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Culturalism, Plane Crashes, and Ask a Korean's Error

Posted on the 25 July 2013 by Smudger @ChristopherSm73
Culturalism, Plane Crashes, and Ask a Korean's ErrorAsk a Korean's blog gained even more popularity last week with an extremely widely-read post debunking Malcolm Gladwell's theory of Korean cockpit culture.  It was embraced by a world rightly keen to alleviate us all of prejudice and discrimination.  But do we really know that culture has little bearing on the mistakes and achievements we make?  Is appealing to culture simply a waste of time when there are so many better explanations?  Is seeking cultural explanations allied to racism?  Is "Culturalism" rife in the world and especially in the West?
Well, I happen to utterly disagree with Ask a Korean's ideas on culturalism, because as good an article as it was on examining the details of plane crashes, there was so much wrong with the rest of it that I had to write a lengthy response.  It seems nobody else has done it, so why not?
Malcolm Gladwell's response to Ask a Korean's article criticising his work and the Western media's "culturalism" in explaining Asiana's and other Korean air crashes, answered the post with regard to some of the actual research into the specific suspected causes of the accidents, although perhaps not wholly satisfactorily for many.  If you want to get in-depth into the air-crash investigations and to get as close as possible into what was going on in the cockpits of those aircraft before they crashed, I suggest you read his reply, Ask a Korean's reply to him, or better yet, buy his book.  I actually think Ask a Korean asked many pertinent questions about Gladwell's theory, but his post left me thinking of as many questions into his own theory of culturalism as he had of Gladwell's theory of cockpit culture.
On this blog, I have written quite extensively about how some aspects Korean culture can cause some negative connotations (and positive ones) in certain situations and have also provided some counter-examples about how Western culture and, more specifically, the culture of my own country (the UK) can do the same.  For this reason, I naturally stand rather against the whole argument he put forward in that post.
So, is it wrong to suggest that the quite strictly hierarchical status aspect of Korean culture had something to do with the crash?  I don't think so and to call this out as "culturalism" is damaging, and here's why.
Perhaps the true cause of the Asiana crash will come to pass and it has nothing to do with poor communication for cultural reasons, but as a feasible theory for the crash it seems logical to consider it a possibility.  I wrote about this in a previous post on 'The Perils of Respect Culture', where I highlighted a couple of my own experiences, those of my wife and her friends, and a piece in the Wall Street Journal, which basically summarised some of Gladwell's work.  The article in the Wall Street Journal was referring to some of the problems in business of the respect culture hierarchy in Korea.  Those of us who live and work in South Korea surely must notice the communication issues that take place in our jobs.  In my own experience, concerns over how to communicate with elders or people in senior positions is of major importance in my boys high school.  It can cause major issues in clarity and honesty when it comes to disclosing problems and is an extremely relevant factor in the efficiency of running the school.
I have always seen this aspect of Korean culture as a bit flawed.  Honest communication can be a difficult thing to come by in Korea if it means possibly causing offense to or even questioning the judgment in any way to someone of higher rank or age.  Age is the most important factor and Ask a Korean is dead right in writing the following, although he failed to mention that a higher position usually does come with age, sometimes regardless of ability and that this is an ongoing problem in Korean businesses and is the cause of a great deal of age discrimination.  The discrimination occurs because employers do not want to hire older people for lower positions down to the discomfort it might cause with younger employees of higher position. This is not always the case, but this discomfort experienced from younger employees telling elders what to do is very real and is hinted at in the following quote from the article:
If you think that a Korean person in a professional setting would show any disrespect to a person who is 14 years older just because he slightly outranks the other, you know absolutely nothing about Korean culture.
