Tuesday, January 22, 2013

DiploSkills: Phonetic Spelling

I've never really liked the phone as a method for communication. It's not as satisfying and engaging as a real face-to-face conversation, but it requires enough attention that I can't do something else at the same time, like I can with texts or IM. I especially dislike talking on the phone when I have to discuss something complicated and/or in French on a lousy intercontinental and/or cell phone connection. But until we get Star Trek teleporters or realistic real-time 3D hologram video chat (and the bandwidth to support it), tinny garbled phone calls are part of the reality of diplomacy.

And eventually, once you've grappled with the lag and the static long enough to establish that whatever you're talking about really requires correspondence, you have to give the other person your email address. If your name is anything more complicated than Smith or Jones there will inevitably be spelling involved, and anyone who's ever had to identify themselves to a friendly customer service representative knows how hard it is to differentiate between M and N or B, C, D, E, G, P, T, V and Z on even a good phone connection.

Enter the NATO Phonetic Alphabet. You know what this is even if you think you don't, because some guy uses it on the radio at some point in just about every war movie ever made. The idea is simple: every letter has a code word assigned to it, a code word that has been chosen and tested to be recognizable by speakers of several different languages and different enough from the other code words in the set that you can tell them apart even in adverse auditory conditions. It's brilliant. Since joining the FS I have made great strides in learning my Alpha Bravo Charlies, but I also have the chart printed out and taped up next to my phone for any long-distance spelling emergencies that may arise.

The only downside to this system is that the person on the other end of the line also has to be generally familiar with the concept; otherwise, when you start rattling off a series of seemingly random unconnected words they're likely to be all "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?" In such cases you may wish to revert to the "B as in boy" method. Not as cool, but it usually gets the job done.

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