In chapters 7 and 8 of his recent bestseller Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell analyzes airplane crashes: “The kinds of errors that cause plane crashes are invariably errors of teamwork and communication.” (p. 184).
One example that illustrates the above principle which is studied regularly in flight schools is the Colombian airliner Avianca flight 052 which crashed in New York in 1990. The superficial cause of the crash was fuel exhaustion. But when one listens to the transcript, it becomes painfully obvious (comical if it were not a tragedy) that the real cause was “mitigated speech”.
The first officer was Colombian. Culturally speaking, Colombians have a high power distance index (PDI). In plain English, that means they have high regard for authority, they remain polite and they are easily intimidated. This leads to “mitigated speech” in which critical information may be neither clearly nor directly communicated. On this particular flight the first officer was being so polite and deferential to the traffic controller, he never got the point across that his plane was experiencing an emergency! Instead, the first officer continued speaking in his cultural language right up until the moment of death.
Next, Gladwell discusses a rash of Korean airplane crashes in the not-too-distant past and a glaring cultural factor behind those crashes. In Korean culture, hierarchy is everything. In greeting, drinking, smoking, and all other social behavior absolutely everything is conducted according to hierarchical ranking.
Unfortunately, in the world of aircraft, this mentality led to an ridiculous rash of airplane crashes! As one Korean air pilot puts it, the sensibility in many Korean airline cockpits is that the captain is in charge and does what he wants, when he likes, how he likes, and everyone else sits quietly and does nothing.” When someone else goofs, the captain hits them with the back of his hand. And when the captain goofs, no one else dares correct him in an unambiguous manner (lest he be slapped with the captain’s hand too). For him to speak out directly would violate the culture. Unfortunately, in the example cited in the book, that led to the plane crashing into the side of a mountain!
Thankfully, the larger story of the Korean Airline had a happy ending. The airline company successfully took the same group of middle-aged pilots “out of their culture” and “re-normed” them: By way of summary, the author asks: “Why are we so squeamish? Why is the fact that each of us comes from a culture with its own distinctive mix of strengths and weaknesses, tendencies, and predispositions, so difficult to acknowledge? Who we are cannot be separated from where we're from — and when we ignore that fact, planes crash.”
I’ll conclude this entry by asking how “affirming and confronting our cultural legacies” applies to our mission organization here in Taiwan. A few years ago we covenanted to work together in teams to reach Taiwan’s working class.
But there have been a few developments since then. I’ll only mention one here: never before has our small collection of international workers been so ethnically diverse. Presently our field is composed of Canadian Vietnamese, American Vietnamese, Canadian and American Cantonese, Korean Americans, and plain old Caucasian Canadians and Caucasian Americans. In the near future, we’ll have Taiwanese coworkers again (hope I’m not missing anybody!).
Let’s start with the Caucasian group first. What cultural legacies might we need to identify and come to grips with?
One might be the Western cultural tendency to glorify “freedom” and “individuality” , which is rooted in Western modernistic and post-modernistic thought. D.A. Carson, in Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church (p. 113) quotes Richard Bauckham: "In the Bible freedom is understood to be liberation from slavery to serve the living God, whether the paradigm is the Exodus or the freedom from sin and its entailments as promised by Jesus. But under the Enlightenment, the pursuit of freedom became the quest for human autonomy. And we could add that under the Enlightenment's bastard child, post modernism, it becomes easier still to cast off the remaining constraints, because these constraints have no final absolute significance....” See also David Wells, Above All Earthly Powers, p. 138: "The combination of a modernized social fabric and the Enlightenment ideology which took root in it until relatively recently produced, as we have seen, the autonomous self. This is the self which is not subject to outside authority and into which all reality has contracted itself. The result is a radicalized individualism whose outlook is deeply privatized...Here’s an aspect of our cultural legacy the strengths of which we need to to affirm and the weaknesses maybe to confront. How does it impact our ability to work together? Are we willing to change?
With respect to our Cantonese coworkers, what might we want to affirm and/or confront? Gladwell credits the success of the Chinese to the cultural legacy of hard work and dogged perseverance dating back to centuries of farming rice paddies, which are 10 to 20 times more labor-intensive than a similarly sized wheat or corn field. Chinese historically have linked hard work to success in many of their proverbs. What other aspects of their cultural legacies would our Cantonese coworkers here want to affirm or confront?
I don’t know much about Vietnamese yet, other than having had a Vietnamese roommate one year in college. He was a former fighter pilot who stayed up every night until 2 or 3 studying. He also knew the value of hard work! What other cultural legacies are at play here that lead to or prohibit success?
Whatever the group, Gladwell's broader point is that there are no real outliers. Successes “are products of history and community, of opportunity and legacy. Their success is not exceptional or mysterious. Success is grounded in a web of advantages and disadvantages, some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky -- but all critical to making them who they are.''
Will we be successful in our team-based church planting strategies to reach working class peoples? To rephrase it in “Outliers” language, will we be able to successfully take the same group of largely middle-aged international Christian workers (read: “missionaries”) out of their native cultures to “re-norm” them? To rephrase Gladwell: Cultural legacies matter. They are powerful and they persist. But these legacies are not an indelible part of who we are. If we are honest about where we come from and are willing to confront those aspects of our cultural heritage which do not suit our common mission --- just as the Korean air pilots were willing to confront those aspects of their culture which did not suit the world of aviation -- we can thrive!