I know all this better than most because of dealing with my wife's family (she is Korean, in case this is your first time reading this blog).  Questioning my in-law's decisions is not really an option for me, at least not directly.  My wife and I have to form subtle strategies of persuasion or out and out lying to get around not agreeing with their plans for us.  This is not simply my in-law's personality, it is a cultural norm and if it is their own personality, it has been highly influenced by culture, anyway.  It is no coincidence that my in-laws and I have almost completely differing opinions and values.  I have hardly met anyone with parents in Korea where avoiding a rather direct form of communication in disagreement is not the case.  There will be exceptions, of course, but they are very exceptional.  Ask a Korean must surely accept this point, he is a Korean after all, he must be aware of the etiquette in conversing and dealing with elders in Korea.
Culturalism, Plane Crashes, and Ask a Korean's Error
If he and the rest of you do accept this point, how on earth the possibility of a breakdown in honest communication on cultural grounds cannot be considered to be a factor in a plane crash - which seems to be nothing to do with a mechanical fault - appears, at best, to be an over-sight and at worst a dangerous lack of consideration, particularly with the recordings of conversations in the cockpit sounding so ambiguous. The next thing to note is that this could indeed happen between people from any culture, but the important question is whether it is more likely to happen in Korean culture.  I cannot believe that anyone with experience of living and working in Korea would say that it is just as likely as anywhere else.
Another area of agreement I have with Ask a Korean is the issue of the language used:
90 percent of the conversation among the three pilots is in English.
Seems to me that cultural norms can be maintained whatever language you are speaking (you can be indirect, overly-polite, and even unclear in English as well as Korean), but then something puzzled me when he then tried to explain the language used in the Guam air-crash, which seemed to actually counter his own argument. I will use the two examples below from the article:
[W]hen the first officer says: "Don't you think it rains more? In this area, here?" we know what he means by that:Captain. You have committed us to visual approach, with no backup plan, and the weather outside is terrible. You think we will break out of the clouds in time to see the runway. But what if we don't? It's pitch-black outside and pouring rain and the glide scope is down.
 "Captain, the weather radar has helped us a lot," he says.
The weather radar has helped us a lot?A second hint from the flight deck. What the engineer means is just what the first officer meant.This isn't a night where you can rely on just your eyes to land the plane. Look at what the weather radar is telling us: there's trouble ahead.
These two examples confuse me entirely and I agree with Ask a Korean that the interpretations by Gladwell are ludicrous.  Are we to take his word for it that "we know what he means by that...." and "What the engineer means...."  How on earth does he know what they meant and how it was received?  I don't even think the full transcript of the conversation makes things any clearer.
CAPTAIN: 어... 정말로... 졸려서... (불분명) [eh... really... sleepy... (unintelligible words)]
FIRST OFFICER: 그럼요 [Of course]
FIRST OFFICER: 괌이 안 좋네요 기장님 [Captain, Guam condition is no good]
FIRST OFFICER: Two nine eighty-six
CAPTAIN: 야! 비가 많이 온다 [Uh, it rains a lot]
CAPTAIN: (unintelligible words)
CAPTAIN: 가다가 이쯤에서 한 20 마일 요청해 [Request twenty miles deviation later on]
CAPTAIN: ... 내려가면서 좌측으로 [... to the left as we are descending]
(UNCLEAR SPEAKER): (chuckling, unintelligible words)
FIRST OFFICER: 더 오는 것같죠? 이 안에. [Don't you think it rains more? In this area, here?]
As a non-Korean I wasn't sure that Koreans would indeed read into what was being said in this way, so I asked my wife about it (who is Korean).  She was not so sure and commented that it very much depended on the personality of the pilot.  She agreed with me, though, that the language was not especially clear; their meanings could be interpreted in different ways.  It appears as if Gladwell is generalising a point about all Koreans and how they would receive information because it suits his argument.  The curious thing, however, it that this would suit Ask a Korean's argument too, if all Koreans knew that these rather unclear statements were actually grave warnings.  Bizarrely, however, if you did make a sweeping assumption that all Koreans took this use of language as a definite and strong warning it would go against Gladwell's "cockpit culture" theory.  The fact that they could easily be interpreted differently actually suits Gladwell's argument that the language used was unclear, unsafe, and possibly overly respectful to the pilot.  Later on in his post Ask a Korean goes on to rightly criticize others for not treating people as individuals, as follows:
And here, we come to the greatest harm that culturalism causes: like racism, culturalism destroys individual agency. Under culturalism, a huge group of individuals are rendered into a homogeneous mass of automatons, eternally condemned to repeat the same mistakes. We still don't know what exactly caused the Asiana crash. But it is hardly outlandish to think that it was a simple human error. To err is human, as they say--but culturalist explanation robs Korean pilots of this basic humanity. Because of our culturalist impulse, a Korean pilot cannot even make a mistake without tarnishing all other Korean pilots.
