What's in a name - to what title are you entitled?By Julian Hohnen August 19, 2021
“That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”
- Shakespeare, Hamlet
Shakespeare aside, it is worth examining titles as they pertain to the military. Warrant Officers and above are addressed by the title Sir or Ma'am. This is given to them upon achieving their rank. Officers of field rank and higher can retain their rank upon retirement if they so wish. Some I know do, many others do not. That is a personal choice and an entitlement if they desire.
What officers in particular can be called versus how they are addressed is interesting. As far as I know, this has not really been examined. This wasn’t covered when I was at Duntroon, though perhaps it is now. The key tenets of command and leadership were taught, and what you did mattered more than what you were called. I would hope this hasn’t changed.
Chris Masters reflects on this in his book Uncommon Soldier, where he states: "There can’t be too many armies in the world where a young officer craves to be called something other than ‘Sir’. In Australia the word can swiftly become pejorative, uttered with unmistakable disdain"
James Brown in his 2013 opinion piece Fifty Shades of Grey: Officer Culture in the Australian Army also states that "Australian Army officers also eat after their troops and yearn to be called ‘boss’".
It is interesting to look at why a person entitled to be called Sir (or Ma’am) allows Boss, and why? What does this say about Australian Army culture?
What does a title mean? Respect the rank, not the person. You can do one and not the other. In an ideal world, you would do both. However, the latter isn’t a fait accompli.
I don’t agree with Master’s assertion that young Officers crave to be called anything else than Sir or Ma'am. I did not know that at Duntroon anything was possible. As a cadet, Warrant Officers and above were Sir and nothing else. I even found it a huge adjustment being called Sir. A moment that will remain in my memory for a long time was my first salute the day after graduation from Duntroon which was given by my class Company Sergeant Major, a Special Air Service Warrant Officer Class Two, who saluted me and called me Sir. What was most memorable (and amusing) was that he wasn’t even wearing his (sandy) beret!
What does history reveal?
The Governor General, His Excellency, General the Honourable David Hurley reflected on his experience as a junior officer at 1 RAR in the mid 1970’s. He went as a Platoon Commander from ‘Sir' to ‘Boss’ and finally to ‘Skipper’. He said when he made it to Skipper that he had made it. His Officer Commanding had discussed it with him in the field environment.
Whilst an antiquated term, it is indicative of a transition from what is mandated to what is expressed as a personal reflection of (what one hopes is) respect. Not many officers have reflected on this transition, and during my time, Duntroon didn’t prepare junior officers for what is acceptable or desired.
I interviewed the Governor General and asked him if he referred to former Commanders of his as Sir or Boss even after they had retired. He mentioned that he still calls a former Chief of Defence Force, who had been his boss Sir.
This prompted the former CDF to say “but Sir, you’re Sir!”. I found that example fascinating, as respect can endure and it’s not so much what you have to, or can call someone, it is what you choose to call them. This is an enduring mark of respect.
What I found fascinating about it is that as someone who needs to only call Royalty Sir or Ma’am, the Governor General still showed respect for someone he had worked for previously.
What does it reveal about Australian Army culture? Is it just Army? Is it over-indoctrination? I would hope that it is purely out of respect.
My personal experience
I have worked with and for some senior officers who retired at the rank of Major General. While I am not sure if I could call them by their first name, I do not. I call them Boss. I am unsure if there is a requirement; however, I respect them deeply and that has endured long after they have left the military. It is respect for their service; however, they do not utilise their rank in retirement, and I do so simply through respect for them as a person.
I have found – particularly on social media – that former soldiers of mine still refer to me as Boss even though they have discharged. I would hope it is for similar reasons though I am more than comfortable being addressed by my first name. A lot of them have become good friends. If they wish to do it out of respect, then I am very touched. They do not need to do it. To still be in touch with people that you no longer work with is indeed another measure of respect.
