Tuesday, July 16, 2013

My Thoughts on Gladwell's Response

Before we begin this post, a note about the related posts.

- This is my initial post about culturalism, plane crashes, and Malcolm Gladwell's assessment of Korean culture and plane crashes.

- This is my follow-up post, reacting to the initial round of responses by various commenters, issuing a correction and discussing some leftover thoughts.

- This is the post in which Malcolm Gladwell responded to my initial post.

Please read these three posts before you read this one; otherwise, this post will not make sense.

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Mr. Gladwell was kind enough to send me a response, which I posted in this space as I received it. Below, I present my thoughts on Gladwell's response.

1.  "The Most Puzzling Part of the Article"

Gladwell wrote about the most puzzling part of my post was to him:
I will point out, once again, that this particular question was at the heart of the report filed by the investigation team at the NTSB. It is the heart of Robert Helmreich’s analysis of the crash. In fact, every single pilot I spoke to about that crash (and I spoke to many) brought up this same point. Why didn’t the others speak up?

So why does your critique argue? That the other pilots did speak up!  To quote:

“The first officer spoke up directly, clearly, and unmistakably: "Captain, Guam condition is no good." It is difficult to imagine how a person could be more direct about the poor weather condition.”
I am confused by this reaction. If Gladwell's point is that nobody in the cockpit of KAL Flight 801 spoke up about the dangers of the landing approach, he is taking a long walk back from his own writing in Outliers. If Gladwell's entire point in Outliers is that nobody spoke up, for example, the portion from Outlier below is unnecessary and irrelevant:
"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.
If Gladwell's entire point in Outliers is that nobody spoke up, why did Gladwell discuss what the flight engineer said, and what the flight engineer really meant? 

Because the point in Outliers was not that nobody spoke up; the point was that although the co-pilots did speak up, but they spoke up in a manner that was too indirect to be effective, because they were constrained by Korean culture. It is within this context where I said "[t]he first officer spoke up directly, clearly, and unmistakably" about the weather conditions.

I can agree that the co-pilots did not speak up forcefully enough; after all, their plane did crash. My point was that the co-pilots did speak up, albeit ineffectively. Importantly, that was Gladwell's initial point in Outliers as well. Our disagreement is more granular: in Outliers, Gladwell said that the co-pilots spoke up, but too indirectly; my point is that the co-pilots spoke up, and directly. In his response to my post, Gladwell is saying he was trying to figure out why nobody spoke up. These two positions espoused by Gladwell, before and after my criticism, are not consistent.

2.  Korean Air's Safety Record

Gladwell wrote in his response:
[I]t was not me who concluded that Korean Air had a problem. It was the international aviation community. . . .  Most important, Korean Air thought it had a problem. Once again, the article is in the strange position of arguing that Korean Air was wrong about what was wrong about Korean Air. (By the way, I’m a little puzzled as to why an incident where a Korean Air flight wandered into Russian airspace—at the height of the Cold War—doesn’t belong in a discussion of pilot competence.)
This reaction is also confusing to me, because I definitely did not argue that KAL's safety record was satisfactory. In fact, in the original post, I made it quite explicit that Korean Air's safety record was less than ideal, when I wrote:
Even without Gladwell's deck-stacking, it is true that Korean Air had a spotty safety record. Like Korea itself, the airline grew extremely fast between the 1970s and 1990s. Because of its very fast growth, even subpar pilots got a job, and training became spotty.
Here, again, Gladwell raises a supposed disagreement that I never had with him. I expressly stated that Korean Air's safety record was poor. The disagreement is over the cause of the poor safety record, and more precisely, the cause of Flight 801's crash. Why did Flight 801 crash in Guam? In Outliers, Gladwell said it was because of Korean culture. I am skeptical about that explanation, because of the way in which Gladwell proved it up. That's our core disagreement, not whether KAL had a spotless safety record.

3.  Too Many Remaining Questions

After I posted Gladwell's response yesterday, I received several queries over emails, comment section and Twitter asking the same question: is that all of Gladwell's response? Are you sure the response is not cut off somehow? No--I posted Mr. Gladwell's response exactly the way I received it, without any edit or change.

But I can see why people thought that way. There are just too many remaining questions that Gladwell simply did not address, even if simply I accepted all of Gladwell's counterpoints. To wit:

(a) Why did Gladwell fail to interview a Korean pilot?

Gladwell notes that I was incorrect about Korea's military hierarchy. For the record, I do not believe I was incorrect in my original post. Recall that virtually all Korean males serve in the military. What I wrote in my post is based on the military experience of numerous Korean men with whom I have conversed. Generally speaking, it is true that a bit more respect is accorded to a lower-ranking soldier who is older than the higher-ranking soldier, compared to a lower-ranking soldier who is younger than the higher-ranking soldier. It is also true, generally speaking, that military pedigree matters in the level of respect a soldier is accorded.

However, I will readily admit that none of the men I spoke with served in the Air Force, and none of them served as an officer on a career track. So when a commenter who said he served as a naval officer pointed out particular features of Korean military officers who serve as a pilot, I readily accepted his authority and posted a correction. I posted the correction because while my general knowledge may not have been incorrect, it was misleading. I wish I had the chance to speak with an actual Korean pilot who previously served as an Air Force officer, but as someone who blogs for hobby in his spare time, I just did not have the resource to find and interview such a person.

You know who did have the resource to do so? Malcolm Gladwell. He is a world-famous writer; he can speak with virtually anyone in the world. It is not as if Gladwell had to interview Vladimir Putin about Russia's nuclear launch code. He simply had to speak with a few Korean pilots to test his theory. But this apparently did not happen.

Gladwell says in his response that he spoke with many pilots about the KAL Flight 801. I do not doubt that he did. But that only makes Gladwell's failure to speak with a Korean pilot even more glaring. Why did Gladwell fail to interview even a single Korean pilot, when he was writing about Korean pilots? Why did Gladwell speak with so many pilots, except a Korean one?

(b) Why did Gladwell fail to note that three KAL flights crashed because of military/terrorist attack?

Gladwell questioned why I would not include the two KAL flights that were shot down in the category of pilot error. I would not, because I think there is a difference between a pilot error that puts an airplane in the wrong airspace and a pilot error that puts an airplane into the side of a mountain. But even if I concede the point, several questions remain. For example:

- Why did Gladwell describe the shoot-down of only one of the KAL flights in Outliers? Remember, there were two KAL flights that were shot down by Russian jets: Flight 902 and Flight 007. Gladwell notes that Flight 902 was shot down, but simply states that the Flight 007 just crashed. Why? If Gladwell thought the KAL flights that were shot down should be ascribed to pilot error, why would he skip over Flight 007, which would have bolstered his argument?

- It seems like everyone agrees that Flight 858's crash, which occurred because North Korean terrorists planted a bomb, should not be ascribed to a pilot error. That would be silly; it would be like ascribing the 9/11 terrorist attacks to pilot error. But why did Gladwell include this in KAL's safety record? And why did Gladwell did not discuss the cause of this crash at all?

(c) Why did Gladwell fail to note that the pilots were speaking in English?

Why did Gladwell fail to note that the pilots of the Flight 801 were speaking mostly in English? Gladwell explains in his response: "Language does not drive culture. It reflects it. A Korean or a Colombian or a Saudi Arabian who speaks English does not, at that moment, become a different person: they still carry with them the assumptions of their own culture."

First of all, the claim that "language does not drive culture" is up for debate, to say the least. But even if we completely accepted that premise for Gladwell's sake, isn't the fact that the pilots were speaking mostly in English still relevant? Doesn't that fact at least deserve a footnote and an explanation as to why Korean culture is still in operation, regardless of the language spoken? Isn't it misleading for Gladwell to focus so much about the features of Korean language, and fail to note that the pilots were speaking mostly in English?

(d) Why did Gladwell quote the transcript selectively?

Why did Gladwell quote the transcript that appear in pp. 185-187 of the NTSB report in a selective manner? The original transcript has 11 lines of conversation. The transcript that Gladwell presented has three. In the eight lines that Gladwell omitted, (1) the first officer raises the weather condition to the captain in a direct manner ("Captain, Guam condition is no good"), and; (2) the captain himself makes an observation about the poor weather ("Uh, it rains a lot"). Both of these lines are relevant to the assessment as to whether the pilots of Flight 801 properly assessed the danger resulting from the poor weather conditions. Yet these lines are missing in Gladwell's presentation of the transcript. Why?

(e) How was Gladwell able to interpret the co-pilots' inner monologue?

Gladwell presents a remarkably specific interpretation of what Flight 801's co-pilots intended to say, when they said seemingly meaningless phrases such as "Don't you think it rains more?" or "Captain, the weather radar has helped us a lot." According to Gladwell, when Flight 801's first officer said "Don't you think it rains more?", it really meant: "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." Similarly, when the flight engineer said "Captain, the weather radar has helped us a lot", he really 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"--according to Gladwell.

(Quick note from reader Michael A. who emailed me: apparently, the correct term for the malfunctioning equipment on Flight 801 is "glide slope," not "glide scope" as Gladwell wrote in Outliers.)

