Pop quiz time!
Read the scenarios below and guess the answer.
You are at a squadron picnic where you have just PCSed. You are slightly apprehensive because you are meeting many new people. Your spouse points out her boss and is going to introduce you.
“Paul, this is Col. William. Col. William, this is my husband, Paul.”
Col. William says, “Nice to meet you Paul. Please call me Sarah.”
What do you say?
You have stopped into your spouse’s office to meet him for lunch. You see a young Airman with one stripe on his shoulder sitting at a desk. He says, “Hello, ma’am.” And then your spouse tells you that Airman’s first name.
How do you complete the introduction?
You are at a promotion ceremony and across the room you see a 4-star General whom you met when she was a Lieutenant Colonel. Back then, you called her by her first name, but now she is wearing stars on her shoulders. You turn to your spouse and ask him, “Do I call her Ma’am or by her first name?”
What is the correct answer?
You are at WalMart shopping for odds and ends when your spouse spots her Chief walking down the aisle toward you. Your spouse introduces you to Chief Barney. The Chief gives his first name.
How do you reply?
You are at a dining out. You are dressed to the nines and are feeling fine. Social hour is in full swing and as you step up to the bar to order a drink, you notice that the gentleman standing next to you is none other than the SACEUR (Supreme Allied Commander Europe). Your spouse says, “Hello Sir.” He says hello back. The SACEUR extends his hand to you and says, “Hello, I’m Philip and this is my wife, Cindy.”
How do you respond?
Answer key for all: You call the military member by their first name.
This is one of the areas of military protocol that I have a passion about.
There is nowhere that states that we have rank as military spouses. Because we don’t have rank, there is no hierarchy that we must adhere to. This means that you speak to people as if they are people, which they are.
Now that’s not saying that you can’t call someone “Chief” or “General” or even “Airman” but there is no penalty if you choose to call them by their first name. That is what their parents named them, after all.
There are a few exceptions to this “rule.”
Sometimes the service member may have a “call sign.” A call sign is a nickname given to rated officers during a naming ceremony. During that time, there is a group of people who decide on the new person’s nickname. It is usually an homage to a character trait or it coordinates with their first or last name. Once they are given their new name, they may choose to use it always.
For example, I have a friend who was named “Pumba” during his naming ceremony. He introduced himself by his call sign so I didn’t know his real first name until many years later. A reason for this may be that your significant other only knows that person by their call sign. So that is how you are introduced to them. Even today, it is funny to hear “Fuzzy’s” spouse call him “Ryan” because I can’t connect the two names to that one person. It takes a lot of mental math when speaking to family members about them.
The other exception is when a military member is attached to his rank. Sometimes this is a good thing and sometimes not. When I was first introduced to Chief Woolridge, our wing chief, he told me to call him “Avery” so I did. Most just called him “Chief.” After all, he’d earned that rank. I called him “Chief” but also by his first name because that’s who he was. He said that I was the first person in his career to call him by his name. I am still not sure if that was a good or bad thing.
But then there is the officer who give all officers a bad name. That’s the person who insists that you call them by their rank, no matter who they are talking to. I have only met one such person in our 24+ years of service. (Let’s say that we avoid that person as much as possible.) And that’s another etiquette lesson in itself.
The biggest takeaway from this is that while there are protocols in place for the military, there are no written ones for you as a civilian. Civility is your compass for all interactions. The hardest part is remembering someone’s name. And that may be where your only faux pas comes into play.
This article originally appeared on Military Spouse. Follow @MilSpouseMag on Twitter.