Two Ears, One Mouth

Listening within Military Culture

October 29, 2021


  • A look at listening within military culture across all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces.
  • The culture of listening within the ranks from boot camp to military officers.
  • Shared experiences among military family communities.

"If you're not listening, you're not learning." 

That was a quote by President Lyndon B. Johnson. The President is the commander-in-chief of the U.S. Armed Forces and Johnson was a military man himself serving as Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Naval Reserve. It’s only fitting then that in 1966, President Johnson and Congress declared Waterloo, New York, as the “birthplace” of Memorial Day.

Memorial Day is a federal holiday that honors and mourns the military personnel who have died in the performance of their military duties while serving in the U.S.  Armed Forces. The holiday is observed on the last Monday of May. The history of Memorial Day is a bit more complex and goes well beyond President Johnson declaring its “birthplace.” 

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs recognizes approximately 25 places that claim to have originated the holiday. Its origins go back to the times of the Civil War. Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day from the tradition of decorating graves with flowers, wreaths, and flags. It was declared an official federal holiday in 1971.

So, back to LBJ. His quote about listening fits perfectly with our "Two Ears, One Mouth" series based on the Epictetus quote: “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” How information is listened to and processed is often a result of cultural conditioning. This is definitely apparent when it comes to listening within military culture.


Credit: Unsplash

Defining Military Culture

The United States Armed Forces has six branches: Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, Space Force, and Coast Guard. The newest branch is the Space Force and it was signed into law in December 2019. The Army is the oldest and largest service in the U.S. military with about 478,000 soldiers in 2020.

Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense have a training course called “Military Culture: Core Competencies for Healthcare Professionals.” They describe that military culture is like an iceberg. “Above the waterline are the visible aspects of the culture, such as ranks, uniforms, medals, salutes and ceremonies. At the waterline are more subtle cultural signs, including service creeds and oaths of office. Below the waterline are the hidden aspects of military culture – the values of discipline, teamwork, self-sacrifice, loyalty and fighting spirit.” 

The culture of military life can be quite different from civilian life and many struggle transitioning between the two. In the military, there is always the chance of going to a combat zone. There are expectations of everything from staying well-groomed to learning a whole new set of terms and lingo. The difficulties of transitioning back to civilian life come with their own set of challenges from finding a job to reconnecting with family.


Credit: Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island Facebook page

The Culture of Basic Training

Military culture is drilled into soldiers from the day they arrive at basic training. Basic training is an intense period of indoctrination and instruction that lasts for eight to twelve weeks depending on the service branch. It covers rules and customs, including saluting, proper wearing of the uniform, physical fitness, marksmanship, and some combat procedures. 

One of the unwritten rules of boot camp is “shut up and listen.” Recruits should be seen and not heard. You don't speak until spoken to. Recruits need to obey the operational hierarchy, follow the direction of drill sergeants, and execute orders efficiently and without question.

Many soldiers credit their experience at basic training for instilling their military identity. Some of the tips they have for listening at boot camp can be carried over to civilian life. These include listen to instructions thoroughly and don’t assume you know it all, and focus on the task at hand and put everything else out of your mind.


Credit: James Harvey/US Army

The Culture of Military Officers

Officers in the military also recognize the importance of listening. It was the well-known Douglas MacArthur, General of the Army, who said, “A true leader has the confidence to stand alone, the courage to make tough decisions, and the compassion to listen to the needs of others. He does not set out to be a leader, but becomes one by the equality of his actions and the integrity of his intent.”

By using effective listening skills and having the willingness to listen, military officers can gain perspective from their subordinates and build a foundation of trust. It all goes back to that President Johnson quote that the best way to learn what your team is thinking is to hear them. 

These skills work for any leader in a workplace or organization and are one of the reasons that many leadership consultants rely on military leadership techniques. One way is always to treat people with dignity and respect. Another is to remember to communicate horizontally and vertically, openly, transparently, and continually.


Credit: The White House

The Culture of Military Families

In 2011, First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden launched Joining Forces. The White House initiative supports military families which include families of service members, veterans, caregivers, and survivors. Today, First Lady Jill Biden continues the program. 

As a military mother and grandmother, Dr. Biden said, “Military and veteran families, caregivers and survivors may not wear a uniform, but you serve and sacrifice for us all. So much of a ship’s power is unseen beneath the waves: the engines, the anchor, the rudders that give it direction and purpose. You are the rudder that steers our military, and supporting your physical, social and emotional health is a national security imperative.” 

Married active-duty service members make up more than half of the armed forces, with approximately 36 percent of those families having children. An entire culture exists within these communities of military families. They relate to shared similar experiences. They provide emotional support during deployments and help each other with daily life. Families live all over the world and are exposed to a wide variety of cultures and languages that often leads to a strong sense of their own cultural identity.

Each branch of the military has its own set of values and some overarching values extend across all of military culture. They are based on setting aside one’s own personal needs in favor of teamwork, selflessness, and shared goals. This being of service to others is rooted in honor, respect, and integrity.

So on Memorial Day or Veterans Day or any day, take a moment to stop and listen to a soldier, a veteran, or a military family member. Thank them for their service and tell them why their service is meaningful to you. This shows you are listening and appreciative of all the work they do to keep our nation safe.

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