By Gladwell's own explanation, Korean language is highly context-specific, and "[i]t is up to the listener to make sense of what is being said." (Emphasis in original.) In this instance, Gladwell is the "listener" of what the co-pilots were saying. And there is still no indication that Gladwell can speak Korean or is somehow intimately familiar with Korean culture. Then how is Gladwell able to give such lengthy and specific interpretation about what these Korean co-pilots intended to say? How do we really know if these co-pilots were actually saying what Gladwell represented, or if they were simply engaged in an idle chatter? (And again, why didn't Gladwell just show the transcript to a Korean pilot and ask, which would have obviated this entire issue?)

*             *             *

In my email exchange with Mr. Gladwell, he expressed displeasure at my charge that he committed journalistic malpractice. I am sure no journalist is happy to hear that charge leveled against him. But even after giving the maximum possible amount of reasonable doubt, there are just too many remaining questions about Malcolm Gladwell's methodology, as he analyzed the connection between Korean culture and the Flight 801 crash. Until those questions are resolved, I am standing by what I wrote.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. My guess is that he read some sort of internal document regarding the accident prepared by Korean Air, or has interviewed somebody at Korean Air regarding the incident and took their word for it. Also his interpretation isn't too absurd; at least I didn't really find such interpretation odd when reading Outliers (I read the Korean translated version, so my experience may differ from yours).

    But honestly, I am still baffled about Gladwell's response. It seems that he's not getting to the point but raising issues with not-so-relevant technical parts of the big issue - blaming things on culture.

    1. It's just very disappointing that Malcolm won't stand by his work. The ethnic theory of plane crashes: linking a specific culture (with limited working knowledge) to a larger framework of pilot deference was very much Malcolm's work. But instead of addressing the fallacies of his argument, he palms off the entire thing to the "aviation community."

      The issue that framed Malcolm's ethnic theory were airplane CRASHES yet when pointed out the inconsistency of lumping together various disparate incidents (like missle launches and navigational and mechanical errors) he passes on that opportunity to again, pass the buck to the Canadian government and Korean Air.

      The most inane comment he posts though is asserting that Greenberg came in with job 1 of making "English-language skills a priority" while ghsot face conceeding that the communication in the cockpit was almost entirely in English.

      He literally just ignores portions of transcripts and events when they contradict his broad characterizations. Even when POINTED out, he's like "nope... HEY LOOK OVER THERE"

    2. I think Outliers has some points.
      1. Language does matter. When I meet a new person, I like to speak in English or Chinese, because Korean language is too subtle in polite form. If one misuses a polite form in Korean language, the communication will be very hard to be continued.
      2. Outliers presents an evidence in which Korean pilots changed their cockpit language. Nobody denies this evidence.
      3. There are multiple factors of culture, such as language, religion, history etc. Language is just an important factor.
      4. Recent Sewol ship disaster tells the same theory. Korean men usually have military experience, which makes the Korean society extremely hierarchical. Even Samsung, the global company, runs in military style.
      5. Look into north Korea. A sinking ship or falling plane? Why such a strange thing is going on?

  2. Here is my take, which I suspect won't be too different from Gladwell's more eloquent version should he have the time and the inclination to respond to such hairsplitting brouhaha:

    1) I suspect when Gladwell said no one spoke up, he wasn't being literal. He meant that the copilot should have been more assertive about using a glide slope instead of a visual approach. You think "Captain, the weather radar has helped us a lot" is direct? Really? How about "Captain, we need to use the glide slope now because visual approach won't work" - isn't that much more direct?

    2) If KAL's safety record wasn't an issue in the first place, why bring this issue up at all and try to convince us that the 2 Soviet airspace crashes shouldn't be counted. If it is a conceded point, why the need to nitpick points that are immaterial?

    3a) How do you know he didn't interview a Korean pilot? Again, if you're going to accuse someone of journalistic malpractice, you better be able to back it up.

    3b) Again, if you conceded the point that KAL was accident prone, this point is moot. He probably just said Flight 007 crashed because it had flown about 5-10 minutes even after it was shot by the Soviet plane.

    3c) Who cares if the pilots were speaking mostly English. The pertinent dialogue about the weather and the weather radar was in Korean. Look at your original post in which you translated the Korean into English. And Gladwell's point is that even IF they had been speaking in English, your culture does not disappear. Do you really think a native Korean speaking in English all of a sudden loses his cultural mannerisms (like speaking directly and antagonistically to your superior)?

    3d) For the sake of brevity and because it is a trivial point. This chapter was just a small part of the book. And the phrases that were omitted doesn't really establish otherwise. "Captain, Guam condition is no good" and "Uh, it rains a lot" aren't exactly speaking up. Speaking up would be "The weather is bad. Visual approach won't work. We need to use the glide slope to land." Now, why couldn't the copilot just say that?

    3e) Maybe he asked Korean pilots what those pilots were really thinking when they said that. Or maybe, the inner dialogues are reasonable interpretations given the situation - for example, why is the copilot talking about the weather and mentioning that the weather radar worked well before? Why not just say that they need to use the glide slope NOW because the weather is bad? The copilot never really connects 3 things: the weather, the glide slope, and NOW.

    Your argument went from Gladwell being "dead wrong" about Korean culture to simply nitpicking semantics and immaterial points. I, for one, would have appreciated a well-reasoned argument on other factors that may have contributed to KAL's bad safety record other than culture. Instead, this post has become the equivalent of an English class where a teacher berates a student for omitting a comma.

    1. I agree.

      The central argument is about two things: if the subordinates feel as if they can speak up, and if their superiors will listen to them if they do. Then the question is how culture plays into this. Looking beyond all this nitpicking for a moment, I think it's fair to say that whether or not subordinates feel like they can speak up and whether or not their superiors listen to them is a cultural thing. We can't deny that there is a cultural hierarchy but the flying of an airplane should be oriented around the safety of the passengers. Did the training and demonstration of flying until that time exclude the cultural hierarchy or did it allow that to remain in the cockpit?

      It's easy for people to say that in their experience Korean culture is very hierarchical. I personally strongly dislike the work culture here. But the argument should be whether the airline or whoever is responsible for training the crew is keeping that culture from negatively affecting the proper running of the ship.

      Many aspects of Korea's hierarchical social structure seem to be in some conflict with activities like flying where the stakes are high and team work is necessary. I'm not saying that people from Korean culture cannot do those things well but that they would have to make a concerted effort to disregard their hierarchy when it is counter productive.

      Also, talking about culturalism like it's racism is a mistake. Culturalism is about whether a persons culture defines them not about saying a culture is wrong/bad/good. We should be critical of culture so that we can evolve and grow. Of course it's much more productive to be critical of your own culture than another but observing other culture's pitfalls is also something that society can grow from. I know that all the blaming of culture on this crash has gotten really extreme but that doesn't mean that adherence to cultural norms hasn't caused problems in these incidents.

    2. A couple points.

      Airplane crashes are relatively rare events. I don't know the actual statistics involved but changing the accounting of blame for 3 crashes could drastically change KAL from being the worst airline in the world to being average depending on what timeframe you look at.

      You might also take a look at pilot culture when they assign blame to themselves or to other pilots. Work cultures where safety is a paramount concern often proactively take responsibility where it is possible to have some control over the circumstances. This does not mean the KAL pilots were wholly at fault for the airplane crash in the aforementioned instances.

      If you look at the history of those flight incidents, the Soviets were predisposed to shoot down anything that violated their airspace due to Cold War tensions. Conversely during the same time period, the US did not shoot down civilian planes for repeated instances of airspace violations. The Soviets later backed down from their policy under international pressure. Contextually speaking to me, it seems clear that these are not apples-to-apples comparisons of crashes. If you really want to do a real comparison, you need data on airspace violations of Korean pilots compared to those committed by pilots of other countries.

      We could even take a current example and I readily admit that this may be unwise territory for me to go into: the Zimmerman case. Assuming you believe the version of the story laid out in trial, it was wrong for George Zimmerman to pursue Trayvon Martin. However, Martin also bears blame for how he reacted, so you cannot assign ALL the blame on Zimmerman and convict him of murder. Likewise, KAL pilots made mistakes in navigation but there was no reasonable expectation of getting shot down in Soviet airspace without some noticeable warning. Obviously, I'm trying to simplify things so I apologize if I end up complicating the issue.

      One question that occurs to me from Gladwell's response is because he indicates that language is indicative of culture. If 90% of the transcript is in English (as indicated by the Korean), does that not in some way indicate that a cultural shift was already underway at KAL? I appreciate that his writing simplifies things for most people but at the same time I feel like most people miss some of the nuances of his writing. I will readily admit upon my first reading of his chapter years ago that my main takeaway was that changing the language spoken by pilots fixed everything. I completely forgot his second point that it was used as the key to change pilot training practices at KAL until I re-read it later.

      Finally, I have mixed feelings about his ownership of the facts presented in his writing. He seems to pass the buck by saying that the Korean is arguing with interpretations of experts and of KAL at the time of the plane crashes and NOT himself. However, when we read Outliers, we only see the data he presented and the experts that he has chosen to mention. When he dissociates himself from ownership of what he writes about, it feels a little like he's avoiding ownership of the truthfulness of his writing.

      As an non-expert, of course it makes sense for Gladwell to rely upon experts and their interpretations. However, the issue seems to be that he did not necessarily cast a critical enough eye at expert interpretations, then wrote a best seller from which people perceive Korean culture to be the determinant factor in KAL accidents, causing them to look for primarily cultural reasons in behaviors they see in people with a different color of skin when they are too lazy to dig deeper.

