When I was in the Army there was always a lot of rushing around followed by significant amounts of down time (“Hurry up and wait!” was the expression that got used a lot). During the downtime people would look for inventive ways to pass the time. Web surfing was heavily filtered (unless you could speak another language) but internal email had no such barriers. As a result, the following spread far and wide internally:

  • chain emails (“forward to ten people within five minutes or something terrible will happen”)
  • game emails, often sent with important sounding attachments that actually contained embedded Flash games (I hate to admit I got quite good at a number of such games over the years)
  • pornographic emails (see also my recent post that covers the way women were often treated in the Army)
  • bulk emails, often sent to unnecessarily large groups, in some cases comically so1
  • prank emails with fake links (e.g. Rickrolling)
  • funny emails, containing amusing stories or animated GIFs

The emails that got forwarded the most were inevitably the funny emails that resonated with people. Based on that metric, I think the email that resonated most in the Army was the five monkeys fable2.

For those who haven’t heard it the story goes that scientists conducted an experiment where 5 monkeys were put in a cage with steps leading up to a bunch of delicious looking and smelling bananas. However, the steps were rigged so that as soon as a monkey set foot on the steps, every monkey in the cage was punished by being doused with cold water.

This happened a few times until the monkeys made the connection and were conditioned to stay away from the steps. They continued to stay away, even after the cold water spray was turned off.

At this point the scientists replaced one of the monkeys and, before long, it started heading for the stairs. The four “experienced” monkeys policed the newcomer though, punishing it if it attempted to reach the stairs (even though the water was now turned off).

They replaced another monkey and were surprised to discover the same behaviour. The previous addition actually joined in on the policing, even though it had never been sprayed with water.

They kept replacing monkeys until all five monkeys in the cage had never been sprayed with water and yet the four more senior monkeys (each of who had been punished by their peers on arrival) policed the newest monkey. They trained it to stay away from the steps, even though none of them had ever been doused with cold water and had no idea why they were doing it.

The email would then finish by explaining that the Army works the same way and that no one actually remembers the reasons we do all the strange things we do.

I think the reason this email resonated with so many people is that in any given week most people would have had there own example of having to do something that didn’t seem to make sense. For me, as someone who likes to understand the “why” all the time, this could be infuriating but over time I think I mostly learned how far I could push asking “why?” questions and when I just had to keep my mouth shut and play along.

  1. “All staff” emails can be a bother in small organisations but in organisations as large as the ADF they can quickly reach plague proportions! I have fond memories of a barrage of emails that started when a civilian sent an email to all staff in the Liverpool Military Area (a group containing well over 10,000 people by my guess). Some people replied all (some seriously, others not so) and then other people replied all to tell those people not to reply all (again, some seriously, some tongue in cheek).

    Many saw the humorous side and started chiming in and before long there was a flood of emails with various branches forming quite a large tree. Senior and then more senior people started getting their noses out of joint and they sent yet more emails ORDERING everyone to stop replying and threatening disciplinary action. Of course it was easy for those emails to get lost in the noise so it took almost a day (and no doubt several angry phone calls) before everyone got the message and the thread eventually petered out. 

  2. The email was forwarded around quite often (including by me no doubt) and it was always presented as if it was a real experiment that had actually been conducted, peer reviewed and published. It wasn’t until later that I learned it was a fable.