Interpreting Regulations

When I was in Air Force ROTC in college, we had a month-long training period in the summer between sophomore and junior year, called Field Training. This was roughly our equivalent to boot camp, so it was a fairly harsh environment with a lot of demanding activities and constant scrutiny and evaluation. Strict adherence to regulations was expected.

At the time I went to Field Training, I had very short hair, similar to how I wear it now. This allowed me to stay within regulations without a lot of fuss; if I’d had long hair, I would have had to braid or otherwise bind it so that it stayed above my collar, and given how little time we sometimes had to get ready in the morning, it was nice not to have to worry about that. But somehow I still got into trouble for it.

Now, the regulations around women’s hair are different than those for men, even beyond the fact that women are allowed to have long hair in the first place. Men’s hair has to be trimmed to stay above the top of the shirt collar, whereas women’s hair only has to remain above the bottom of the collar. That’s only about an inch of difference, but it matters when you have a lot of hair that you’re trying to keep up in a braid or a bun.

But I didn’t have to worry about that, right? My hair was trimmed right to the hairline in back, so I didn’t give much thought to keeping it off my collar; it just was off my collar. Or so I thought.

The cadets in Field Training were divided into flights; two flights made a squadron, and all the squadrons combined into a group. (This mirrors the organizational structure of the US Air Force as a whole.) There were cadet officer positions within each of these levels, most of which rotated to give everyone experience with command, but each level was also commanded by an actual commissioned officer who was supposed to provide guidance and discipline while overseeing our training. My flight commander was a woman whose name I can’t quite remember, so I’ll call her Captain Jones.

Capt Jones had short hair, too, although she kept hers longer on top than I did. I recall it as one of those wedge-shaped hairdos with longer, wavy hair on top, and very closely trimmed sides and back beneath. In any case, about two weeks into Field Training, she pulled me aside and told me I had to get my hair trimmed because it was touching my collar. “It still counts if it’s touching the inside of your collar,” she said. “It has to be above the collar, period.”

Now, this was patently false, as I’ve explained above. But there is a far-reaching commandment in the military: thou shalt not interpret the regulations to a superior officer. This includes quoting a relevant regulation to argue with someone senior to you, as well as quibbling with their interpretation of the same. It is considered insubordinate and disrespectful, as well as a form of making excuses.

I really hated this prohibition. If someone was wrong about something, it shouldn’t matter whether they were above me in rank or not: I should be able to (politely, of course!) point out their error to clear things up. Both my memory and my attention to detail were exceptionally strong, and since I worked very hard to make sure I learned all of the rules, I typically knew the regs that applied to me inside and out. So when someone else got them wrong, or (worse) accused me of getting them wrong when I knew I hadn’t, I wanted to be able to correct them. It was a matter of fairness to me, as well as accuracy; if I was actually getting something wrong, that was one thing, but being told I was wrong when I wasn’t was another thing entirely.

So biting my tongue was always hard, but it was frequently expected during my time in the military; strict hierarchies tend to require that. I did find ways to raise issues, however, and it’s a skill that has benefited me in the rest of my life as well. I’ll call it the Question That Isn’t a Question (QTIQ). In Capt Jones’ case, it went something like this:

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” I told her. “Was I wrong that it just has to be above the bottom of the collar?”

See, by phrasing things this way, I can bring up my understanding of the issue in a way that’s not confrontational. The hope is that this will jog the other person’s memory that, oh yes, that is the case, or at least open the door to further discussion that might lead to actually looking things up for clarification. It’s not really a question, because I already know the answer, but it allows me to challenge factual errors that I could not otherwise correct due to power imbalances. It might make me sound like I’m uncertain or timid, but I’ve been in enough situations where I really had to avoid pissing off powerful people, and it has worked well for that.

In this case, unfortunately, it didn’t work to change the situation. Capt Jones informed me that, yes, I was wrong, and I needed to go get my hair cut asap. So there was nothing else to do but say “yes, ma’am,” and try to figure out where the hell the barber was.

But she was still wrong.