group of nondescript people standing in a crowd with a few special-looking outliers in the mix

Outliers: The Story of Success

by Malcolm Gladwell

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Chapter 7 Summary

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The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes

Gladwell describes in great detail Korean Air Flight 801’s plane crash that occurred in 1997, killing most of its passengers. This was just one of many crashes Korean Airlines experienced; in fact, the airline was so bad that they were denounced by countries and organizations. However, they turned themselves around and were eventually able to rebound into success. Gladwell outlines some of the things that helped them succeed.

To explain, Gladwell uses the 1990 crash of Colombian airliner Avianca, Flight 052. In this crash, the copilot was very passive and used a lot of mitigating speech patterns to downplay his own opinions. In the end, that was dangerous because the pilot and air-traffic controllers did not take his suggestions seriously, and the crash occurred. He used this mitigating language because of the captain-to-copilot dynamic: the captain is the expert, and challenging or questioning him is uncomfortable and potentially humiliating.

Psychologists studied this communication pattern, and the results led airlines to work on training their pilots and copilots to communicate more effectively. However, in all of their attempts, understanding the power of one’s culture was extremely helpful. In the Colombian crash of 1990, the copilot, Mauricio Klotz, was Colombian. This is significant because a cultural study conducted by Geert Hofstede revealed that Colombians have a high power-distance ratio, meaning that they respect powerful figures and rarely contradict or stand up to them. This played a significant role in explaining why Klotz did not stand up to his pilot and more effectively communicate to him the danger they were in. He also did not clearly reveal their emergency to the air-traffic controllers, who at the time were completely unaware of how serious their situation was.

Also in play was the culture of America. America has a low power-distance ratio; as a result, New York City air-traffic controllers can seem pushy and rude, which intimidated the submissive Klotz; this also led to his unclear communication of the emergency.

This finding of cultural significance played a large role in Korean Airlines’ turnaround. Their captains are from a culture with a high power-distance ratio, so they were retrained to be more assertive in the cockpit. They were trained to set aside their cultural standards of communication in the airplane and to believe that confronting a pilot is not offensive. Because of this change in their mindset, the airline was able to reduce its accidents and regain its success. The conclusion Gladwell makes here is that cultural heritage is a powerful factor in why some people and organizations succeed and others do not.

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