Mental Health

'Oi!' – Getting A Telling Off In The Military

Why Do People Shout In The Armed Forces?

Getting a ticking off is part and parcel of life in the Armed Forces.

You might be five minutes late for parade, have fallen behind on a run, or perhaps you just failed a Friday morning room inspection (ouch).

In fact, anyone with a more senior rank than you (which is everybody when you are a recruit or private - eye-roll) could raise their voice and let you know that whatever you have done wrong is not okay.

But what happens to our senses when somebody shouts at us? And how, in the military, should we react? Why do some people need to shout anyway?

Here, breaking down some of the science behind our instinctive fight or flight nature, we explore why bollockings in the Armed Forces exist.

So, stand still! Pin your ears back and listen in … let's get shouty.

Part Of The Job

The first thing to say is that, in the military, the use of raising one's voice does not necessarily mean that somebody has done something wrong.

Where shouty-soldiers are concerned, there is more often than not a legitimate need to provide instructions in the clear, loud, "as an order", and with pauses manner, any member of the Armed Forces who has been on a leadership course will tell you about. Remember "CLAP!?!"

An example of relevant and required shouting could be on the drill square. While being 'square bashed', commands are shouted in a loud, steady voice so that mass bodies of men and women can hear instructions and respond at the precise moment.

Another helpful example of appropriate screaming could be on the ranges, where the most important thing to consider, always, is health and safety. "STOPPPPPPPP!"

In both these instances, and you could probably think of many more like this, the method of shouting commands is more than necessary. It is vital.

A Tongan soldier is directed by a British colleague during a training exercise at Hythe and Lydd ranges in Kent 131210 CREDIT MOD
Shouting, including on ranges, helps to keep safety standards in the high position they have to be. Credit: MOD

The Science

Everybody knows that for every legitimate case of a Sergeant shouting at their soldiers, there are probably occasions when being balled at is for something more trivial.

Those things could be walking on the grass, not reversing your vehicle into a car parking space, walking past a bit of litter on the ground, or the dreaded getting caught with your hands in your pockets dilemma. On thousands of occasions, all of these have resulted in uniformed men and women receiving a ticking off. Perhaps you have bollocked somebody for one of these reasons yourself.

But what happens to our physiology when this happens?

In 2018, scientists at the University of Geneva studied brain activity during the processing of various emotional voices, including shouting.

Their research led them to discover that humans notice a voice much faster if it is considered threatening than when perceived as usual or happy. Their paper said:

"Our attention is more focused on threatening voices to enable us to clearly recognize the location of the potential threat."

Greg James Plays 'Shout That Scene' With The Forces
BBCR1's Greg James recently played an on-air game with members of the Armed Forces called 'Shout That Scene.'

The Perception

Future recruits to militaries worldwide have taken to online spaces like Reddit to ask for advice on being shouted at while serving as soldiers.

In a 2020 post, a soon-to-be recruit in the US asked for advice ahead of joining military school. In the post, the curious youngster asked:

"I'll be going to a military school in a few months and I don't want to cry when being yelled at. I'm very thin skinned and I tear up when someone is screaming at me. How can I prepare myself?"

Reddit users, many of them currently serving, were quick to offer advice. Unfortunately, while some of the advice was well-intended, others used the opportunity to poke fun, taking advantage of the often stereotypical view that military life involves lots of shouting.

A user called Zmrouhas amusingly responded that his typical response was to "glaze over and wait for it to end", adding:

"Like a small child, they'll tire out eventually and stop."

Another user, this time called Shiftybidnes, offered more thoughtful advice, pointing out that "they yell because theyre [sic] supposed to." The advice continued:

"It's nothing personal. But if you can't help yourself just cry. They'll stop yelling."

Although we are not experts in the human emotional state, we can at least say that crying in the face of an angry Corporal is probably not the best advice in the world.

RAF recruits' fitness test
Recruits to the Armed Forces adjusting to life, including shouting in the gym. MOD

Official Guidance

The British Army provides commanders with a policy around discipline and the process of conducting minor administrative action against personnel.

Soldiers are required to follow the British Army's Values and Standards, part of the official guidance of which states:

"Soldiers are required to close with the enemy, possibly in the midst of innocent bystanders, and fight; and to continue operating in the face of mortal danger. This is a group activity, at all scales of effort and intensities. Soldiers are part of a team, and the effectiveness of that team depends on each individual playing his or her part to the full. Success depends above all else on good morale, which is the spirit that enables soldiers to triumph over adversity: morale linked to, and reinforced by, discipline."

To help in the administration of upholding discipline, in 2006, the Ministry of Defence introduced the AGAI 67 directive.

In the army, AGAI 67 provides the framework for commanders to initiate minor administrative action against a service member for minor failings to the British Army's Values and Standards.

A member of the Armed Forces can be "Agai'd" for a range of minor wrongdoings, including being absent from duty for up to 48 hours. The full policy can be viewed here - a helpful document that explains the process entirely. Note, those on the receiving end of an AGAI have the right to a review. 

However, the AGAI 67 process does not exist in place of a general, on-the-ground telling off that can, and does, occur in all areas of the Armed Forces.

The official guidance for AGAI 67 deals with this in its introduction, saying that "AGAI is not intended to replace the minor informal rebukes and corrections that are taken in the course of normal Service life."

Where telling offs are concerned, the official guidance says:

"It may be possible to correct a failing immediately and, if so, it should be done. For example, ordering a soldier, airman or rating to pick up a piece of litter dropped, or to re-clean a weapon that is still dirty. The existence of the minor administrative regime does nothing to affect how this type of correction should be used. Such action is taken on the basis of maintenance of routine discipline within a unit to which the principles of proportionality and common sense apply."

Thus, shouting, whether on the drill square, the ranges, or during a PT session, is scientifically proven to make those on the receiving end do things more quickly. 

Hand in hand with this, being told off on the spot for minor dalliances of the codes of conduct, rules or, in the British Army's case, the Values and Standards, that same method of putting volume behind a command serves to support discipline – one of those underpinning values of military life. So on this basis, shouting really does serve a purpose. Most of the time

We are still unsure about the advice on crying in a Corporal's face, though …