Ringing the Bell

Filed under: — lana @ 12:14 pm

It took me two years, but I finally figured out one of the strangest Soldiers I have had the misfortune of guiding.

He is not a bad person. He is nice, polite, respectful (Except when he smirks. I hate it when he smirks. Especially when he is wrong), follows directions well, takes criticism and tries to improve… one would think he is a model Soldier. Were he a private, he might well be.

Trouble is, he is not. He is, not by my doing, a Non-Commissioned Officer. But he has trouble leading others and generally doing his job because he seems to be a little afraid of people. I am not just talking about being scared of me, which he is, but he is nervous around just about everyone. In our field, that makes everyone else nervous around you. That is not so good. I’ve gotten calls after sending him to another office requesting that next time could I please send someone else or just go myself. I am fairly sure even the Germans find him peculiar, and these are people that still think acid-washed jeans are awesome.

I finally, however, figured him out today. I was describing a recent class I ran on questioning techniques, since it appears that some of the people in the office just can’t seem to grasp the concept that we are in the business of details. I was noting that he actually did fairly well when it came to tedious, meticulous questioning. Normally, when I make up stories to role play for Soldier training, I am not bored because I can mess around and make up things and try to see how observant they are. This time, I started getting bored sometime around the half hour mark of him getting the description of one of my made-up characters. He didn’t even get to the part where the guy was wearing a white, pleather suit and an ostentatious pinkie ring before I finally cut it short, the training having lasted longer than anticipated as it was and I was getting sleepy.

I realized that he can question. Boring, but thorough. That is good most of the time, naturally, in our line of work, but he was still stuck on the social aspect. Meanwhile, the other two in the training were still giving blank looks and twitching when they thought they might want to write something down. I mostly gave up hope on them already, though, so that was fine.

The social aspect of our job is when boring no longer becomes boring, encouraging the person to spew out everything as fast as you can register it and write it down. Me? I was bored. But there was something there, something I have been missing in the two years he has been in the office: he was, after all tedious and methodical. There are jobs in the Army that are tedious and methodical. Ours is not one, but I know several that certainly are.

Upon pondering this when discussing it with others, I figured it out: he was what I have now termed an “After the Bell” guy. In initial training for these jobs there is always a bell signifying when the end of one phase starts and another is to begin, so the hired role players can ensure the student gets the correct, allotted questioning time. If the student can’t figure out the role player’s scripted motivation before the bell, right after the bell rings the role player usually says something along the lines of, “Well, what I would LOVE is…” and drops a hint you would have to be on Mars swimming in polar ice lakes to miss. Even if this happens, this doesn’t always fail a student for the first part of the iteration; this is both a good and bad thing.

It is good because it puts the focus on questioning, which is the bulk of the job only because the student needs something to report.

It is bad because it convinces the student they are socially okay when they might not be. Then they bundle those people up and send them to me. It’s how my life works, it seems. It is also completely unrealistic and never allows the student to realize that real life has no bell in a social situation. Instead, they think they are the best ever at the job because they are a meticulous questioner and never totally failed the social parts despite being ineffective.

My guy, as I figured out during this exercise, was an “After the Bell” guy. He can’t walk up to someone and start a conversation without the other person wishing they had an appointment somewhere, anywhere, five minutes ago. He can’t pick up social cues to figure out what someone likes, and is visibly uncomfortable trying to do so. He doesn’t like the social aspects of the job.

He relies on the bell.

Once the bell rings, he can launch into asking questions and be fine, following up to the minute detail until the other person passes out from sheer boredom. Before the bell, he is awkward and really a little creepy. After the bell he is normal with the exception of being totally uninteresting. He has always insisted to me that he did well at school, and I believe him based on this assessment: the school is designed that way. We had someone in my class who smeared feces on the wall. Yes, that should scare people a little, but it’s okay: we heard she was kicked out right after graduation for being a little bananas. But it goes to show that just about anyone of any social skill level can still pass as long as they can meet the basic standards. He could meet the social standards without handling poo and could question people to the point of sleepiness, so he is a win in the training books.

To me, he is a win as an analyst. They can do all that questioning, bossing us around with their requirements, without talking to a single person themselves. They read whatever drivel I churn out and then tell me what I missed. He is a reports junkie and loves it. Plus, it would mean that he would get to smirk at me in his mind every time he churned out a requirement I might have to meet. I would concede to that victory to move him along out of this job field if that is what it took. I have started contacting some of my analyst buddies to help me out with smoothly converting him somewhere a little less… awkward.

I am starting to meet my quota as a non-commissioned officer. I have figured out what makes three out of four Soldiers tick, the fourth being new, and guided them as best I could to the extent they would listen to reason. Those that didn’t listen call on a semi-regular basis to express regrets. The fourth one is my next project, and she will be a doozy. I am tempted to just see if there is a deep hole that needs digging somewhere far away from anyone I respect and if that is, in fact, an Army position. I am working on it. This last one took me two years to finally figure out, having to rely on interactions with those of limited social skill sets which is never an easy task. But it served as a reminder that there is no bell to ring in most aspects of life, no way to just move on to the next phase without it being awkward and incomplete.

My own bell rings sometime within the next six months, though, moving me on to bigger and better things, or at least different things. There are a few bells rung in the Army, such as setting a specific date to change assignments. Good thing, too, because I still have no idea what motivates this unit and don’t think the extra few months are going to help. I can only hope that around the time the bell rings and I can move to my next station I get to hear their real motivations for the things they do. Should be interesting, and then I can leave the meticulous and dull follow-up questioning to the Soldier I am leaving behind.

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