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Some cross cultural differences can cause serious issues if not addressed correctly. Cultural insensitivity can, at times, be catastrophic. This next story, forwarded to me by my professor from a CNN interview with Malcolm Gladwell is about his 2008 "Outliers: The Story of Success" book with one especially interesting tale of cross-cultural issues with Korean Airlines (bold not in original text) –
F: You share a fascinating story about culture and airline safety.
G: Korean Air had more plane crashes than almost any other airline in the world for a period at the end of the 1990s. When we think of airline crashes, we think, Oh, they must have had old planes. They must have had badly trained pilots.
No. What they were struggling with was a cultural legacy, that Korean culture is hierarchical. You are obliged to be deferential toward your elders and superiors in a way that would be unimaginable in the U.S.
But Boeing and Airbus design modern, complex airplanes to be flown by two equals. That works beautifully in low-power-distance cultures [like the U.S., where hierarchies aren't as relevant]. But in cultures that have high power distance, it’s very difficult.
I use the case study of a very famous plane crash in Guam of Korean Air. They’re flying along, and they run into a little bit of trouble, the weather’s bad. The pilot makes an error, and the co-pilot doesn’t correct him. But once Korean Air figured out that their problem was cultural, they fixed it.
I find such tales absolutely fascinating. It happens every once in a while that I run into these stories, yet my biggest dilemma lately is when it comes to western academic style and the Asian goal of internationalization to meet that style.
In a seminar yesterday regarding "Voice in the organization" we had a discussion regarding what voice means in different cultures. Hong Kong universities have been trying to promote class participation for quite some time to a somewhat limited success with the undergrads. A while back, one creative professor introduced the "card system" to HKUST where students receive bonus points for participation and are handed reward cards if they participate in class, and this has turned school policy now for most undergrad classes. This policy did lead to more participation, but has also resulted in some odd side effects of "card economy" where students compete with one another for participation, students who insist on participating all the time to get more cards, and professors that get emails from frustrated students that they’re not being called on or that some students won’t shut up or are just talking nonsense.
Needless to say, factors like the authenticity of the procedure and how a professor uses it in class has a strong impact on the kind of dialogue that the class will have. Some professors of more traditional cultures are being forced into using a system it’s obvious they feel uncomfortable, some students play the card game against their inherent cultural instincts. Granted, in time change might take place and those participating and being rewarded might behavioristically "gain" more western style confidence, but the basic question that you can’t but ask yourself is whether forcing people to act according to standards of a different culture is what we should really be doing.
Isn’t this neo-colonization? Are there no advantages to non-western education? Who says that "voicing" or "speaking out" in the way it’s defined in the west is the right thing for a Hong Kong or mainland undergrads?
The next time we design an airplane or consider our education system, we should ask ourselves if culture plays a role and how we should adjust to meet that culture to strike a balance between accepting who we are while looking at how we might be able to improve.