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    4. One thing that few people bave mentioned and that is probably most germane to this entire discussion is this: who knows why the pilots decided to use a visual approach as opposed to using instrumentation during the Flight 801? Even the NTSB report concedes this point. They give three possible explanations, but admit that they do not know why the pilots made these decisions. So to argue whether the junior pilot and engineer were trying to speak up, but did so in an indirect way that is more consistent with Korean language, or whether they really were making idle chit chat about the weather and that it never occurred to any of them that a visual approach was inappropriate is ridiculus. And it's equally ridiculous to state with any certainty that the cause was completely due to cultural influences or completely due to pilot error. Who knows? It could have been some of both or completely one or the other. We cannot know the answer to this question. (although I think it's been established that instruments should have been used in that weather, so obviously pilot error played some role in this crash and probably others as well)

      The purpose of the NTSB report was not to answer this question (since they could not), rather it was to consider the most likely possibilities from the evidence they gathered and then make recommendations. Whether KAL responded to those recommendations or whether it was the possibility of losing travel routes that convinced them to rexamine their training programs and corporate culture, I do not know. (I admit that I don't know enough about the changes made at KAL) And even though KAL implemented an "English only" policy in the cockpit, it's possible that there were concerns about the effects that Korean culture and language may have on crew performance in the future, but I do not know that it has ever been definitively proven that THIS was responsible, even chiefly, for previous KAL crashes. Based upon the changes made by Mr. Greenberg, it seems that he believed that culture and training could both have played a role in past KAL crashes, but we cannot know for certain, nor can we know to what degree either contributed to these crashes, if at all. So, I think that instead it's fair to say that both cultural and training may have played a role in these crashes, but that's about all we can say. Anything else is simply supposition.

  3. Please follow the link below to read and know about this character, Malcolm Gladwell. To quote from the link, "In the vast ecosystem of corporate shills, which one is the most effective? Propaganda works best when it is not perceived as propaganda: nuance, obfuscation, distraction, suggestion, the subtle introduction of doubt—these are more effective in the long run than shotgun blasts of lies. The master of this approach is Malcolm Gladwell."

  4. First of all, congratulations on all the reaction that your original post has elicited and for challenging a broad audience to think more critically about an issue. That is quite an accomplishment, given your day job and other commitments. Hope you'll keep it up.

    However, I must also agree with Helon Melon above. I didn't think that you had much of a choice in your response, because I thought you overshot your case in the initial post. I thought the initial post did a good job challenging the conventional thinking, but then unnecessarily went beyond the facts to draw conclusion that were obviously wrong--i.e., age gap having being primary factor in hierarchy, 90% of language being in English (they are pretty much reading/reciting off the CRM checklist which is in English rather than expressing an idea...if the pilots are in fact fluent in English, why do they have such difficulty saying anything remotely interesting and off-script over the PA system?), and that the first officer spoke up directly about the need to switch to a different landing system.

    However, I wish you could have found a more gracious exit here.

    I thought your best non-anthropological argument would be that the fact that KAL adopted new safety measures and retained an executive from Delta does not necessarily mean that KAL agrees with the views set forth by the international community. Rather, it was a conscious business decision to appease the foreign business partners and regulators by addressing the points they were most concerned about (a form of economic imperialism, you could argue).

    I'm sure a better argument could be made on an anthropological/sociological basis, and I would been amazed if had the necessary background to refute Helmreich in a credible manner. However, as you said, this is not your full time job and you didn't spend years researching a topic for a post.

    1. Finally, not to throw this blog into a existential crisis, but really how strong is your claim that you are "Korean"? Would an ahjussi who spent his entire life living and working in Korea (not necessarily in Seoul) consider you to be "Korean" with a firm understanding of the way Koreans communicate and think? Or, would they think that you drank some American water after you went to the U.S. in high school? It doesn't sound like you went to the Korean military, so what do you say when your Korean friends are talking about their military experience? Or, if you missed out on most of Korean high school, then you wouldn't know what it feels like to be Go-Sam (senior in high school), right? What about being a live-at-home college student in Korea stressing daily over GPA, job, marriage, family pressure, etc.? Or even the "Korean professionals" that you work with on a regular basis. Are these people really "Korean" or merely people with similar background as you who happen to be living in Korea at the moment? How representative are they of the Korean population-at-large? The fact that you lived in Korea for first 16 years of your life doesn't mean much to a "real" Korean if you haven't lived there for the past 10+ years. At least my wife, who lived in Korea for first 26 years of life, doesn't think so (but that's okay, because her friends who has lived in Korea for her entire life thinks that my wife has changed since she left Korea 9 years ago). The fact that you speak/write professional Korean, some would argue, doesn't make you any more Korean than Jeffrey D. Jones. I think you are treading on dangerous ground by making the "Gladwell isn't intimately familiar with Korean culture as I am" argument, because your authority quickly disappears when confronted by someone with better credentials for Korean-ness. Of course, it would be difficult for such Korean person to properly read your blog in English given the level of writing much less to provide a correction...unless s/he were an pilot fluent in English...although the person would be less likely to speak up if s/he were a first officer. :P

      Anyway, just want to say thanks for sparking a great discussion and great job with the blog. Keep it up.

    2. No Name, I will settle down in my armchair and give this my best shot. I can't directly refute Helmreich, but I will allude to him.

      If I am to believe that a race/ethnic/nation based hierarchical culture causes plane crashes then it must also be true that a race/ethnic/nation based non-hierarchical culture does not cause plane crashes.

      Of course the answer is that plane crashes do happen in societies that are both hierarchical and non-hierarchical. Moreover, they happen because of very similar reasons. See Korean Air Flight 801 (S.Korea), Avianca Flight 52 (Colombia), United Airlines Flight 173 (US), KLM Flight 4805 (Netherlands).

      In fact, the entire research and institution of CRM training began around the time that UA 173 and KLM 4805 accidents happened. Except no race/ethnic/nation based culture arguments were used to explain the accidents. It was more localized, professionalized, and universalized to the cockpit hierarchical culture. This begs the valid question, if hierarchical structure has been identified as a problem in the cockpit, why not look at society's with pronounced hierarchical structures as being one of the causes?

      The answer is you can. And in conclusion, the connection is tenuous. When it comes to commercial airline accidents non-hierarchical society's have the same hierarchical problem as hierarchical society's.

    3. my grammar sucks :-(

    4. Hi Alex,

      First, I don't believe anyone (neither Gladwell, myself nor anyone else) that a hierarchical culture "causes" plane crashes. Rather, the observation has been that a certain culture factors (including hierarchy, but also individualism, power distance, and uncertainty avoidance) may provide a barrier to ensuring that a complex set of procedures and protocols are followed without error.

      Second, of course you are right that plane crashes happen in all types of societies, both hierarchical and non-hierarchical. However, the incidents of crashes differ based on culture (

      Third, I also agree with you that we must consider that certain professions may have developed their own particular culture that may or may not be in line with the cultural norms in the general society (i.e., specific culture versus general culture). I further agree with you that it is probably difficult to determine whether it was the specific culture or general culture that was the predominant factor in a specific situation. This report provided to Boeing ( explains how different cultural cues may be operating in different situations (i.e., home, church, school, office, etc.).

      Fourth, and this is the key point of disagreement perhaps, I believe that's why Gladwell focuses on use of the Korean language in the cockpit for KAL 801. There is no getting around the fact that Korean language is loaded with cultural significance--the use of honorifics, addressing each other by title, etc.--imbues and reinforces the cultural values that exist in general Korean society, and not just the cockpit. In the U.S., I think it's safe to say that the military, surgery room and cockpits are exceptions to the general norm. In the Korea that I know and love, the difference between the military, cockpit and surgery rooms and general society is a difference of merely a few degrees.

  5. I’m pleased to see that your most recent response represents such a retreat from the position taken in your original post. Thank you. As you say, “our disagreement is more granular.” That is progress.

    1. I continue to have no idea why you believe that one sentence references to weather, repeated sporadically over the course of many minutes, represent an example of speaking up “directly” about the Captain’s decision to make a visual approach. Here is what speaking directly in that context would sound like: “Captain. The strategy your have chosen is inappropriate. You need to change it. Now.” No other pilot or investigator I ever spoken to agrees with you.

    2. I’m pleased to see that you too agree that Korean Air had a safety problem. Our disagreement on this issue seems “granular” as well.

    3. Why did I fail to interview a Korean pilot? If you had bothered to ask me before your published your article, I could have answered that question for you. I researched that chapter over the course of many months. I spoke to numerous pilots, Korean and otherwise. I interviewed crash investigators and human factors experts I interviewed the pilots who ran the Korean Air training program. I read internal Korean Air memorandum, the audit by Delta Airlines, as well as every relevant NTSB document related to crashes involving cultural deference. The only thing I did not do was interview current Korean Air management. They repeatedly declined my requests for interviews.

    4. Why did I fail to note the pilots were speaking in English? Because English is the international language of aviation. In their formal communication in the cockpit, of course the pilots were speaking English. Do you not realize this? Perhaps not. In any case, it is irrelevant. The issue is not what language the pilots were speaking. The issue is the cultural assumptions that underpin their communication.

