Korean matters

9 Jul

The ongoing coverage of the terrible Asiana Airlines plane crash on Saturday includes this headline from today’s Chronicle: “Asiana crash a point of national shame for Koreans” (http://www.sfgate.com/news/world/article/Asiana-crash-a-point-of-national-shame-for-Koreans-4654276.php). In describing “the link between the success or failure of South Korean firms and a sense of national pride or shame,” the article notes the 1997 Korean Air crash that occurred when an experienced pilot missed the Guam airport and hit a mountain while making a second attempt to land. That crash killed 228 of the 254 people on board.

Malcolm Gladwell writes about the Korean Air crash in his article “The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes,” which you can read in his book Outliers. Gladwell presents a theory of communication failure that involves two cultures: the culture of the cockpit, which has a clear chain of command; and the culture of Korea, which also has a high power distance index, meaning that Koreans tend in general to respect authority and maintain a social hierarchy. (The term “power distance index” was coined by Geert Hofstede, who developed a theory of cultural dimensions doing research for IBM in the 60’s and 70’s).

Gladwell’s article is a vivid example of how culture matters–not just how it’s interesting, colorful or exotic, but how it shapes our everyday interactions, decisions and actions. The implication is not that a cockpit crew of US Americans (who have a much lower power distance than Koreans) is innately better or superior: little respect for authority could obviously have disastrous consequences during a life-or-death situation. The point is that understanding power distance and other normative aspects of culture (like distinction between gender roles, focus on the short v. long term, and valuation of the individual v. the collective) can help us communicate with more awareness, intention and effectiveness, whether we’re trying to communicate intraculturally or interculturally.

For more on Hofstede’s work, you can get an overview on wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hofstede%27s_cultural_dimensions_theory

and go to his website: http://geert-hofstede.com/.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: