56, of Fairfax Station, Va., understands this language well. He retired from the Army as a colonel after serving everywhere from Iraq to Germany to the United States. In 2007, he was stationed in Heidelberg, Germany, for a posting that was the first time he really worked with civilians.
“I realized that the way that I talked to subordinate officers or sergeants, NCOs, it didn’t really work with the civilians,” McGinley said. “They’d get mad, they’d potentially complain. So I started to change.”
A few years later, in Rock Island, Ill., he found himself in charge of about 1,200 civilians with the Army Corps of Engineers — park rangers, economists and biologists, among others.
“I had this huge civilian workforce. And when I first got there, I was the only military person there. And man, that was a culture shock,” McGinley said. “I had to produce, and these guys weren’t doing all that well in some of the things they got graded on. So some people got really upset with the way that I initially started communicating.”
Eventually, he said, “I was successful in getting to the point but getting there in a nicer way.” It was a lesson for him: “You gotta know your audience.”
Mind the (identity) gap
And know yourself, too. Sarah Clark, an Air Force veteran who left in 2016 and is now a doctoral candidate in linguistics at the University of Illinois, studies military identity and is working on a paper on “the veteran dialect.” She considers the navigation between a military identity and a civilian identity a distinct activity that requires, like many navigational activities, both a map and a knowledge of self.
Clark remembers, during her first months as a civilian, throwing out sentences that contained military terms and getting “that confused face” from academic colleagues. But to her, the issue goes far beyond the lingo so dominant in military life.
“This isn’t a language-to-language conversation. It’s an identity-to-identity conversation,” Clark said. When veterans transition to civilian life, she said, they have opportunities to create their identity — “create who you are in that space.”
“It’s kind of like learning a new mission,” Clark said. “You have your situational awareness and you’re figuring out: `Here is the lay of the land. What’s my force multiplier? What are the things that I need to complete this mission?’”
Language itself matters too, of course. “War is what happens when language fails,” author Margaret Atwood once famously said. And one thing that effectively completes missions in both military and civilian life is clarity. The U.S. government even has a website called plainlanguage.gov, which extols the virtues of being understood. Its guidelines: “Avoid jargon,” which it defines as “unnecessarily complicated language used to impress, rather than inform, your audience.”
But jargon can be found anywhere groups must communicate with other groups. Consider police statements, which often contain phrases you’d never consider using in actual human conversation. They’re full of “alleged perpetrators,” “officers engaging suspects” and the always reliable “late-model sedan last seen traveling west at a high rate of speed.”
Soften the edges
It’s true that many specialized ways of communicating — be they tone, lingo or style — are created by necessity, by the intricacies of the assignment or even by bonding among peer groups who must rely on each other to thrive and survive. But outside a specific circle, such communication styles can come across as out of sync or even brusque in ways someone might not intend.
There are reams of advice about how to prevent such problems. Most come down to three basic things: Listen as much as you talk. Offer as much respect as you expect to receive — or more. And realize that you probably will have to win people over rather than ordering them to do things.
Oh — and let’s not forget that question of bluntness, and how it might translate from the life you’re leaving behind to the one in which you now want to thrive.
Elaine Boylan, who advises veterans transitioning to civilian life, always recommends that veterans emerging from the service to ask themselves: “How do you speak the language of this new world you plan to be in?”
“You need to translate for this new world,” said Boylan, who works at the Center for Career and Professional Development at Adelphi University in Garden City, NY. “They need to know what the new language will be … to take that verbiage and soften it.”
McGinley, the retired Army officer, expressed similar sentiments — though he put it slightly differently. A cushioning, he said — be it one of word choice or demeanor — can make all the difference when it comes to communication.
“When you go to the civilian side, it’s different. You can’t be that direct,” McGinley said. “You can’t put yourself in a position where you could be misinterpreted as not treating people with dignity and respect.”