Academic journal article Business Communication Quarterly

Ethos at Sea

Academic journal article Business Communication Quarterly

Ethos at Sea

Article excerpt

A study of writing in the United States Navy indicates the wide usefulness of the rhetorical concept of ethos. Although almost never formally taught, the concept is continually being rediscovered and applied within a wide variety of naval contexts, from naval personnel evaluations to ship-repair reports. But ethos is still too seldom conciously present or habitually applied in the naval profession. And, as the Tailhook episode has recently demonstrated, a lack of such understanding can sometimes have adverse effects on the credibility of the Navy as a whole.

Not long ago, while I was interviewing a senior navy captain about his experience with professional writing, he began to talk about naval fitness reports (officer personnel evaluations). He presented a catalogue of pretty shrewd advice but said he wouldn't share one particular technique, which he seemed to regard as a kind of trade secret. But eventually he gave in and offered this example:

I wrote to the [selection board] about an officer who had

been passed over. I had already blown his horn in fitness

reports, and I had also had another ship since he had

served under me, so now I spoke of my own background. I

said, "I've had command of three ships, and I've had

twelve officers as department heads. He was in the top

three of those who should be [executive officers]. Clearly,

he's in a select group." On the next board, this officer

sailed through. Shenk, 1990, p. 154)

While some may regard the captain's statement merely as evidence of conceit, to my mind it represents a grasp of a vital concept of professional communication that I had only occasionally encountered in my interviews. Whatever term the captain would have used to label it, I believe he had some understanding of what Aristotle would have referred to as ethos.

The Concept of Ethos

Of course this principle has been known by rhetoricians ever since Aristotle in his Rhetoric identified it as one of the three prime means of persuasion -- ethos, logos, and pathos (1991, pp. 37-39). Ethos has been widely discussed among modern rhetoricians (Clark, 1957; Halloran, 1982; Sattler, 1947) and has also been studied recently by business and technical writing theorists (Guinn, 1983; Kallendorf & Kallendorf, 1985; Reynolds, 1992; Stoddard, 1984; Walzer, 1981). The notion is, of course, that one convinces not only by what one says, but by what one is, and more particularly, by "the rhetor's character as he `comes to life' in his writing" (Halloran, 1971, p. 20). Nor is such self-characterization incidental to a speaker's or writer's persuasive powers; instead, ethos was considered by Aristotle to be "almost, so to speak, the controlling factor in persuasion" (1991, p. 38). If you know who you are and also manifest the goodness of your character clearly in your speech, you are much more likely to get your point across.

Modern experts have lately begun to explore the degree to which this is so, especially in professions that strongly recommend detached objectivity -- science and engineering, among them (Halloran & Whitburn, 1982; Millier, 1979). However, the profession I'd like to discuss in this paper makes no such pretense of impersonality. The United States Navy, in its creeds, its official pronouncements, and above all in its personnel indoctrination programs (from enlisted boot camp to the U.S. Naval Academy) makes personal character almost the sine qua non for the proper development of officers and petty officers, and it expects individual leaders to manifest that character whenever they speak or act.

Ethos in the Navy

Nevertheless, the rhetorical notion of ethos, which is different than character per se (and far more influential) is not well known in the Navy. In my experience, the principle is seldom formally taught and almost never fully understood, although because of its naturalness and efficacy it is useful in a plenitude of communication situations, and in fact certain features of it are continually being rediscovered by navy speakers and writers. …

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