    5. Why did I quote the transcript “selectively.” I quoted the relevant parts. The intervening dialogue in the cockpit concerns the formal business of flying the plane, and does not add materially to our understanding of the dynamics within the cockpit. The parts I quoted refer to the crucial sections where those present in the cockpit attempt to analyze and give context to their predicament. If you read the academic analyses of the Guam crash, you will see that that I chose the same key sections that they chose.

    Look. Here’s the issue. As I stated before, I think that your article raised some very important points. But the manner in which you chose to make your case was regrettable. Saying that I am guilty of “journalistic malpractice,” and that I willfully misrepresent facts, and that I engage in cultural imperialism is regrettable. That chapter in Outliers is about a series of extraordinary steps taken by Korean Air, in which an institution on the brink of collapse and disgrace turned themselves into one of the best airlines in the world. They did so by bravely confronting the fact that a legacy of their cultural heritage was frustrating open communication in the cockpit. That is not a slight on Korean culture, or any other high-power distance culture for that matter. As I point out in the next chapter in the book, when I showcase Western cultural shortcomings when it comes to ideas about effort, every culture has its flaws—and in a perfect world we would have a open conversation about how to learn from each other. You are in a good position to engage in that conversation. You should take it. Leave the name-calling behind.

    1. Good morning Malcolm, just wondering how familiar you have become over the years (through your research about Outliers or otherwise) with the Korean culture. I'm sure a lot of people would enjoy a "Ask a Korean/Ask a Gladwell" discussion about the various topics addressed in this blog, kind of like what you do with Bill Simmons on his.

    2. Thank you Mr. Gladwell for your comment. I am sorry to hear that you are displeased. But I am afraid my opinion remains the same, and I think my characterization of your work, at least in this respect, is fair. At this point, this is all I have left to say on this topic.

    3. Things no one is surprised by:

      1. Korean Air officials and pilots refused to be interviewed.

      2. TK has run and hid now that Gladwell has answered all of his spurious and misrepresented points.

      3. All of that competition for book deals and rights to the post are currently flying out the window, along with TK's credibility.

      4. As is the standard, the Korean overreaction to criticism of anything Korean always ends up looking foolish, and does not stand up to careful analysis.

      5. All you need to do to understand the difference between Gladwell and TK is take a look at their analysis of the cockpit conversation. Gladwell understands what amounts to direct and effective communication. TK quibbles with semantics and misses the larger and more important point entirely.

      "At this point, this is all I have left to say on this topic" = I GIVE UP!

      Going out with a whimper when confronted by a far superior intellect and logic, to the shock of no one.

    4. As a Korean in his 50s, I am appalled by The Korean's attitude towards Gladwell. He has raised great discussion points, but to identify himself as someone knowledgeable of the Korean Culture during the 70s-90s is a complete disrespect to our culture.
      TK is a sensationalist and most of his posts I find pretty entertaining. But for him to call out Gladwell and try to pretend he understands our culture, especially when he never truly experienced it during the times Gladwell was writing about, it's a complete fallacy.
      Gladwell wrote this chapter not to disrespect my culture (not yours TK). He is simply stating the point that all foreign pilots needed better communication skills. And by no means does he imply that current Korean pilots have this problem as he wrote the progress of Korean Air from all the crashes until now.
      He was simply stating our pilots were undertrained. It's not just the Korean culture that had this problem, and the Colombians also were retrained during that time.
      But for you to take offense to Gladwell's remarks, that's just a complete joke and you are just trying to bring attention to yourself.
      You were not old enough to truly comprehend what those airplane crashes meant to us during those times. We were even scared to ride in our own airplanes and would rather fly another airline. I would hope that this post helps you realize that you should apologize to Gladwell for accusing him of journalism malpractice. As you are a complete fraud.

    5. Gladwell wrote this chapter not to disrespect my culture (not yours TK).

      이건 상당히 무례한 발언이군요. 제가 틀린 점이 있다면 지적은 환영합니다. 하지만 "네가 한국인이냐" 수준의 발언은 참지 않겠습니다.

    6. 첨언하면, 너님은 50대의 한국인이 아닌, 한국에서 굴러다니는 외국인 쓰레기가 되지도 않는 코스프레를 하고 있다는 것에 500원 겁니다. (50대의 한국인이 AOL open ID로 댓글을 달리가 없잖아요 멍청아. 코스프레를 하려면 제대로 하던가 ㅋ)

    7. Thank you Mr. Gladwell for your comment. Unfortunately, I think you are wasting your time. The reason he didn't ask you is because he's an amateur running a blog. It seems to me "The Korean" has a chip on his shoulder. Ironically his argumentative style is reminiscent of Japanese ultranationalists picking apart articles about WW2 war crimes (slope vs scope, commodore vs commander, it's all the same MO).

      "Captain, Guam condition is no good." just says the weather in Guam, the final destination, is bad. It says nothing to any specific threat and what should be done. The arrogance of the arm chair analysis vs the investigators is staggering. It's interesting to see that when Gladwell writes about rank, "The Korean" is dismissive of it, but when a Korean officer concurs, then he backpedals.

    8. I hate to break it to you, but culture can have negative aspects (all cultures have some). It's a shame those negative aspects can quickly resort to racism even though they are separate issues, but that is the point your original article should have made, not this really poor attempt to undermine Mr. Gladwell, or claim that culture has negligible to zero effects.

    9. Mr. Gladwell, I have not read Outliers but have heard interesting, positive and negative things about the book. I have watched with much interest your interviews on CSPAN, yes I watch CSPAN when nothing else holds my attention. I should just go out and purchase one of your books. It would definitely hold my attention.

      I completely agree with your general premise that it is a fallacy to believe that a person's talent and effort are the only determining factor's in a person's success. And that culture plays a significant role in determining a person's success or failure. Moreover, I am with you when you say cultures can learn from other cultures.

      However, you lose me when you make the argument that a cause for the crash of Korean Air 801 can be attributed to Korean culture. I tend to think that when we are faced with something that does not make sense, our reflexes often look to a culture that we don't understand for the explanation.

      Helen Melon and No Name have brought up a point, without pushing the point, that I think is closer to the truth when explaining why Korean Airlines accepted and instituted the English language program. Perhaps culture can explain this better than in explaining the crash? Pragmatism and ambition. For a national airline on the verge of extinction with ambitions to be recognized internationally, belonging to a country that wishes to be recognized internationally, the crisis post Korean Air 801, must have been existential. Whether they believed it or not, they were willing to do whatever the international community demanded.

      I wonder if you can entertain that thought.

    10. After Gladwell's detailed response, TK responds with "my opinion remains the same...this is all I have left to say on this topic." In any culture or language, this response translates to "I'm taking my ball and going home" and is the type of response someone only makes when they know they've lost the argument.

    11. Alex, I think your argument would make more sense if it had just been KAL 801. It wasn't. That was one of many KAL accidents in that past decade - so much so that KAL had a reputation for being "accident prone" and it had the worst safety record of any airlines in the late 1990s. Even minor accidents like crashing into the control tower at JFK while taxing on the runway weren't even mentioned in TK's analysis. I think everyone in the industry knew about KAL's poor safety record as a result of pilot errors at the time. Therefore, your point about other airlines crashing is mere sophistry. Did Air France, UA and KLM have multiple crashes in that decade as a result of pilot error? I think not.

      You mentioned: "If I am to believe that a race/ethnic/nation based hierarchical culture causes plane crashes then it must also be true that a race/ethnic/nation based non-hierarchical culture does not cause plane crashes." I think this is an overstatement. No one said culture caused the plane crash; only that it contributed to it. Conversely, no one is arguing that non-hierarchical cultures do not cause plane crashes. Such a broad statement would be absurd. Rather, the conclusion reached by Gladwell and the investigators is that the Korean hierarchical culture contributed to the 801 crash and may have contributed to the other KAL crashes as well. Let's look at some of the crashes around this time:

      KLM 4805 - You mention this but the crash happened as a result of a bomb threat and the planes (including Pan Am) being diverted to Tenerife airport. This was not a routine situation. KLM also did not have a bad safety record.

      UA 173 - There was a problem with the landing gear. The mechanical issue caused the pilot to circle back instead of landing the plane and it distracted the pilot from realizing that the fuel level was too low (totalizer fuel level gauge issue has since been addressed). The mechanical problem also was not a routine situation. Also, UA did not have a bad safety record at the time.

      Air France - There was a problem with the pitot tube, which caused the problem with measuring speed and caused the autopilot to disconnect. The mechanical problem was not a routine situation and Air France didn't have a bad safety record at the time.

      But look at KAL's record around that time:
      Even excluding mechanical failures and bomb/hijacking issues, there were plenty of accidents caused by pilot error e.g. inexplicably going off course, improper flight preparation, gear up landing, fast landing, overloading the aircraft despite warning, several accidents on the runway, etc. In many of these crashes, investigations revealed that the pilots lacked "situational awareness." I think that was a result of 2 things: (1) the communicative hierarchy based on culture, which is in dispute; and (2) Korea was undergoing rapid development and Korean Airline was relatively new and it did not adequately train its pilots (while this can arguably be cultural, it is not unique to Korean culture and language). I think this post could have been much more enlightening if we had focused on how much factor #2 contributed to the crashes vs. factor #1 instead of degenerating into an ad hominem attack on Mr. Gladwell.