Leadership vs Likership
Special Forces units have used a first name basis up to Commanding Officer. This is reflective of a mature organisation where all personnel who complete selection or indeed serve in the unit are largely alike. That culture is endorsed by the Commanding Officer of the time and can vary. The tone is set from the top and may create difficulties in how Officers in particular are addressed, as Commanding Officers rotate every 2 years.
Sir can be said through gritted teeth, or bellowed with absolute gusto ‘yes Sir, no Sir’. It is the correct address with (potentially) little respect. Boss is indicative of respect and is less formal, which in some environments is more suitable. There is no saluting in the field. On operations, and in combat, you give directions. There are callsigns, not titles indicative of rank or position, unless you are aware of the military lexicon. They differ by Corps and Service; however, they are based on an individual’s position and are not open to interpretation.
Gender - Does Sir or Ma’am still apply to our total workforce?
The female perspective
I have worked for a number of Commanders who were female. I must admit that I never called them Boss. I respected them and always called them Ma’am. Perhaps I found Boss more permissible in an Arms Corps environment. I interviewed Major General Cheryl Pearce, who had just completed a two-year role as the UN Force Commander in Cyprus. She recalled that she was called ‘General’ and ‘Force Commander’ and not Ma’am, except by her Australian staff.
She was happy with this, as those forms of address were both respectful, gender neutral and appropriate. As the United Nations is truly multi-national, perhaps the address used based on title rather than gender made it uniform for all staff, both military and civilian. Her role as Commander was reinforced through how she was addressed regardless of her gender.
In starting this article, I had a very limited aperture. I had an Arms Corps centric view due to my career that was focused on my experience of rank/titles. The more I looked into titles and what they mean to individuals, the more this article grew legs. Of that I am very glad.
There are individuals in the ADF who are gender neutral. I have worked with an excellent individual who is gender neutral and I called them by their first name, and not by rank. As I was of a higher rank, this was an easy one for me to do.
To be honest, if I met a higher-ranking officer who was gender neutral, I am not sure how I would address them. This admission makes me feel like a relative dinosaur, and to my knowledge is not covered in mandatory training. This admission of ignorance and omission of knowledge has led me to conduct some research. I may be wrong; however, I have not been trained during mandatory training on how to address individuals who are intersex. I am aware of pronouns in broader society such as they/them instead of him/her; however, if I was to meet an individual of a higher rank, I would not know how to address them. Transgender individuals have a rank and a gender which conforms to what is already known by individuals within in the military and adhered to.
The future, both interim and the long term
The ADF is evolving and is reflective of society. As mentioned, although I am in my early 40’s, I do feel like a relative dinosaur and want to know more. Should this be included in annual mandatory training? I think it should be so the workplace could be more inclusive across ranks and services. I welcome any discussion and educational points so I can learn more and not be embarrassed by being caught out. I would like others to learn as well to ensure a cohesive operating environment.
I hope this article stimulates discussion and breaks down generational barriers or long held views of what is ‘right’ vs what is needed for the ADF going forward. Like society, the ADF needs to evolve, as it recruits from society. It is not isolated from the rest of Australia and the accepted social norms, which do evolve over time. I appreciate any feedback.
Thank you to His Excellency, General the Honourable David Hurley (Retd), Major General Cheryl Pearce and Brigadier Mark Smethurst (Retd) for their interviews and contributions towards this article.
A note from the Cove Team: During the editorial process of this article, The Cove Team engaged Army's Gender Advisor and the RSM-Army. Advice on the topic of gender neutral forms of address is that discussions are occurring at the senior leadership level and those responsible for protocol. Currently no formal policy on this topic has been released. We'd love to hear from anyone who has found an agreeable, informal solution to this in the comments below.
 Masters, Chris 2013 Uncommon Soldier: Brave, compassionate and tough, the making of Australia's modern diggers, Allen & Unwin, Sydney.
 Brown, James 2013 'Fifty Shades of Grey: Officer Culture in the Australian Army', Australian Army Journal, Culture edition, vol. 28, no. 3, pp 244-254.