Updated: Jul 27, 2021
There are a lot of things I got from my time in the Marines, and most of those things would fall under the term "soft skills." Nothing fancy like reloading a rifle or reading a compass or jack boot stomping a supine enemy in the face. Things that, in computer speak could be called "sub routines." Skills that happen just because- like patting your pockets before you move, or rendering the appropriate greeting when you meet someone, or looking left when your bud looks right. Simple, programmed responses that take little or no conscious thought, but pay dividends regardless.
For me, perhaps the best of all the soft skills I learned isn't what you'd think. It wasn't standing up straight, or keeping your head up, or being polite, or even being alert to danger (all good soft skills to have). The best soft skill that I learned was "cover your buddy." That "looking left when your buddy looks right" soft skill. This is the one skill that if practiced continually by everyone helps everyone all the time. It can also apply everywhere, and anytime.
Scene 1) You wake up late, and realize you're late for class. You throw on some clothes, grab your bag, and sprint from your dorm to class. When you arrive, you drop down into your normal seat and your buddy slides a piece of paper to you as the teacher drones on. "I knew you had a late night, so I got an extra handout for you."
Your bud just helped you out in a small yet important way. You at least have a starting point as to what's being covered, and don't have to waste time trying to catch up in the moment, and you can start getting involved in class. Effort to your buddy- next to zero.
Scene 2) You and your buddy from the previous example are walking down the sidewalk. Your buddy's on the phone only barely paying attention to things. You're just walking, taking in the view and notice the street light turn yellow for the road you're following. Without thinking, you put up your arm, bringing your buddy to a halt just as a driver (also on their phone and just as oblivious as your buddy) pulls out with their car. Without you- your buddy'd be a statistic. Effort to you- close to zero.
You just saved a life- maybe. Your buddy isn't hurt, they are a little surprised by the event as are you (you were just watching the light and anticipating the need to stop). Either way, you covered you buddy like he did for you earlier.
As an animal that relies on social interactions and the development of communal bonds, nothing (and I mean nothing) forms tighter bonds than trust, and knowing that your friends got your six without you having to ask builds really strong bonds. I'm talking about bonds that can and do cause people to make great sacrifices for apparently little gain. Getting seriously injured covering a friend (or worse) seems at first glance a net negative for the one getting injured, but the loyalty that can be gained from such an endeavor far outweigh the injury. When this coverage is provided automatically, without the need for a request, the effect is magnified in ways that are hard to fathom.
Let's look at another example- one close to home but often overlooked. Married couples. Generally (or rather, ideally) there is a bread winner who works. Man or woman, it doesn't matter. The other provides what can be amounted to logistical support. While the bread winner is working, they can't be making lunch, watching the kids, doing laundry or dishes- they're not even at home. And if they ARE at home (say, as a work from home accountant) they can't be working AND handling logistics. Sure, they can do things at home when not working, but for the average bread winner they have 40 hours less at home time than the other half (again, we're talking ideals here).
That's where the buddy covering comes in. The person at home covers what the breadwinner cannot. They ensure that the breadwinner has clothes, food, and a relaxed home to return to, and in return, they receive the financial security they need to live. Granted, many couples don't do this- many couples have both members working away from the home- but the general dynamic remains. Each takes a portion of the work load so the other can concentrate on their portion without concern of the rest. They have each others' six and do their best to pick up the slack when something's overlooked.
Now, I'll be the first to admit that I sometimes screw this up. The shitty part with that is when either person drops the ball, everyone suffers as a result (especially in a family setting). If the bread winner doesn't have their logistics handled, they burn out as they try and handle it all themselves while still attempting to abide by their other obligations (say, being a good parent, or a good spouse- those take time that can quickly be eaten by little things like packing lunches, washing laundry, etc.). And on the flip side, if the breadwinner isn't doing their part to cover the supply side (read, getting $$$) then the logistics person now has to stop doing logistics to get the $$$ themselves, leaving less time for them to do what they need to be doing. It's a team effort.
At times, the harmony (or reasonable facsimile that the couple has at the time) gets upset. Maybe the breadwinner or the homemaker gets in a car accident, and is laid up from their respective tasks for a couple of months. They can't do much more than direct traffic (and that only just) and they need help doing simple stupid things (maybe getting dressed or eating). They will doubtless feel like they are letting their team (ie, their family) down, and in this instance the way that their buddy covers them matters most. It becomes not so much the physical coverage that matters- dishes can be cleaned, and undies can be turned inside out- it's the spiritual and emotional coverage that matters most here.
Covering without the request being made is the real goal. Figuring out what is needed- tuning in to what your buddy needs NOW- that's where covering your buddy becomes so much more than a rote mechanic of looking left when they look right. Intuiting a need even if the need isn't yet known by the one who needs it themselves. It can be hard to ascertain at times, but figuring this out, and making it a habit, can pay massive dividends later on. We all misstep here (myself most assuredly included). It's hard to be that tuned in when the world is hammering you from every direction every minute of every day, and it can be easy to get frustrated when our buddies fail to provide the support needed when needed.
The world would be a much nicer place if we could learn to master this soft skill. Imagine a place where everyone covered everyone else. Where covering the person on your left and right wasn't just something we did to be polite- but was a cultural norm and expectation. Where the act of not covering was more noticeable than covering, There are many things that people want to see changed in the world, from how X group is treated or not treated to how Y group is or isn't included. I wonder how many of those kinds of classist problems would solve themselves or become extinct if we just created a culture of covering those around us. If every person within earshot was your buddy. I think that level of community would solve just about all the problems we have (or at least help mitigate them when they arose).
In closing I offer this challenge- make covering your buddy (that person sitting next to you on the bus, or standing next to you at the light) part of your culture. Create a habit of giving people a hand when you realize they need one. Don't wait to be asked for help- offer it willingly with a smile, and ask if you can help. I'm sure you'll make an impact, and probably feel better as a result.