      I don't know why TK thinks other races should try to learn from the Asian model minority narrative instead of getting defensive about it but gets upset any time anything remotely negative about the Asian/Korean culture is presented. I think every culture has good and bad points and it makes sense to keep an open mind and learn from each other.

      Btw, I've read all of Gladwell's books and they are well researched and entertaining. You should really read his book before questioning him on this matter.

    12. If you read this blog regularly enough, it becomes apparent that The Korean functions as a character in this blog. Being smart, informative, entertaining and funny is as much of the character as being arrogant, in your face dismissive and sometimes insulting. I have no idea how many of these traits the author shares with the character. But I think the substance of the arguments in the blog promote a far more interesting conversation then most blogs that I read.

    13. Helen Melon, I took the time to go purchase a copy of Outliers today and read the chapter entitled "The Ethnic Theory Of Plane Crashes". Gladwell says "But then a small miracle happened. Korean Air turned itself around. Today, the airline is a member in good standing...its safety record since 1999 is spotless...and Aviation experts will tell you that Korean Air is now as safe an any airline in the world". In general,of course Gladwell like any sensible person thinks that plane crashes happen because of a series of events and that there are many contributing factors. But how does Gladwell think KAL turned itself around? There is no ambiguity in the thrust of his argument. Through the practical application of the ethnic theory of plane crashes. There is no reason to blur the lines. If KAL turned itself around by sublimating the hierarchical habits in their culture, the ethnic theory must be true. I don't think I am overstating the assertion and that it is fair for me to ask if indeed ethnic culture causes plane crashes? And if a theory is true you can't simply look at 1 incident to prove it. It has to be repeatable.
      The number of accidents that KAL suffered related to pilot error is no doubt difficult to match. With the exception of 3 flights, flights 2033, 801, 8509. Most conclusions regarding cause that I could find are ambiguous or has nothing to do with hierarchy. I can't simply attribute those accidents to ethnic culture without evidence.
      KAL Flight 2033 is an interesting case. Here the Korean co-pilot seized control of the plane from the Australian captain (against the captains wishes). This crash, which happened in 1994, does not support the ethnic theory of plane crashes. However the 1999 crash of Flight 8509 neatly fits the theory which was first applied to KAL post 1997 after Flight 801.
      I think Hofstede's Power Distance Index is interesting. I wish Gladwell expanded on this a bit more to make it more persuasive. It isn't enough to just say if you are high on the list more plane crashes, low on the list less plane crashes. Surely the fact that Brazil has a population of 197 million to New Zealands 4 million must make a difference.
      Finally, you really should look a little more closely at UA173, KLM4805, AF447. They are appropriate comparisons. Especially, UA173 and KLM4805. Both are attributed to hierarchical problems in the cockpit. Not mechanical nor political, nor meteorological. And certainly not an ethnic based hierarchical problem.

    14. Something that strikes me as being blatantly obvious about the pilot PDI Index that Gladwell and many others use is that, by coincidence, lower the score and you are an English native speaker. Higher the score and you are a non native English speaker. Higher the score more plane crashes, lower the score less plane crashes. By using the same kind of rationale that Gladwell uses to support an ethnic hierarchy theory, one can make a simple argument that says English is the problem. Since English is the accepted language used in aviation, pilots must get better at English. Again,I too wish that Gladwell had expanded on some things. The PDI index is one of them.

    15. Not true. You might be a speaker of another language entirely and still have a low PDI index.

    16. Thanks for that Matt. Like I said, I wish Gladwell expanded on this. Instead he lists the following: Highest PDI 1.Brazil 2.South Korea 3.Morocco 4.Mexico 5.Philippines. Lowest PDI 15.United States 16.Ireland 17.South Africa 18.Australia 19.New Zealand. And this is used to back up his claims.

      "You might be a speaker of another language entirely and still have a low PDI index." Can you point me to your source?

    17. If AAK's position is that the first officer spoke up adequately he is wrong. There was a crash that attests to that. The issue is whether that shortcoming was grounded in some cultural factor or simply inadequate training. Given a chance to back up his appalling bigoted notions that the crash was informed by culture, Gladwell has instead decided to prop up a straw man that any inadequate communication was ipso facto a function of culture.

      Gladwell's original "ungranular" argument in his book was that the syntax of language is at the base the issue. Contrary to the impression that he purposefully gives in his book to make his case, we know the pilots could speak English, in his own rebuttal Malcolm is forced to concede this "English is the international language of aviation" yet a crux of his entire chapter hinges on the implication that lack of English facility... necessarily tied to the blessed ability to THINK LIKE AN AMERICAN... was the "fix" at Korean Air.

      What's particularly disappointing his his petulant, illogical response "why did I fail to note the pilots were speaking English? bcoz everyone KNOWS they could speak English, duh." In all fairness Malcolm, no actually they don't and the major reason for that is because you give them that impression in your chapter/

      In truth, rather than some racist nonsense it's more logical that the pilots at a corner cutting company were not trained in the proper procedure to precisely voice their objections. The rest is hogwash and quibbling backtracking. Considering the feedback and coaching he's likely getting from his publisher and other assets for these responses, I think Malcolm could spend a couple minutes making a stronger argument, I mean this is his bread and butter. I'm sure he's busy but still.

    18. Malcolm, what is your response to this study regarding your point on the fact that the pilots communicating in English was a negligible factor due to the (Korean) cultural assumptions that underpinned the pilots' communication? This study seems to refute your point by asserting that communicating in another language does indeed change behaviour.

      "Proving that language does indeed play a part in cultural behaviour, the study found that different languages, Chinese and English for example, activated cultural norms associated with the language in question. Bilingual and bicultural Hong Kong participants in the study were more likely to engage in "prevention" focused behaviour when communicating in Chinese than when using English. This is attributed in part to the fact that presenting information in a given language activates expectations and perceptions of the norms and values that should guide their decisions. Participants thus tended to comply with these expectations – that is they would conform to what they considered was socially desirable behaviour for the situation."

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. TK can interview *cough* a Korean pilot via twitter or anything he can. Maybe they can tell what 'Guam is not good' really means... or how 'it rains a lot' means much more than it says... I had lived in Korea for 26 years until I move to Australia 2 years ago, I can't find any good reason for the sentence contains somewhat different than it rains a lot.. Maybe the Korean language that Americans understand is different from the language spoken and used in Korea? LOL

  7. So, after reading your original post, Gladwell's response, this post, and comments only thought really is... everyone is missing the big picture.

    The biggest thing I took away from your original post was simply: culture does not explain every event in our lives. As you said, insisting culture played a role in a plane crash is like saying someone's culture played into a bad golf swing. Everything else is just nitpicking methodology and things left up to interpretation.

    Or maybe I'm the one missing your overall point and my simple 24-yr-old mind just can't comprehend the complexities of culture and its effect on behavior.

    1. Coordinating with other members of the cockpit crew to land a multi-jet airplane is fundamentally different from swinging a golf club because of the required interaction/communication among the various individuals in landing an airplane. One could argue that culture affects behavior at the individual level; but, it certainly forms the basis for interaction between two or more individuals from the same country. That's why culture assumes heightened importance in a complex endeavor requiring a series of interaction between two or more people.

      Culture can become relevant even in TK's original example of a failed golf swing. If it came out later that the caddie for the golfer knew that the golfer picked the wrong club but did not speak up for fear that he would be ignored by the golfer, and the basis for such fear is not something specific to the individual golfer (i.e., "he doesn't listen to anyone for golf advice") but rather something cultural (i.e., "in my country, we don't second-guess the boss and the golfer is my boss"), then I think it would be fair to cast the bad swing as resulting from a cultural issue (assuming that they also eliminate other common reasons for a bad golf swing, such as flawed mechanics, unexpected change in wind direction, etc.).

      In the real world, a member of a highly-trained profession (such as airplane pilots) would never admit to anything like culture for derogating their specific duty. Obviously, you can't tell the families of victims who died that "I knew that captain should have changed to different landing equipment, but I didn't say anything because he looked tired and I didn't want to annoy him." But, obviously, people do this all the time, whether it's in the cockpit or in confronting a psychotic senior partner at a law firm, or with our parents, etc.

      Therefore, it's up to the experts and investigators to look for subtle behavioral cues to determine the dynamics that may have been at play, which the participants themselves may not even be aware of. I think the alternative to "nitpicking" is to throw our hands in the air, hold the pilot who caused the crash to be solely responsible and hope that it goes better the next time. This is probably what Korean Air did until it was forced to make meaningful reform after the Guam crash. It's easy to see culture at play in the ordinary course when everything is going smoothly (that's the whole point of culture after all) and I believe that culture doesn't get enough credit for some of the great human achievements (although we celebrate the corporate culture at companies like Google and Apple). However, the impact of culture must also be examined when certain types of disasters happen--such as an airplane crash, a building collapse, or the Holocaust.

    2. It's not that culture may or may not play into disasters or tragedy. But if that argument is going to be made then you would need to look at all plane crashes over an extended period of time with pilots of ALL cultures. You can't just pull from statistics and base your conclusion of them. You can't draw the conclusion that culture played a role in a plane crash, and in this case, let's say language, unless you study plane crashes that happened under American, French, Japanese, British, Italian, etc., pilots. Only then can you see if there is any difference between the way pilots interact with each other in that type of situation.

