by Caleb Miller
How well do you know the people you work with? How often, outside of work hours, do you hang out with any of them? Do you know what they consider to be important? Do you know about where they came from before they joined the military? What they fear? What they value above all else?
Could you point out who in your platoon came from a stable home, or is in a healthy marriage, or defines success in a way similar to you?
Do you know what books they read or movies they watch? What shows they are binging?
Or, are you too busy to really think about any of that?
These prompting questions matter because there is a growing trend towards social isolation within our ranks. Some of it is due to real heartache as people new to a unit or duty station try to make friends but are continually shut down or just give up.
There is a strong human desire to have good friends, people who you check in on regularly and who you trust and think has your best interest in mind.
To the extent that we do get to know one another, it is at a distance through social media activity or perpetuating gossip. Pew Research documents distance from our physical neighbors. In the military, this is often paired with distance from our families during late nights at work, training, and “geo-batching.” In a recent article in Forbes, Mark Perna argues that a lack of human connection at work predates the imposed social distance and remote working of COVID-19.
Do we need an expert to tell us this is a recipe for increased stress, loneliness, and burnout? The people we work with day in and day out still have a profound impact on our outlook on life, our happiness, and our ability to function.
Lots of ink has been spilled and attention given to the generation gap, but the more I consider the relational dynamics at this current moment, the biggest difference I see is a profound shift in how service members go about making friends. Friendship itself continues to flourish in some corners, of course, and usually starts the same way.
Humans haven’t changed that much.
What I mean is, the tactics and dynamics have changed. There is still some remnant among the senior leaders who want to foster meaningful trust and relationships. But the path to get there has vanished with the rise of social media, and there remains a disconnect that goes beyond a typical young/old misunderstanding.
There is plenty of dysfunction to go around. I see junior enlisted very sensitive to the fact that they do not have any friends but simultaneously feel powerless to change the situation, NCOs who are just trying to avoid getting in trouble, mid-level lieutenants and captains who do not seem too interested in any relationship that does not benefit them professionally but are still deciding whether military service is a long term career, and senior leaders whose time is so overloaded that the best they can hope for is to get home to what is left of their families (only to continue emailing on their phones late into the evening hours).
Add the frequency of PCS moves and starting over, and all of us have our excuses to avoid making friends.
There is something at work in our culture, both within the military and in the civilian sector, that has people merely clocking in and out, either unable or unwilling to invest in the people around them on more than a superficial level. Meanwhile, we still “work” together (to include evaluating one another, criticizing one another, at times to the point of degrading one another) at the same rate as humans always have. But we do not take the time to get to know one another. Friendships have gone missing.
Ancients would have raised the alarm by now. Plato once suggested that tyranny involved the suppression of friendship. Aristotle echoes a similar concern: “no one would choose to live without friends even if he had all the other goods.” This is what the senior leaders of the Army mean when they emphasize “People First” and have been at pains to explain. It is a top-down initiative that requires grassroots and mid-level management’s support to really work.
What if leaders engaged with “People First” as a call to foster new friendships across the organization?
What if Soldiers interpreted “People First” as inviting someone (a peer, usually) over for dinner or even more basically striking up a conversation?
It isn’t magic; in fact, the less contrived it is the better the results. And responsibility to make it happen rests with each of us.
Getting Ahead of the Dysfunction
There are of course institutional, legal, or moral barriers to getting too friendly with coworkers. Fraternization rules against inappropriate relations still exist. I am talking merely about friendships – common interests, common circumstances, learning eventually to be friends with people who are not entirely like us.
This encouragement will likely be received in some sectors as coddling or lowering standards.
Leaders are not necessarily supposed to be “friends” with those under their charge. But clearing some space on the calendar, allowing people to fish or hike or play board games or eat a meal together, taking a legitimate rest from training and doing a quick Google search for group conversation starter questions is not that difficult, and does not involve catering to anything other than basic human needs.
Nor will merely increasing time off of work or putting more events on the calendar going to directly solve the problem. What guarantee do leaders have that time off work will be utilized for truly restful, restorative activities? And an event in which 20% of the formation is in party-planning mode, 40% is engaged, and another 40% is there because they must be, may not foster friendship.
The way forward, it seems to me, starts with something more individual and personal: taking an interest and taking the time to ask questions.
One contributing factor is that we think we already know our coworkers well enough not to trust them, and can find all sorts of confirmation bias on the internet to fortify our cynicism. We are all liable to believe we are better at reading people and understanding what is going on in their minds than we actually are. It is possible that most of us are so bad at it we think we’re good at it. And this leads us to make faulty assumptions about body language and behavior. We interpret bursts of frustration as toxic leadership or insubordination. We make judgments, often blissfully unaware of the larger context.
The psychology of incompetent people thinking they’re amazing also takes its toll from the other direction. How many of us crave acceptance but are unwilling to take any risks or commit any actual time to the tasks involved? (The internet consistently attributes Aristotle with these words, and they’re good even if he didn’t actually say them: “Wishing to be friends is quick work, but friendship is a slow ripening fruit.”)
Most of us, when confronted with material on the power of friendship, somewhere in the back of our minds have already decided that most of the material applies to someone else. We may even have that person in mind. (Over the course of writing and editing this blog post I’ve challenged myself to consider times I’d done well and times I’d failed as a friend. I found more than a few areas to work on.)
Most of us generally like to think of ourselves as likable, agreeable, reasonable people, and that our method for making friends and determining who is trustworthy is the best. This is almost bound to fail in any diverse environment, especially if we expect the friend-making process to always be seamless, effortless, and instantaneous.
Not everyone is safe, nor is everyone a danger. But if we start with our own preferences, we will inevitably end up drawn to those who think, vote, eat, and behave like we do. The truer path to lasting friendship is being humble enough to see through this mirage. Common interests are a wonderful first step for friends, and it can develop into friendships with remarkably different people. In the words of St. Columban, “a life unlike your own can be your teacher.”
Of course, there are many details that people will have to work out on their own. When it comes to small talk, a lot will hang on personality. Some of us need to be reminded to listen a little more (when was the last time you did not do the majority of talking in a conversation?). Others of us need to speak up a little more (when was the last time you initiated a conversation, or interjected your story/opinion/insight into a meeting?).
Regardless of how this plays out in your context, ask yourself: when I look at my green notebook, do any of the tasks or insights written there concern starting or maintaining friendships?
Friendship is a complicated topic, but whatever we come up with in our particular contexts, the last thing we should do is give up as we look to make new friendships or strengthen the ones we already have.
CH (CPT) Caleb Miller is currently the chaplain for the 11th Transportation Battalion (Terminal), 7th Transportation Brigade (Expeditionary), out of Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story and Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Hampton Roads, VA. The views expressed are the author’s own and do not reflect the official position of the US. Army Chaplain Corps, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.