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Managing difference in Defence: the battle with banter

Battling with Words report
Battling with Words report

Women and minorities who are willing to subject themselves to a little ritual humiliation, or turn it back on their attacker, can gain legitimacy in Defence’s “bastion of white men”.

Dr Elizabeth Thomson’s Battling With Words report into Defence’s sociolinguistic culture — first revealed by The Mandarin on Monday — is critical of the way the three uniformed services create team membership, which is based more on unconscious affinity bias than fit for purpose. In contrast, public service teams in Defence were less likely to exclude based on irrelevant personal attributes like sexual orientation, gender, heritage background, religious belief or physical disability.

Tightly bonded teams are essential in high risk, dangerous environments, and will typically favour individuals who reflect the standards and attributes of the dominant group, the research found. The higher the risk to safety, the more tightly bonded the team needs to be, and the tighter the bond, the more likely exclusion will occur. Thomson calls this “knower code” culture from legitimation code theory, and is exhibited by all three uniformed services, but most acutely in the Australian Army. In authority terms, this means “do as I say because I am who I am”. Defence’s APS teams, however, had a “knowledge code” culture that is motivated more by qualifications, skills and expertise, along the lines of “do as I say because I know”.

The differences between these four cultures of Defence — Navy, Army, Air Force and APS — is largely due to this legitimation code of authority and status, and responsible for why women and minorities are less likely to be accepted and flourish in Army teams compared to the APS teams. Army is the most exclusive, followed by Navy, Air Force and APS. Thomson says the path to gaining acceptance and building social relationships, on an individual level, is banter:

“Casual conversation in Defence is dominated by the kind of talk characteristic of the Anglo-Australian male. This is talk about the workplace performance and team membership transacted through humour, banter, practical jokes and nicknaming. These language practices function to align and bond people in teams, but they can equally marginalise and exclude people who do not meet the standards set by the dominant group.”

Thomson’s interviews with Defence members from different diversity groups showed they adapted to this kind of socialisation out of necessity. Being different risked team acceptance, while humour and batter were used to minimise difference. As long as the target agrees to play along and engage with the jokes made by colleagues, banter can be used to include. Targets can agree by accepting the premise of the joke or disagree by shifting the target of banter back onto the instigator. The research found both approaches tended to result in acceptance.

Banter can also exclude, such as when the target does not participate, either because they do not agree with being forced to play that game, or simply do not understand what banter is and how it operates. Thomson states:

“Women and culturally and linguistically diverse personnel are not necessarily versed in the ways of banter and, in fact, women can feel picked on and CALD personnel simply do not understand. Even if the intention to marginalise to tease is not there, the targets may not understand this and misunderstandings and accusations of bullying and harassment can occur.”

Nicknames are also a strong part of Australian Defence culture, and a significant strategy of inclusion. Regardless of whether the target accepts the nickname, it marks group acceptance and inclusion in Australian mateship culture. Repeating a story associated with “earning” a nickname also assists with this bonding. However, Thomson’s interviews found nicknames can serve to make a person with difference feel more isolated if the nickname draws attention to that difference: “shirt lifter” as a derogatory reference to sexual orientation, “Xena” for someone with a long name that colleagues have not bothered to learn or consider worth learning. In these cases the nickname can server as a kind of “verbal tattoo”, perpetuating the exclusion experience and perceived as harassment and bullying.

An Army member, identified as different due to sexual orientation, explained his fear and adaptation strategy:

“Well you have to conform, it’s about surviving in an organisation and to do that you have to conform. So basically you wear that emotional impact, I suppose, and that you have to be very guarded in your views, and you’re never allowed to actually express or carry out actions which would normally be natural for yourself in the aim of trying to fit in with the organisation.”

Thomson has encouraged Defence to run intercultural awareness programs, particular policies on spoken language, in its ongoing education and training of personnel at all levels. She also asked for attention to be given to building understanding between the ADF and APS.

“In order to counter potential social marginalisation in the day-to-day work teams of Defence, this may mean teaching people how to banter and, most importantly, how to identify banter when it is being exploited to exclude. Such intercultural training will build a better understanding between the four services, particularly between the APS and the ADF, but will also assist in more effective international deployments.”

More at The Mandarin: ‘Bastion of white men’: Anzacs haunt Defence in culture reform

Author Bio

Harley Dennett

Harley Dennett is editor at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's held communications roles in the New South Wales public sector and Defence, and been a staff reporter for newspapers in Sydney and Washington DC.