      I was a Sociology and Criminal Justice major in college. I lived and breathed stuff like this for 4 years. And while I am by no means an expert, I know how to see the forest while understanding its made of trees and even the type of trees in it. Most people see trees and don't understand they're in a forest. They get hung up on insignificant details and forget the overall picture.

    3. Let me correct myself. You don't need to study all plane crashes from all cultures, but a statistically significant number to draw from.

    4. @No Name,
      Your assumption has so many flaws in many levels. And I don't have time to go through point by point. But trust me on this one.

    5. Sketch: see the Helmreich studies that Gladwell references

    6. "Culture, Error And Crew Resource Management". The study includes 22 countries. Inopportunely the study does not include France.

      In 2009 Air France flight 447 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean with no survivors. It took over 2 years for the authorities to find an still functioning flight data recorder and a cockpit data recorder. It took another year in 2012 for the BEA to release their final report. In the time between the crash and the final report there was much speculation about the cause. Pitot tubes/airspeed, pilot error, lightning strike/bad weather, catastrophic engine/structural failure, terrorist, etc. I don't recall one serious theory that used national culture to fuel the speculation. Nor was it used in the final report.

      To make a much longer and nuanced explanation short, the Airbus 330 stalled at nearly 38,000ft. It rapidly lost altitude and descended towards the ocean in a 40 degree angle with the nose pointing up. It pancaked into the water. In the final analyses, the BEA pointed towards pilot error as the explanation for the accident. Here are some of the findings included in the BEA's third interim and final reports:

      - the pilots did not comment on the stall warnings and apparently did not realize that the aircraft was stalled.

      - the two co-pilots' task sharing was weakened both by incomprehension of the situation at the time of autopilot disconnection, and by poor management of the startle effect, leaving them in an emotionally charged situation;

      - the crew lacked practical training in manually handling the aircraft both at high altitude and in the event of anomalies of speed indication;

      OK, bad situational awareness due to bad communication, bad management of a biological reflex, poor training, too much reliance on automation.

      continued in next post

    7. What happened in the cockpit? They are flying at night in over the Atlantic. The captain leaves the cockpit, leaving the least experienced and junior co-pilot to fly the plane. The senior co-pilot and more experienced pilot is also in the cockpit. As they are entering turbulent weather, auto pilot and thrust are disengaged. The plane begins to roll right because of turbulence. The junior co-pilot, compensates for the roll and at the same time without verbal explanation, inexplicably pulls back on the side stick unnecessarily. This co-pilot will be pulling back on the stick for almost the entire duration of the accident sequence. The plane climbs to 38,000 ft., stalls and begins its descent into the ocean. Pointing the plane's nose up reduced the airspeed. At high altitudes pointing the plane's nose up, exaggerates the loss of speed, and in this case it stalled the plane. The more experienced co-pilot verbally takes control of the plane, thinks he recognizes the problem in time to save the plane, and without a word to the junior co-pilot, pushes forward on his stick to bring the nose of the plane down. What the senior co-pilot did not know was that the junior co-pilot who had apparently relinquished control of the plane was still pulling back on his stick. It is my understanding that a peculiarity of the Airbus 330 (French) as opposed to its Boeing (US) counterpart, is that both sticks can give inputs at the same time. In other words, as one pilot is pulling the nose up, the other pilots attempt to push the nose down is rendered only half effective. Without knowing what the junior co-pilot is doing, the senior co-pilot is extremely confused. The air craft is not responding to his input the way he expects. The captain returns to the cockpit but doesn't take control of the plane. Instead he sits in the jump seat and tries desperately to assess what is going on. In the last seconds before impact the junior pilot shouts he is pulling back on the stick but the plane isn't climbing! Remember he has been pulling back on the stick for nearly the entire accident sequence, since the first warning. The captain finally recognizes what is happening orders the co-pilot to bring the nose down. Too late. The entire accident sequence from first warning signs to impact,happens in under 4 minutes.

      To my knowledge there has been no serious cultural explanation put forth for this accident. Nor Am I advocating that there should be. But if you wanted to go down that road:
      The French are a politically left leaning country, emphasizing a more egalitarian society. This national characteristic is a handicap when it comes to flying a commercial aircraft and it contributed to this accident. When it comes to designing a cockpit, hierarchy is a necessary component. Only one side stick at a time should be capable of sending information to the computer. Also hierarchy is important in establishing and communicating the correct course of action. It insures that more experienced pilots are heard over less experienced pilots. When a senior pilot says I have control the junior pilot should immediately defer and make inputs after talking to the senior pilot.Furthermore the French language is too charming and delicate to be of any use in a cockpit. A more direct and brute language is necessary to quickly react in emergency situations. The senior co-pilot should have communicated to the junior co-pilot in no uncertain terms that he has control of the plane and that he is pulling the nose down to gain speed. "Let go of your damn baguette!!!" should have been his refrain. (sorry couldn't help it)

      Aburd. But do you think we choose to look closer at certain cultures to explain a plane crash more than we do with other cultures? I definitely think so. Sometimes pilot error is simply that, pilot error. They failed to communicate. They incorrectly judged the difficulty of landing a plane. They were not vigilante etc. I think when it comes to flying a plane, people make mistakes not cultures.

    8. that should say vigilant not vigilante. can't seem to understand how being a vigilante can help one fly a plane. :-)

    9. Brilliant! Touché. (re Air France cultural analysis)
      Proves TK's basic point

  8. not sure if this was brought up in this blog but it's very similar to what the korean is trying to say. just dug it up after having read post and comments here.

  9. Apropos of absolutely nothing at all: when I first heard that flight 007 had been shot down (long before I heard the name of the airline involved), my reaction was "007 - isn't that James Bond's plane?"

    I absolutely don't wish to minimize the tragedy of the lives lost, or to justify the Soviet hair-trigger response, but I couldn't help being struck by the juxtaposition, over the next several months, of the phrases "Flight 007" and "alleged spy plane". Life is truly weirder than fiction.

  10. Korean, I think you're outmatched. The graceful thing to do now would be to bow out, which it looks like you've done.

    1. Yes, I agree. Gladwell's stupidity is unmatched. Maybe Gladwell should also bow down to yours.

      He could also write "Why foreigners living in South Korea after a while becomes dumber and dumber" in his "Outliers".

  11. Just to continue to split hairs, the "glide scope" is indeed the "glide slope," as Michael A. pointed out. Common error among nonpilots. But the "malfunctioning" glide-slope equipment was not aboard the airplane in question, it was on the ground. It was the radio transmitter on the ground at Guam that transmits the radio signal that is received by the airplane's glide-slope receiver in order to display the proper indication on the cockpit instrumentation. And it wasn't malfunctioning, it was simply off--i.e. not transmitting. (Is your TV set malfunctioning when it's turned off? No. It's "off.")

    Had the Korean Air's glide-slope receiver, in the cockpit, indeed been malfunctioning, the airplane would not have been allowed to fly. Every airplane in commercial service, no matter how small (or large) has an MEL--a "minimum equipment list"--specifying what equipment is important enough for flight that it's required and what stuff is extraneous. Some stuff is "need to have," other stuff is "nice to have." Coffeemaker not working? Don't worry about it. Glide-slope receiver not working? You're grounded until it's fixed. It's a no-go item on the MEL.

    1. This is more than nit-picking - TX on Guam state off is Crucial!

    2. Yeah, you're right. I just like to be correct, not "sorta, well it doesn't matter" correct. Maybe because I'm a commercial pilot.

  12. Gladwell's reply reads: "A Korean or a Colombian or a Saudi Arabian who speaks English does not, at that moment, become a different person: they still carry with them the assumptions of their own culture.", but this can be misleading. He argues that the difficulty of communication still holds when using different (form of) language, but this is not entirely true.

    Sure, a Korean would not lose respect to a senior because he/she starts using English. However, how the information/meaning is packaged, delivered, and interpreted is different which can lead to the efficiency of information delivery. For example, there is no higher form (존대말) or lower form (반말) in English, or at least the difference is not as stark.

    The Korean Navy SEAL officer who commented said that his team uses lower form (반말) in certain combat exercises because it is not only faster but also easier for lower-ranking officers to speak up. This collides with Gladwell's argument. Like what Gladwell says, the lower-ranking officers still respect the higher-ranking ones, but the form of speech does matter!

    Furthermore, from my personal experience. I am bilingual, and my manner does change when I switch my language. I was born and raised in Korea until 7th grade, where I moved to United States and has been living there for 7 years. So I have lived approximately 2/3 of my life in Korea and 1/3 in America, and I am quite familiar with both cultures and languages (especially languages--I sleeptalk and think in both languages). I am currently working as an intern in a company in Korea, where English is important, and I use both languages. And since I am the youngest, I use higher form of Korean (존대말) but there is no such thing in English. The point is, who I am does not change with language, but who I present to be is different. The information I want to deliver stays the same, but my choice of words, attitude, and even the face I put on are surely different. You might attribute this to my lack of professionalism, but it is a definite truth that higher form of Korean (존대말) feels more rigid and tense.

