Appearances Can Be Deceiving (5. Volunteering)

“Never volunteer for anything!” That is what they cautioned me when I left the comforts of home in eastern North Carolina for basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, in the sweltering Fall of 1963.

In four previous posts, I presented behaviors that are often interpreted in one way but that could have other possible causes. First, we considered how fidgeting is not always impatience. Then, how solitude is not necessarily loneliness. Third, how smiling is not always liking. And then last week, how bravery is not always prompted by courage. I call these multi-source behaviors.

So how is volunteering a multi-source behavior? When I was in elementary school, I

Volunteer, by Andrew A., 2012.      CC BY-ND 2.0

remember that my classmates tended to label students who volunteered to help the teacher as “pets.” Cute, but definitely a put-down. Many forms of volunteer behavior pepper the day: offering to pick up lunch for the team, raising one’s hand when the first sergeant asks for three volunteers, offering to help the host clear the table after a dinner party, responding to a request for volunteers to help at school, hospital, marathon, disaster, Katrina, the recent earthquakes in Japan and Ecuador—the list could go on seemingly forever. Likewise, many explanations exist for why people raise their hand in such circumstances:

  • genuine altruism (no ulterior motive other than to help someone)
  • selfishness (to get on someone’s good side)
  • boredom (needing a change of pace)
  • curiosity (to find out what something is like)
  • romance (to get closer to someone you have an eye for)
  • pride (wanting to make sure the job is well done)
  • happiness (sensing that the volunteer activity will provide a rush of positive emotion)
  • self-inflating pessimism (thinking those involved will get it wrong, and that you are needed to get it right)
  • goal relevance (thinking that this volunteer service will move you closer to attaining a goal)

Milton Rokeach might call these terminal vs. instrumental motives, with genuine altruism being a terminal motive (doing it for the value in-and-of-itself), and the others being instrumental motives (doing it with some other end in mind).

So when I reached basic training and the first sergeant asked for volunteers, what did I do? I volunteered, of course! I volunteered to do extra k.p. (kitchen police, as in peeling potatoes all morning), to haul ammunition from a warehouse to a shooting range, to play the drum in a parade, to unload trucks—any time he asked for volunteers, my hand shot up. Why? What was my motive? Was I just a good guy and a glutton for punishment? To understand my volunteering for everything in basic training, you need to understand that I abhor being marched around, waiting in formation, and herded like cattle. I didn’t like marching in high school band, and I didn’t like marching and standing in formation at Fort Jackson. It was boring and regimenting. I volunteered in order to break up the monotony of same old, same old.

As it turned out, my instinct to ignore the advice about never volunteering paid off. I had a portable chess set that was the size of a postcard and thin as a book’s hard cover. It had flat plastic pieces that fit in narrow slits. During my volunteer episodes, the supervisors (usually corporals or buck sergeants) typically felt kind of sorry for us and gave us frequent breaks. I could always find someone who either a) played chess, or b) was willing to learn the game. So after an hour of hard labor, we got an ice cold Coca Cola in the South Carolina September sun and settled down for a 30-40 minute game of wits under the restorative shade of a giant oak until time for more labor.

Not bad, huh? Certainly better than standing in formation and marching like an army of ants. For me, at least. Not a sergeant’s “pet,” just an independent son-of-a gun!

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