One of the things that you can’t get away from in the Services is Rank.
It sort of goes with the territory of course. It is one of the TWO things in the forces that everyone has. A Service Number and a Rank.
Some people find it very important, others don’t really care about it, but it is a certainty that everyone is affected by it.
I am sort of lucky, because of course, my girl-friend is in the Army and I get to see how HER service deals with Rank and how it affects people. And it is a lot different in the Army than it is in the RAF.
You might imagine that the RAF is very structured and formalised and very much built upon layers – and you’d be right, but I am not going to bore you with a dull piece about the what one rank does and doesn’t do.
No. The thing is this. And it came to me this morning when I had to send an email to someone I used to work with years ago. He is now a Warrant Officer (something akin to god really – the very top of the enlisted mens tree) but was a Sergeant back when I was a Junior Technician. Whilst he wasn’t the same trade as me I used to work with and for him quite a lot – and so as is the way I would use his first name when talking to him.
But now…Warrant Officers command respect, by virtue that they have vast experience, many years of service and, well, there are so few of them. Their very position demand respect. So, when I was addressing the email, even though I know him I still used the title ‘Sir’ at the start of the email.
We had a quick discussion about this – and my colleague told me that a particular Flight Lieutenant had told him to call him by his first name. Ohhh. I could never do that. Not when in uniform anyway. Maybe on the sports pitch I could, but never in a workplace, even if there was no-one else around. It just goes against everything that makes up my own core values!
And I then thought back. I used to call that Warrant Officer ‘Dave’ when he was a Sergeant. He is still the same person…but now I hesitate to call him that – and resorted to the safety of his rank. And it is safe – I don’t want to upset him and I don’t want to show disrespect to someone who has earnthis position and his respect.
In the office I call my Chief (and I know he reads this – ‘Hello Jim!’) – ‘Jim’. He is one who doesn’t like rank particularly – and you can see him bristle when I call him ‘Chief’. But I would only do that in two occasions – one, when a very high ranking officer is there, and the other, when a lower rank who doesn’t work in our environment is there. I will often call him ‘my Chief’ on Twitter, but I think that again, is more to explain what his position is, more than who he is…even though the two things are the same – but subtly different.
(As an aside I once saw a junior officer address a Squadron Leader – who has an official Twitter account – as ‘Sir’ in the Tweet. I thought that was very odd…but I guess, that is a similar thing to what I do. It was just the way that the write had been brought up in the service I guess.)
So it’s sort of safe. In the private and personal relationship we have in the office we are happy to address each other by name. But in our professional relationship – in an unusual work context – I would call him ‘Chief’. And he would be happy with that, knowing that it just what is done. It’s just what happens in the service.
But then maybe not. Different places are different. Techie work places tend to be far more ‘relaxed’ than non-techie ones. In their professional relationships anyway – it seems to me from when I have been in say a Med Centre or an Admin Office that they are far more rank orientated. Not that that is a bad thing – it’s good to have that rank there at times, but then…
…what does it achieve? I know that the sergeant is in charge of that office. I know that Jim is in charge of ours…does it make a difference? Does it matter if people call someone Joe and not Sir? As long as people respect the position of people in the hierarchy of the organisation and it works…is it a big deal?
For once I can’t answer. It’s the way things are. One of the juniors in the block will know to add ‘Sergeant’ to the end of a sentence when he’s talking to me if I am not a happy bunny, but if we are having a chat outside the block he wouldn’t. I’ll know that the Wing Commander will expect me to call Jim ‘Chief’ if we are talking in a briefing.
But I can’t explain it any more than I can’t explain why I can’t call someone I know from my past by he name and I have to call him Sir now. I don’t understand it. And as a bear of very small brain, for once again, I am not going to try.
It’s a funny vagary of the service that is almost impossible to explain – it’s one of those things that you learn by just being in the RAF. It’s almost like osmosis – seeping into the skin and becoming just part of how you do things.
It’s probably a bit like riding a bike. You learnt to do it. As you were learning, you would maybe make the odd mistake and it might be painful. But eventually you get it and you just do it; oblivious to how it works. It is some sort of second nature that then stays with you for the rest of your career…
Maybe I should just let it go and carry on doing as I do and accepting the whole crazy mixed up madness of it all. And accept that there are just some things in the RAF that are impossible to either work out or explain.