Visual signals: Military communication without words

Clear, accurate, and secure communication is critical to efficiently complete operations and for optimal mission performance. But it’s not always as straightforward as shouting a command or simply talking with those around you. Combat conditions can often limit how well your team verbally communicates. Arm and hand signals, gestures, and even touch signs have become a standard part of communication in the military, especially when voice communication is difficult, impossible, or when you have to maintain silence for security or operational purposes.

Visual signals require sight lines and can be used to share basic messages quickly over short distances. In addition to arm and hand signals, flags, smoke, light, and sometimes whistles can be used to communicate among Warfighters too. But using these other forms of communication isn’t always easy, especially when there’s a lot going on around you. The good news is that with some basic strategies, you can optimize your ability to complete this core task.

Gestures in language

In everyday communication, people typically use a combination of words and gestures to express ideas or share information. And, if you’re asked to repeat back a conversation you had or to recap, chances are you could remember pretty well what you said. But what if you were asked to repeat all the gestures and non-verbal signals you gave during a conversation? Chances are it would be much harder because it’s not something you typically notice.

In fact, the amount of gesturing that a person uses can vary widely. At one end of the spectrum, you have signals you might use while you speak (for instance, holding your hands apart to describe something big), and you probably don’t think too much about it. Then a little further down the line, there are simple symbols that might replace some element of verbal communications (for example, giving the OK sign or a thumbs-up). And at the other end of the spectrum, there’s completely non-verbal language such as American Sign Language.

The visual signals that Military Service Members use to communicate are actually quite unique. Though there are dozens of different signals, they certainly don’t comprise a complete language. But they’re still complex and used deliberately, and they can communicate important pieces of information or instruction.

Before entering a situation where you know you might encounter lots of stimuli, review your communication signals, practice mindful breathing, and trust yourself and what you know.

Visual signals in the military

Military arm or hand signals are typically used to communicate when Warfighters can’t speak (in person or through digital means) due to distance, safety, or security reasons during drills or in theater. On the plus side, these signals are tried-and-true, meaning they can quickly convey critical information (for example, directional commands or details about the locations of other parties) without the use of additional equipment.

But like any mode of communication, there are challenges. For example, visual signals are limited in areas of poor visibility (during bad weather, sand storms, or when lots of smoke is in an area). Visibility can also be limited in areas with lots of trees and foliage or in urban areas with lots of structures obstructing sight lines. In some cases, there can also be a lag time to get the message (for example, “halt”) to larger units coordinating together.

But one of the biggest challenges is sensory overload for the Warfighter. Especially in combat conditions, warriors have to maintain situational awareness, monitor what’s going on all around them, complete their task, and try to maintain focus on visual (and sometimes auditory) communication—all at the same time. And the reality is these situations are often accompanied by fear, stress, or other feelings that can hamper focus on communication.

Strategies for success

It’s not easy to perform under extreme stress while you take in lots of information, make decisions, and maintain your safety and the safety of those around you. But with a few strategies, you can boost your ability to stay focused, process, and recall the communication signals required for mission success.

  • Let stress work for you. Your body automatically reacts to stress or sensory overload with a response designed to keep you safe. For example, your heart rate will increase or you might get tunnel vision, shake, or sweat. While it might seem unpleasant or feel like panic and anxiety, these physical reactions will help you focus and react under pressure if you let them.
  • Activate your working memory. Your working memory is the brain system that controls, regulates, and uses specific information that you need immediately for a particular task. In this case, it might be your working memory of how to use and interpret visual communication signals. Under stress or in moments of anxiety, your working memory is taxed and you might not be able to solve problems as you normally would. Overcome that by slowing down, doing what you’ve practiced, and consciously avoiding shortcuts.
  • Trust your training. Your best asset in maintaining focus during high-stress situations is to let your mind and body do what it’s been trained to do. Devote a good amount of your training time to learning your signals, so they become second nature. Before entering a situation where you know you might encounter lots of stimuli, review your communication signals, practice mindful breathing, and trust yourself and what you know.
  • Use emotional regulation. Controlling your reaction to your feelings is a major part of staying focused under stress. You might not be able to change your stress response, feelings of fear, or experience of being overwhelmed, but you can control how you react. If you feel panicked or overwhelmed, try mentally repeating a grounding phrase (for example, “shoot-move-communicate”) to distract yourself from spiraling into paralyzing emotions and instead stay focused on processing the information around you.

What’s ahead: Tactile communication

While visual signals have long since proven their effectiveness, the limitations are still there. In recent years, there has been some exploration into the use of “tactile signals” to communicate among Warfighters who cannot use traditional means. Tactile signals are a way to present information through touch and through the skin. It’s like when your cell phone vibrates when it’s set to silent mode—that is, you notice a call or message via touch rather than sound. Or think about how a horseback rider cues their animal with touch signals that communicate instructions on how to move by pulling on the reigns or using their feet to push on one side of the horse. Using special clothing, gear, or helmets, it could be possible to send the same types of touch communications to Warfighters in combat.

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