    I only argue that using different (form of) language does make difference. I did not serve on military yet so I cannot say anything about that particular culture. Furthermore, I only use cases of two individuals and I recognize that other Korean-English bilinguals (as there are plenty) might have different experience.

    One more thought: the Korean Airlines crash on Guam does involve some degree of pilot mistake (kudos for all pilots who, usually, manage to land airplanes in inclement weathers), but if the pilot was heedless of the first officer's and the flight engineer's opinions, I would rather attribute to his personal carelessness. From my observation, usage of English does not make certain Americans immune from failing to pay attention to what others say.

    I also want to thank the Korean for his (or her?) excellent blog posts. They were interesting to read and very thought-provoking. My stance on culturalism is that it is inevitable (like racism) and is a great source of jokes, but people must be aware of its potential harm.

  13. Harry,

    The Korean Navy Seals argument does not undermine Gradwell's point. His point is that cultural influences exist when people speak another language but also that people can be trained to overcome their cultural barriers in languages -- as shown by how KAL was able to turn its safety record around by English and cultural-hierarchy training. No one argued that people can't be TRAINED to overcome cultural influences in languages, which is precisely what the Koreans Navy Seals did.

    As for your anecdote, your ability to adapt came from years of having lived in Korea and the US. I say this as a bilingual Korean-American myself who came from Korea. However, it is difficult to all of a sudden lose your cultural identify because you learned a new language because your job requires it. These pilots clearly weren't comfortable speaking in English as shown by their regression back to Korean when discussing the weather situation.

    Guam did result from personal carelessness. But the lack of direct communication contributed to it. No one is arguing that pilots from other countries didn't make mistakes when flying. But it was a known fact that Korean Air had an abysmal safety record and many of the accidents were due to pilot error/lack of clear communication.

    1. Thanks for the reply Helen,

      I agree with your point that the crew on-board the Korean Air plane might not have been as trained as the Navy SEALs were or as fluent as I am. Although the Korean said 90% of their conversation was in English, the quoted lines were mostly in Korean (with only some pre-defined/professional words in English, much like Korean doctors). I still think that use of English can alleviate the rigidness and tension of language, but that might not have helped much in this case. So, point taken.

      I did not say the Navy SEAL officer's comment undermines Gladwell's point--rather, it corroborates his argument. I only think that what his quote "A Korean or a Colombian or a Saudi Arabian who speaks English does not, at that moment, become a different person: they still carry with them the assumptions of their own culture" said can be misinterpreted (and we see a lot of misinterpretations here).

      Another question is over how much the "lack of direct communication," which stemmed from Korean culture, influenced the accidents.

      For Guam accident and Korean Air's bad safety record, I am not saying that "the lack of direct communication" did not play a role. But how significant was it? Shouldn't Korean Air's spotty safety records be rather attributed to crummy training/regulations (which, as far as I know, had little to do with defining characteristics of Korean culture)? This is supported by the fact that Korean Air's safety records did improve significantly following the Guam accident, and this is not because the culture changed or the Korean Air decided to recruit its pilots from other countries.

      You wrote "many of the accidents were due to pilot error/lack of clear communication." but were they? The airplane mistakenly flying into wrong airspace, for example. I do not know how often this happens--maybe it happens often but is not reported because, well, the planes don't get shot down. Or this mistake can be attributed to ground crew which failed to alarm the pilots (and no, I don't think they didn't tell the pilots because they were of higher-ranks).

      Thanks again for reading my comment and leaving kind and thoughtful reply.

    2. "Shouldn't Korean Air's spotty safety records be rather attributed to crummy training/regulations (which, as far as I know, had little to do with defining characteristics of Korean culture)? This is supported by the fact that Korean Air's safety records did improve significantly following the Guam accident, and this is not because the culture changed or the Korean Air decided to recruit its pilots from other countries."

      According to Gladwell's account, the main reform Korean Air undertook after the incident was to bring in a consultant from Delta Air to retrain the cockpit crew to use a less-hierachical structure -- not to perform general flight skills training, improve maintenance, or really anything else. Assuming Gladwell's account is accurate and that this particular reform is indeed what caused the improvement in safety record, the obvious inference is that the culture did change, in the cockpit at least.

    3. It is clear that the Guam accident was caused by human mistake, but "the lack of direct communication," caused by culture, is really trivial. Factors such as the pilot's laziness or the ignorance of the crew--

      Nobody mentioned that maybe the first officer DID NOT KNOW? Anyone can look out the window and say it rains a lot. Even the passengers can do that. If he did know that the plane was in real danger, he obviously would have alerted the pilot. They weren't suicide bombers. All three of them just did not know. And ignorance is not due to culture, it is due to KAL's poor training.

      --are largely looked over. If this communication issue is trivial, then Gladwell's whole point about cultural effect on plane crashes is trivial. Or at least not as important. Gladwell argues that the culture caused the accident: TK mentions "In an interview discussing this topic, Gladwell had said: "the single most important variable in determining whether a plane crashes is not the plane, it's not the maintenance, it's not the weather, it's the culture the pilot comes from." Really? So it matters more which nationality is my pilot rather than whether there's a storm outside? I don't think so. The culture is only a small part of it.

      And this leads us back to Asiana crash, where we started. It's not completely clear yet what caused the accident. And I am not saying that people are simply arguing it is because of culture. But the KAL crashes should not be referenced any more than any other plane (landing) crashes. That would be like in a trial of an African-American accused of murder the jury decides to consider previous African-American murder cases more significantly than any other similar murder cases. And nobody (I hope) would argue that such act is just.

      In Helen's first post she says that TK is attacking Gladwell on little details, but it is the little details and implications that make the difference (information is always bent some way in newspapers, for example). Especially because Gladwell bases some of his arguments on the subtleties, such as guessing what the flight engineer is thinking.

    4. Thanks for the reply Penn, and I take your point. I don't know, however, if KAL did not also improve its safety standards/regulations. Not sure how much the 'cultural change' contributed, but that part is so ambiguous one can only infer. I guess the only thing is to compare two airlines that have different 'culture' in the cockpit but similar training/safety regulations.

  14. I can't fail to notice that most (but not all) of the Anglophile westerner (mostly Americans) commenters here are inclined to believe the speciously argued culturalist hypothesis of Gladwell's.

    No doubt this is the result of the widespread cultural tendency of American's to categorize and prejudge professional competence of people race, nationality etc. using whatever pretext is most politically acceptable at the moment (it's "cultural factors" today... it might have been "their heads are shaped funny" about 50 years ago).

    (Calm down... it's "meta")

    1. Culturalism is not unique to America.

      And yes, culturalism exists. But accepting it won't get us anywhere. Why don't we try to fix it?

    2. I don't know what you mean by Westerners. I am a Korean American born in Korea who grew up in the US like TK. I would guess you won't find many native Koreans here because many of them don't speak English well enough to post here. Plus, there are a lot of Westerners (Anglo names) who agreed with TK in the earlier post. CA, I think you are guilty of your own accusations of stereotyping.

  15. Of course culturalism comes to play in the airline industry regulations. Look at how most airlines in the EU blacklist are based in Africa.

    So if your airline has its main office in an African city and most of its pilots are dark-skinned, it's much more likely to be banned from European airspace. That's a fact.

    1. First of all, the Africa thing is rather racism. African countries have radically varying cultures. You putting the entire Africa into same cultural category in itself is serious culturalism.

      And yes, culturalism exists. It is real thing. Then why don't we fix it? Nobody argues that racism is a bad thing. Are you trying to argue that culturalism is okay?

      TK is arguing that Gladwell is wrongfully attributing KAL crashes to Korean culture. If Gladwell's supporting arguments are flawed, that would be a case of culturalism.

    2. Carlos, ever cross your mind that perhaps African airlines have a spotty safety record because the regulations aren't well established because many of them are developjng nations? Before you accuse EU of racism, you should try to back that up with some evidence.

  16. Whether it is justified or not, attributing certain fact (such as KAL's poor safety record) to a "culture" is very dangerous. As TK mentioned, it can erase out the individuals. There is culture, yes. Each culture has defining characteristics. However, they affect individuals differently. This is especially so in the modern era where culture and people travel freely across border (no, don't bring up North Korea). Are the workplace environment in Korea really that different from in U.S? In U.S, do the opinions of bosses not matter more in the company than the opinions of the employees?

    To people who have read and were convinced by the Outliers, I, as a Korean, am expected to be excessively deferential to my superiors which can lead to bad decisions. Or at least they would think so until they actually get to know me. This is why it is dangerous.

    I am not saying that no plane crashes were influenced by that particular nature of Korean culture. But to generalize it like Gladwell did might be excessive. I hope more supporting evidence was present, such as dialogue information from other Korean Airlines and Asiana Airlines plane accidents. Gladwell in one of his replies mentioned that he is not picking on Korean culture, that in the following chapter he talks of the problems in the Western one. But this does not justify overgeneralizing--he is only making the same mistake again. While we cannot deny that people are influenced by culture, they are not products of it: we must recognize the individual differences.

    1. Harry, I really think you should read The Outliers as well as read up on NTSB reports before opining on this matter. How do you know what Gladwell generalized if you didn't even read what he wrote? Also, it would help if you read up on what caused these KAL accidents instead of speculating. Of course culturalism can be dangerous. But here, there was ample evidence for it and experts in the industry came to such a conclusion after extensive interviews and studies. While details are important, none of TK's argument is convincing - as I addressed before.

