By Dr. Angelle Khachadoorian, Air Force Culture and Language Center's Associate Professor of Anthropology
/ Published July 01, 2019
Airmen listen as Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein speaks about current Air Force operations during an all-call at Shaw Air Force Base, May 30, 2017. During the all-call Airmen asked Goldfein questions about the current state of the Air Force and the direction the service is headed. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Christopher Maldonado)
When I began working for the Air Force Culture and Language Center as a Subject Matter Expert in Culture (aka SME, pronounced like Capt Hook’s clownish pirate boatswain), I recognized that I was immersing myself in a culture that was fairly new to me – that of the United States Air Force. I quickly came to realize that there are many cultural assumptions in the Air Force that I was not aware of. Even now, years later, I am still occasionally caught off guard by a disconnect between my own cultural assumptions, and those of the larger Air Force. That’s when I learn something new about Air Force culture.
Like all cultures, there are areas of overlap with other communities. The United States Air Force obviously shares some values, beliefs and behaviors with its sister US military services and with the Air Forces of other countries. But there are also characteristics of the Air Force that are unique. Cultural uniqueness does not only show up in big, dramatic moments, but rather it often makes itself obvious through simple daily interactions, in speech and writing, in use of public and private space, and many of the other classic topics of anthropology.
It is sometimes hard for us to recognize that we are deeply imbedded in a culture and that we are acting “culturally” when we think we are simply going about our daily life. Culture – patterned behaviors and beliefs shared by members of a society or of a smaller sub-group – is so internalized that we simply take it for granted. We only become truly aware of our own culture, and of those things that we take for granted, when we encounter a culture with a different set of assumptions or when our own assumptions fail to help us make sense of our world. Suddenly, a bright light gets shown on cultural differences, and we get the opportunity to do some exploration.
Language – words, phrases, metaphors – are intimately linked to the cultures that they are written and spoken in. Our language helps to mark our status as cultural insiders. The “taken for granted” assumption with local languages and their distinctive terminologies is that all cultural insiders will understand that word or phrase, or at least have some familiarity with it. “Outsiders” who are not embedded in that culture’s language, values and behavior, become more obvious by their blatant confusion. Therefore, a look at unique, unusual, or locally understood words and phrases is a fun way to point out and celebrate cultural differences and unique cultures. In that playful spirit, in upcoming blog entries, I will describe a few words and phrases that I have found to be taken for granted in the United States Air Force, yet not commonplace elsewhere. These are words and phrases that made me stop and ask the speaker, “What does that mean?” (and trust me, the definitions are not universal). Or images and metaphors that offer a window into Air Force values and assumptions, and language that reminds me that I’m working within a specific culture.
I am not simply referring to technical terms that are specific to Air Force technology or tools. (Although I will discuss some terms that had technical origins but no longer are used that way). Mostly, I’m intrigued by the words and phrases of interpersonal interactions, descriptions, nicknames, mottoes, abbreviations and other colorful yet unusual linguistic devices. Please give us some feedback and maybe tell us any culturally Air Force words, terms or phrases that you have experienced and which caught your attention.
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