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Cultural understanding vs. “culturalism” in workplace investigations

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One of my most embarrassing moments occurred in high school when I had dinner with a friend, whose grandmother was visiting from Iran. She had made us a wonderful meal, and because she didn’t speak any English I tried to convey my gratitude with two enthusiastic thumbs up. She gave me a shocked look and ran out of the room, while my friend and her parents dissolved into horrified giggles. Apparently, the “thumbs up” gesture does not mean the same thing throughout the world. I won’t get into the specifics of what that poor grandmother thought I was saying to her, but let’s just say the incident taught me to be more careful with my hand gestures. Embarrassed though I was, this experience sparked an interest in cross-cultural communication, and what happens when it goes wrong.

I remember being fascinated when I first read the “Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes” in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers: The Story of Success. He looks at the tragedy of Korean Air flight 801, which crash-landed in Guam in 1997, and considers how the communication between the pilot and the first officer may have contributed to the crash.

In particular, Gladwell theorizes that the first officer noticed that the captain was making a mistake in committing to a visual landing in bad weather, and could have prevented the crash. Due to the Korean culture’s respect for hierarchy, however, the first officer failed to bring the error to the captain’s attention in time to save the airplane. Gladwell also discusses the “receiver oriented” nature of the Korean language, meaning that it is up to the listener to make sense of what is being said, and notes that the indirect nature of the comments the first officer made to the pilot may have prevented the necessary actions from being taken. In an interview, Gladwell went so far as to say, “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.”

This story stuck in my mind as an interesting example of different communication styles across different cultures. This is an important consideration for those of us who conduct workplace investigations, because part of our job is to evaluate the credibility of those we interview; in doing so, we must keep in mind how culture can influence body language and verbal responses. If someone will not make eye contact, does that mean they are being deceitful, or is it because they come from a culture where direct eye contact is considered rude? If someone did not confront a higher-up about harassment in the workplace, is that because the harassment was not serious, or because their cultural background prevented them from questioning the authority of a manager?

I admit, I thought I knew all I needed to know about this issue, but I recently read an interesting criticism of Gladwell’s take on flight 801 and on Korean culture in general. The blog Ask a Korean! argues that Gladwell’s characterization of Korean culture is “dead wrong” and that a selective telling of the facts is used to prove his point. The blogger, who remains anonymous but goes by the pseudonym T.K., notes that Gladwell focuses on the difference in rank between the pilot and first officer to support his theory that Korean deference for hierarchy contributed to the crash. However, Gladwell fails to mention that the first officer was older than the pilot – in Korea age requires deference – and further that the first officer also graduated from a more respected flight program than the captain. T.K. also notes that the transcript of the events in the cockpit of flight 801 show that the pilot and first officer were communicating largely in English, which is common for Korean professionals. T.K. writes, “There is no room for all the peculiarities of Korean language that Gladwell dutifully recounts. There are no honorifics, no indirect, suggestive speech. Just a series of regular English phrases that any airline pilot from any country may utter as he prepares to land.”

T.K. uses the example of Gladwell’s interpretation of what happened between two Korean pilots to demonstrate the pitfalls of interpreting a culture we do not fully understand:

As far as I can tell, Gladwell does not speak Korean. He was not raised in Korea. He never spent any significant amount of time in Korea. He was not raised as a Korean. There is no other indication that Gladwell is somehow proficient in navigating the subtexts within Korean language. So, according to Gladwell’s own logic, why should we believe anything Gladwell says about what Korean people say? Here, we find a strange deficiency: the chapter does not feature any active Korean voice that is engaged with the subject.

T.K. uses the term “culturalism” to describe, “the impulse to explain minority people’s behavior with a ‘cultural difference’, real or imagined” and notes that culturalism can distract us from asking meaningful and important questions by “putting a large group of people beyond rational understanding.”

For anyone who conducts workplace investigations involving people from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds, there can be a temptation to chalk up behaviour that you don’t immediately understand to “cultural differences.” The problem is that when our understanding of other cultures is limited we can often fall into stereotyping, and while stereotypes may have some basis in truth, they also fail to tell the whole story. This does not mean we, as workplace investigators, should throw up our hands and stop trying to understand cultural context, but rather that we have to be constantly aware of the limits of our own understanding. You cannot comprehend an entire culture by reading one book or article, and even a thorough understanding of a particular culture cannot allow you to know everything about a person from that culture.

As with many issues that arise during workplace investigations, a good rule is: If you don’t know, ask. If the behaviour of someone involved in an investigation seems unusual to you, don’t hesitate to explore that with them rather than making assumptions (“I notice that you never told your manager that his behaviour bothered you. Can you tell me about that?”)

By treating each person we encounter as an individual and taking a nuanced approach, investigators can keep cultural communication in mind, without falling into “culturalism.”