To me, my wife hit the nail on the head with her response, "it depends on their personality."  She is damned right, of course, but she also has had experience of many communication problems based on hierarchical status culture when she worked as a nurse in Korea.  She said to me that she often could not speak honestly with elder co-workers of higher position and that this caused a significant amount of friction between them all as a working team and it could seriously be deemed as a possibility for the near death of the patient at her hospital that I mentioned in my post "The Perils of Respect Culture."  So, what should be noted is that although everyone is an individual who can make mistakes, no matter where they are from, there are aspects of some cultures that cause patterns of behavior that make certain mistakes more likely within these individuals.  Considering both explanations is the key; one should not dismiss either.
Alarm bells started to ring in my head when the post then turned into a comparison of racism and culturalism:
Like racism, culturalism puts a large group of people beyond rational understanding.
Like racism, culturalism distracts away from asking more meaningful questions, and obscures pertinent facts.
like racism, culturalism destroys individual agency.
I think he has a point that a type of prejudice can exist that can provide over-simplified answers to certain behaviours, but I am not sure it really relates to this situation.  Although I think there will be some individuals who will use Gladwell's hypothesis for this means.  There is an easy remedy to it, however, and that is to say that culture can have a large effect on people's behavior and personality (which it surely does) but at the end of the day we shouldn't forget that people are individuals who are capable of their own mistakes, their own evils, and their own kindnesses and good points.  Again, it seems to me that you can accept cultural explanations without putting people, "beyond rational understanding", by doing this.  To regularly compare using cultural explanations for behavior to racism is damaging to free speech and is most of all untrue.  Race explanations for behavior have mostly been debunked by science and if there were any decent reasons to suspect that race made people significantly different, what could one do about it, considering they can't change their genes?  Culture is learned behaviour, ideas, and thinking that is not innate; importantly it can be changed in people alive today and for future generations.  Ways of doing things and living within a culture should be subject to exactly the same scrutiny as any other ideas.
Call me a culturalist or even make the mistake of turning this into racist, if you like, but all this is perhaps a result of the interminably politically correct age in which we live in.  Culture really matters; it really can determine the ways in which we act as individuals, for the good or for the ill.  There are aspects of all cultures that are mistaken, annoying, dangerous, and also wonderful.  Criticising or even condemning one aspect of a culture is not an attack on the whole.  Coming-up with an entirely plausible theory (based on actual aircraft investigations and interviews) established on an aspect of another country's culture is not anything other than trying to discover the truth, which in the end might save lives.  Calling it "cultutralism" and drawing comparisons to racism is entirely wrong.
To be fair, he did mention this in his post:
This post is not to say that a culture is immune from criticism.
However, he went on further to say:
Rather, this is to critique the way in which we deploy the cultural criticism. If we recognize that culturalism is ridiculous in the context of two bad shots by two golfers who happen to be from the same country, why do we fail to recognize the same when it comes to two plane crashes involving two airlines that happen to operate out of the same country? If we think it is valid to wonder if Korean culture factors into this plane crash, why were we never beset with the same curiosity about the French culture in the last plane crash? If it is so obvious to us that we would not sacrifice our lives, and the lives of hundreds of others, for the sake of good manners, why do we so easily believe that other people will readily throw away their lives for the same reason?