      Also, would it really make you feel better if it was determined that KAL pilots were poorly trained or just downright clueless? (again, the pilot errors including going off course were due to situational unawareness).

      No one HERE including Gladwell is arguing that Asiana crash was caused by culturalism. That is just the stupid mass media searching for a juicy angle.

    2. @Harry It's not only dangerous it's specious, and has widespread implications that will outlive Gladwell on public speaking circuit.

      @Helen you purport to have read the book and understand the issues but you do realize that "The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes" is something that Gladwell did insert in American discourse. It's distinct from pilot deference which has in fact been speculated "by experts" as the contributing factor in the Korean Air crash.

      I'm not sure how much you can understand but in the simplest terms, if Korean air pilots in Guam had the correct procedures and the First Officer had not followed those procedures, or if Korean pilots in general had some common difficulty in executing those procedures it would support Gladwell's assertions. That was not the case in that crash. The adequate protocol was not provided in training. Everything aside that is an established fact. Additional speculation by Gladwell hinges on his assertions about the structure and usage of both English and Korean with the point of contention that Gladwell has glossed over much of the English and does not understand the context of the Korean. That is what ppl are arguing about

      It seems you're excited about Outliers the book which is great. You must have it clear in your mind what are established facts and what is speculation by Gladwell. If you were aware of the above then ignore this post with best regards.


    Will Gladwell write an analysis of how American culture contributed to this accident?

    1. He already did. He explained it's because of Earthquake in China and Fukushima reactors from Japan causes the tectonic shift which ultimately ends up in vibrating along the LaGuardia tarmac. The simplest form of English communication cannot supplant the tragic nosedive of cockpit. But he'll explain Senior and Junior pilots were arguing which landing will result in minimal damage: Senior argues direct nosedive will minimize the damage while Junior co-pilots point out it does not matter as long as the plane crashes.

      Gladwell further shows that recent winning of Abenomic party in Japan also has a partial responsibility of Southwest airplanes crashing along the tarmac. However the Detroit bankruptcy has nothing to do with Airplane crash. Although those pointers pretty much stay at the outliers of our common knowledge, he deftly relates to the airplane crash with China earthquake which engenders so much refreshing point of view that even his fans applaud him for shedding some new lights on forever-two-irrelevant-issues to astoundingly become one under the sun.

  18. An awful lot of words over something so simple: What constitutes speaking up directly?

    What it comes down to is 'Can the co-pilot tell the pilot what to do?' i.e. use the clear and unmistakable simple imperative mode 'Captain, do this now!'. That is what would normally be understood by 'speaking up directly' in this case. Ironically, TK appears to be giving this English phrase a low context interpretation when a high context interpretation is what is needed.

    Nevertheless, did what the co-pilot say count as 'speaking up directly' to himself and, crucially, to the pilot? Is it enough in that situation to make a comment with clear implications, rather than using the imperative?

    TK may still have a good case that the pilot knew exactly what was implied by 'Weather condition is no good' given the context. How safe is it to assume that Koreans, sensitive intelligent people that they are, have no need for the blunt instrument of the simple imperative? Not being Korean, and, more to the point, not having telepathic access to the pilot's thoughts, I cannot say. Maybe the issue was more about the overconfidence of the pilot in his own skills, which might come down to a practical issue, i.e. that his training wasn't up to scratch, or which might come down to a cultural issue, i.e. a misplaced confidence in his own skills derived from pride in his position. The experts seem to think that culture was a factor. TK may have a case, but it's not a conclusive one.

  19. A very thoughtful initial argument and then response to Gladwell. However, I have a couple of questions about culturalism: Doesn't it smack of culturalism to declare that a person of a certain background has more right to comment on that culture than does an outsider? Isn't it possible that an educated outsider might have more detachment and can therefore draw a conclusion based on reason and not emotion? This is not to suggest that this topic is too emotional for you or that Gladwell is educated on Korea (or anything else, for that matter). But I am curious why you deferred so quickly to someone who said he was a Korean captain. First of all, he may not even be what he claims to be, but even if he is (or especially if he is) a Korean captain, he is speaking about his personal experiences and perceptions rather than a careful, dispassionate study of how culture may affect the airline industry. Any anecdotal claim made by an individual is immediately suspect in my mind, and I certainly wouldn't declare that person a superior source of information (although I can see how his observations may be superior to those of a single non-Korean source). In this kind of debate, I would like to see a lot more data before rushing to conclusions. Thankfully, there just aren't enough airplane crashes to make a logical jump in any direction. In fact, the biggest jump I can make is that there are so few crashes that it must mean that all cultures are equally good at avoiding them.

    1. No that's not what culturalism is. In response to your question though, the convention in the US is that people of certain cultures, like African Americans or Jews do have more of a right to comment on that culture than an outsider. This is why most commentators have remarked that Riley Cooper's fate on the Eagles will depend on the input black players in the locker room give to Chip Kelly about their dispensation in regards to his statements. The first thing to master is the simple realization that there is no moral equivalency in culture and race. Cracker is not the same as nigger

      Other groups, like Asians and white folks do not get that privilege. In fact it's often the opposite. The insistence for example that "foreigners" are the ones with the moral education, perspective and objectivity to make calls on the excesses and abuses of Korean society. If "culturalism" comes into play anywhere it's here in this nagging suspicion in our American minds. Asians are not alone on this island though, there's a widespread belief for example that only black ppl can really understand and judge white society under Jim Crow

      To your query, a Korean captain would have valuable perspective in this case that no one else could have. How you weigh each source of information frankly depends on a lot of factors, including who's doing the evaluation. The main thing to remember here is that Gladwell's point isn't to get to the bottom of Korean airline crashes but to make a much broader point about race and culture. The working edges of his argument: language, culture are fitted to advanced that simple fact. That's why it was clunky and AAK could attack them. On its merits the screed about English when even Malcolm conceeded the crew conducted cockpit business in English is not a great fit, which is why it's been widely criticized, but Malcolm really needed that bit.

  20. "By Gladwell's own explanation, Korean language is highly context-specific, and "[i]t is up to the listener to make sense of what is being said." (Emphasis in original.) In this instance, Gladwell is the "listener" of what the co-pilots were saying. And there is still no indication that Gladwell can speak Korean or is somehow intimately familiar with Korean culture. Then how is Gladwell able to give such lengthy and specific interpretation about what these Korean co-pilots intended to say? How do we really know if these co-pilots were actually saying what Gladwell represented, or if they were simply engaged in an idle chatter? (And again, why didn't Gladwell just show the transcript to a Korean pilot and ask, which would have obviated this entire issue?)"

    So Mr. Gladwell, who can't speak Korean, apparently has got no close Korean friends or family and presumably has never spent a long time in Korea did understand the real meaning behind that speech whicle the very Korean co-workers of the air crew failed to understand each other? Man... That's narcissism.

    And as a linguistics student I'd have to add that, if time was the problem, the Korean language has to offer surprisingly more direct, way shorter and completely clear in meaning phrases than English. Go back to The Korean's article where he compares the reported dialogues with provided translations in English for respective ones in Korean. If you can read and understand Korean you will notice how Korean phrases are shorter in sound than the offered translations and are made of a less complicated syntactic composition than English. Well, pilot language is probably different than average speach though, speaking of English, since Korean offers short phrases by default. So even if it is because of the culture, it has nothing to do with the Korean language.

    Besides that, I'd agree with Gladwell's statement that language reflects culture, but it is a reciprocal creation, which is very obvious. Culture makes language AND vice versa. The masses are largely manipulated by language creating a whole new consumerist culture, just take a look at any advertisement. And yes, when we speak a foreign language we do not change our cultural background, true, but we do acquire a little bit of the new, so that argument is invalid.

    And finally, how could anyone have the time to think which words to choose in a critical situation? Even someone from the strictest cultural codex would fail to reflect about manners in a situation where your survival instinct is driven by instantaneous reflexes.

  21. I'm an American businessman in Asia, and have read and distributed "An Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes" to many of my colleagues and friends here.
    For me, the chapter isn't about plane crashes. It's about the challenge Western business people struggle with every day in a culture that elevates "face" above all and which goes to extraordinary lengths to say anything besides what they actually mean to say.
    Consider this exchange, which is real:
    Western boss: I really need you to come in to work on Saturday.
    Chinese employee: Saturday. That is a special day for me. It is my daughter's birthday. My wife and I will host a party for her on Saturday evening.
    Boss: That sounds wonderful. I hope you enjoy it.
    Employee: Thank you.

    Question: does the employee think he's coming to work on Saturday? Does the boss think the employee will be at work on Saturday?

    Gladwell explains that there are many factors that contribute to a plane crash, a series of small things which, by themselves, are nothing. But together can result in a catastrophic accident. Western crews are not immune--something like half of all crashes happen when a crew is flying together for the first time. Again, though, it's a communications problem. Communications in (most) Asian cultures is complicated, and can take precious time to decode what the speaker is trying to say.

    It's bad enough just doing business, when you have the luxury of time. But in a cockpit in bad weather and with a glide scope that is taking you directly into a mountain, you have no time at all.


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