RAFairman's Blog

An RAF Airman's Blog

Sir…Dave…Sir…Dave…Ohhh….I Dunno…

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.

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5 thoughts on “Sir…Dave…Sir…Dave…Ohhh….I Dunno…

  1. Lisa Phillips on said:

    It stays with you when you leave, I was a contractor for Serco and still referred to the WO in my office as ‘Mr’ so and so, the Sqn Ldr was ‘boss’ and Station Commander was still ‘Sir’..

  2. Meandering Mammal on said:

    And then try a Joint environment 🙂 When I had sub-unit command I had RAF, RSigs and RN, and I was acting-up which everyone knew.

    In the RN we tend to be pretty laid back, only my WOs use my first name but for everyone else it’s ”Boss”. I let the WOs and Seniors sort it out for themselves, they’d expect rank from Cpls and below. I’d agree that for those of us in the technical branches it’s probably a lot more relaxed than in other areas, our warfare branch can sometimes get a bit hung up on it.

    In practice I normally introduce myself with my full name, I hate it when people introduce themselves using their rank whilst in uniform. It’s blindingly obvious that someone with a crown on their chest is a Major or someone with a bar-code is a Squadron Leader, there is no need to mention it.

  3. I remember and will to the day I die, being a young Airman on teas & keys and being late for work one day! In a panic I ran with the keys to the section apologising verbally to the gathered crowd out side the building waiting to get in, and walked straight past the Wing Commander forgetting to either call him Sir, or for that matter salute him, in my rush to open the door and let everyone in. Needless to say a WO at that time was all ready to charge me with these two offences, but was talked out of it by the Wing Commander who was more understanding. In stead my punishment was teas & keys for a month, not a week. The thing was, had the charge gone ahead there would have probably been no mention of late on duty. The Wing Commander was a Branch Commission and although he didn’t say it, I had a feeling he’s been in my shoes somewhere in his past. The whole thing is actually bigger than the here and now, it’s expected, it a part of what makes the military what they are. Even if the whole unit got so chillaxed with each other and went about calling each other on first name terms, what would happen when the first WW2 Veteran visited and witnessed it? In my service in the RAF (even in a non techie trade) most of it was relaxed rank wise on a daily basis, with the “same use it when the boss is around” thing applying. I can’t really comment on the RN as I only ever met with them socially and first names were used then. The Army on the other hand, in my experience, were Rank to the core. I was the source of much amusement to young Airmen, when first playing football against an Army team “pass the ball Captain Sir” was a sure way to weaken our defence as we lost concentration on the game every time we heard it! The other such tradition of sitting to attention in an Army hospital bed on ward rounds, even when Ill, I assume is now history at least in the UK as the military hospital is history also.

  4. setait on said:

    and even the civvies catch it! I was the (female) civvy boss in a techie environment with Flt Lt, SNCO and airmen working for me. They called me “boss” in public, talking one-to-one we used each other’s names, but I always referred to “the Flight Lieutenant” or “the Sergeant” when talking about them to other members of the team.

  5. Shirley-Ann on said:

    As a life-long civilian who’s father and uncle both served in the Services, I naturally acquired a habit of addressing them as “Sir” from a young age – normally when being given a “good talking to” during my rebellious teenage years – but I always understood the importance of the respect due to my elders/betters.

    As a child, I was taught to address my friends’ parents as Mr (or Mrs) Whoever and never by their first name – unless, of course, I was invited to. Not that I led a downtrodden or repressed childhood. Dad and I would exchange silly salutes on our own territory – at home or in the garden and we made up peculiar marches like something from Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks. Just a father and his little girl having fun. But I would never have dreamt of doing that in front of his colleagues – it would have been too disrepectful. Whenever there was a family day and my Dad’s superiors were present, I had to behave. And so did he.

    These days it’s quite rare to hear the younger generation (god, that makes me sound so old!) speak to adults/teachers/policemen etc with that same level of respect. But a lot has changed since I was a kid. In those days, the local beat bobby was known as PC Evans. I never knew his first name, so how could I call him anything but “Sir”? These days, it’s all too touch-feely, too informal.

    Perhaps as adults we feel it’s ok to relax the attitude towards rank under certain circumstances, but I still think it has it’s place – particularly in educating and instilling respect in the younger generations.

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