Firstly, one should not think that Korean pilots have it in their minds that they could be knowingly endangering people's lives for the sake of manners.  If it is the case that the cultural explanation is indeed the correct one, there surely is no way they are saying to themselves, "what is more important; manners or saving people's lives?" Cultural behaviours often occur unconsciously, so there is no conscious dialog and reasoning of the sort that is suggested here.
Culturalism, Plane Crashes, and Ask a Korean's Error
There are also a number of comparisons here that need to be examined further; first the golfers.  In the case of pilot miscommunication there is a reasonable cultural hypothesis as to why it could happen (hierarchical status culture), is there the same for golf? Unlikely, but actually, I could envisage a situation where there could be. The individual focus of Western culture means that it is more likely that a high regard is placed on self-reliance and Westerners are brought up to be self-confident and even sometimes arrogant compared to Easterners (there again will be many exceptions down to the fact people are individuals). Arrogance is a common complaint I here about Westerners from Korean people.  Far Easterners are not brought-up in the same way and tend to be more reliant on others (again with exceptions).  Now let's imagine a par five with a water hazard in-front of the green.  Two Canadians go for broke and try and reach in two and both fail, dumping their second shots into the water and making a bogey.  They took a chance because they were confident in their ability, maybe even thought too highly of themselves and were guilty of over-confidence. Conversely, two South Korean golfers play the same hole, but choose to lay-up short of the water on their second shots, pitch over the water and make birdies because they were less confident in their own ability, maybe even less deluded.  You can also switch this around and say that the Canadian golfers believed in themselves, took a chance and it paid off and they both made eagles, it doesn't matter.
Now, I hear you say that this is ridiculous and obviously highly speculative, but this is plausible.  Perhaps golfing statistics on certain holes on certain courses in major championships might prove this point true or not. Indeed it would be an interesting sports psychology study to see if Western golfers take on more risky shots than Asian golfers.  My point is, though, that a cultural explanation for two golfers of the same country making similar mistakes is not entirely out of the realms of possibilities and that this anecdotal evidence could lead to further study.  This is how science works; we create hypotheses often thought-up from anecdotal observations and test them to see if they are right.  Whether these speculative observations are right or wrong doesn't matter, they are needed to forward our knowledge.  An experiment that proves an hypothesis wrong is just as important as one that proves it right.  If you are reading and are thinking that it is offensive to form such an idea about golfers from different countries, perhaps you should really ask yourself why.  All I am saying is that there could be a difference in the way people from opposite sides of the world, with opposing cultural values, view a given situation and act accordingly, with plenty of room for the fact there might be no difference between them whatsoever.
The next comparison he makes is more directly related to the topic, and that is of French pilots.  Why don't we question culture when they have an accident?  Again you have to find a link between the French culture and the possibility of communication problems or other types of problems in the cockpit, which I am not so sure is as obvious as in Korean culture.  But again, for the sake of argument, let's choose the old chestnut of the French being arrogant. If recordings of cockpit conversations before the crash picked-up a cocky and arrogant captain, we would indeed have cause to question the culture as well as him/her personally.  Again, you should not discount either theory straight-away; individual error alone or individual error based on culture.  Imagine a conversation a long these lines:
First Officer: Captain, Guam condition is no good.
Captain: I have landed this plane a hundred times at this airport, this is no problem.  I can do it.
First Officer: Captain, the weather radar has helped us a lot.  Don't try and land the plane just relying on your eyes, there is trouble ahead.
Captain: Do you know who you are speaking to?  I am Jean-Baptiste Levere, I am the best pilot in all of France!
As a result, there would be plenty of people saying things like, "typical arrogant French, the reason for the crash is their culture."  We could dismiss most of it as stereotyping and prejudice, but it would be negligent not to follow-up on possible signs of over-confidence in French pilots and ways they could stop this happening, especially if there was more than one crash where arrogance was a suspected cause.  The cultural explanation must be considered a possibility.  If you don't explore this as a possible cause, you run the risk of more accidents and more deaths.  To my knowledge, however, this does not seem to be an issue in French aviation.
Again, to be fair, Ask a Korean covers this also:
Sure, I suppose culture plays a role in every part of our lives, so it may be valid to ask whether Korean culture playedsomerole in the Asiana crash. It may also be valid to watch two Canadian golfers hit a bad shot in two different occasions in a golf tournament, and wonder aloud whether Canadian culture played a role in those occasions. However, we do have to think about the quality of that question. If entertaining that question seriously wastes time and distracts from asking the more realistic and pertinent questions, the question is not worth thinking about.
To this I would say a few things; how do you know whether the question being asked is a quality one before you hear it?  How do you know you haven't missed something without considering it carefully?  In the case of the Asiana crash, like he says, we might have to wait a whole year before we really know what happened and we are still highly unsure as to the cause.  Does the cultural explanation really waste precious time (we have a whole year)?  And do you think that the air crash investigators are so distracted by this argument that they will not explore every possible reason for the plane crashing?  Is the question really not worth thinking about?  I think that would be a dangerous assumption.
Another thing:
It is not a coincidence that a culturalist explanation runs especially rampant with anything involving Asia. When a massive tsunami, followed by the Fukushima disaster, struck Japan last year, one could not take two (metaphorical) steps in the Internet without coming across a grand explanation about how Japanese culture contributed to the nuclear meltdown, or how Japanese culture enabled the Japanese to respond to the disaster with resolve. Yet no similar analysis ever emerged about American culture or British culture when the BP oil spill--one of the most catastrophic environmental disasters--occurred in the Gulf of Mexico. The supposedly earnest questions about Korean culture and Asiana crash are cropping up now, but when the Air France plane crashed in 2009, killing 216 passengers, nobody even wondered about the connection between the French culture and Air France crash. Why? Because Americans and Europeans are always accorded with the privilege of being treated as individuals, while Asians remain a great undifferentiated mass, unknown and unknowable.
Is it just me or does this more than hint that it is mainly Westerners that attribute cultural explanations for the behavior of groups of people, especially in Asia?  Perhaps Ask a Korean is wearing blinkers to the Eastern arguments of Western culturally caused problems.  How many times have I heard since living in Korea arguments like: "It's Western food culture that is making Koreans fatter"; "It's Western capitalism and their culture of individualism and selfish personal gain that is making Koreans unhappy"; "It is Western culture's more liberal attitude to sex that means they sleep around more, which makes them so dangerous to Korean women and spreads HIV"; "Westerners are arrogant, selfish and value their freedom too much and this is why they behave badly when drunk."  I am also pretty damn sure I did here a cultural explanation for the BP oil spill in the Western media (Google "Capitalism and the BP oil disaster").  It wasn't specifically about British culture, but about capitalism (began and promulgated by the West) generally breeding selfish money-grabbers who cut corners on safety to earn more money.
So, you can see, Asians do it to Westerners too and in most cases I agree with them.  Western capitalism is probably having an effect on happiness in Asia, Western food culture might well be making Asians fatter (makes you wonder why many Koreans and Asians generally embrace them both so much though) and the values of individualism and personal freedom may make Westerners more licentious drunks and drug takers. At least these possibilities are worth considering.  We in our respective countries need to look at these criticisms of our culture coming from overseas and decide whether they have a point, not blow it off as culturalism that is allied to racism.
I have used the example of British drinking culture many times as a like for like negative example on this blog and will do it again.  If you think the behavior of Brits abroad on drink and drug-filled beaches in South East Asia and indeed in their own hometowns has nothing to do with culture, I would wonder what planet you're living on.  (Note: There are a great many issues in Far East and South East Asian countries when it comes to drink and drugs and their own cultures create different and often equally detrimental effects that aren't quite as obvious, which I won't go into here.)
Specifically licentious, disrespectful, irresponsible, and boorish behavior in this way is shared by many other Western country's people, not just the British, and could be the troublesome side-effect of a cultural likeness between us that values freedom, individuality, and happiness over almost all things.  These people often make the mistake of turning freedom into licentiousness and the right to be stupid and replacing genuine contentment and happiness into a short-term high induced by drugs, alcohol, and sex (in moderation none of these three need be a bad thing).  It is not freedom or happiness how it should be, but it occurs nonetheless and it is not only the brainless, poor or uneducated that do it.  Many a bright, intelligent university student can be found in a pool of their own vomit (I was one of them once, although not that intelligent), in a drugged-up stupor, in a drunken fight, or ruining the beautiful surroundings of a once idyllic island in Thailand at a full moon party. This must be acknowledged as a cultural problem, which it is by those in Asia and the Middle-East and most of us agree with them (one of the main reasons for Westerners converting to Islam has been suggested to be the perceived shallow and licentious nature of Western culture and the push-back to it). Why can't we do the same for other countries as we do for our own?  Cultural explanations for things such as alcohol and drug tourism, anti-social behaviour, and plane crashes must be part of the discussion and we should not be so sensitive about it.
There is no doubt that Ask a Korean's article was a well-researched and interesting one and he has a case against Gladwell, but I get a bee in my bonnet about any attempt to restrict the free flow of ideas and freedom of speech.  I know this was not intended, but the use of an "ism" in such a way is always a red flag to me.  It tends to insinuate an action of unfairness and prejudice, which in turn has the effect of silencing ideas that could be deemed too controversial or a waste of time.  Malcolm Gladwell used research and some knowledge of Korean culture to bring forth a highly reasonable theory into the plane crashes of some Korean airliners and there is nothing wrong with this, even if his analysis is utterly false (although I am not entirely convinced it is).   It is perfectly reasonable, of course, to site the reasons he may be wrong, like Ask a Korean did, but calling it "culturalism" and comparing it to racism is unhelpful and damaging to future dialog between us all.  Why should Koreans be so offended for highlighting one aspect of their culture that could cause harm in certain situations? They should welcome it, so they could address it and identify if there really is a problem and, if so, change it.  And Westerners and people from other parts of the world should be able to do exactly the same.
The irony of it all is that it could be the West's concentration on the individual, personal freedom and responsibility, and its history of issues regarding racism that has shaped a culture so unwilling to admit that a the collective consciousness called "culture" can be a factor in determining many of the reasons why people behave in the ways they do.  Indeed the amazing popularity of Ask a Korean's post is evidence that people are very open to this way of thinking.  If we all don't get over this and continue the taboo of criticising culture (which I think Ask a Korean's post promotes), the truth will be hidden from us and we will all have to endure walking on glass in our dealings with other people from around the world, where a good cultural explanation exists, yet we can't say it for fear of being labeled a "culturalist" or racist.  This has the added effect of keeping prejudices silent yet ever present in people's minds; repressed and inhibited with the chance of exploding, instead of remedied.  Surely a cure for a disease is preferable to simply enabling people to cope with the suffering of it or giving it a chance to mutate into something much worse.
Prejudice does exist about different cultures, but it is not going to go away if we don't take each claim as it comes and dismiss it or confirm it through reason and evidence.  One of the big reasons why racist attitudes are slowly decreasing and maligned is the evidence from biology.  We now know that we all descended from Africa, we know for a fact there are no differences in intelligence; that it can vary in different people of different races, and we know for a fact we all react emotionally and feel pain in much the same way. Evidence puts all this beyond reasonable doubt and leaves the racists nowhere to go to make their arguments justified.  For this reason we need to put the same theories into practice to people who hold prejudices about culture.  Labeling ideas as "culturalism" that are a sign of prejudice or are a waste of time to talk about will not achieve this goal, as those who have potentially culturalist views will simply be shut up.  Silenced, yes, but they will still hold these views and from what I can see in the world, large numbers of people are just like this. There is a better way forward to understanding each other and reducing prejudice in the world.

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