On language: the ethnic theory of how cultural values are linked to shopping in the Mall del Rio

Nov 26, 2011 | 0 comments

By Anne Carr

Thanks to the late and formidable Steve Jobs, again…it’s possible to use your iphone or ipad and get immediate helpful hints on how to have a little understanding and consequently some strategies to negotiate not just the language but also a culture different from our own (www.CultureGPS.com).

The janitor, who works from 6 am until 3.30 in the university department in which I teach, and who from 4.30 to 10.00 pm every evening and all day Saturday attends classes to become a lawyer frequently asks me profound questions such as why isn’t English like Spanish. For example, he expressed psycholinguistic amazement that hija and hijo in Spanish are "son" and "daughter" in English. Why? The words don’t even sound like they are related! And how about esposo, esposa, and "husband," and "wife," words influenced by languages such as Greek, Latin, Anglo-Saxon, and even Sanskrit.

On Fridays between 1 and 2, he and I are the only people in the department. Everyone else has gone to indulge in a long and delicious almuerzo but I have a short break between classes and he an even shorter break in his work schedule. When he poses his questions and comments he always stands not too close to where I am usually sitting and his Spanish seems halting and mitigated perhaps out of deference to my impoverished attempts to speak his language.

Malcom Gladwell, of Jamaican ancestry, born in Britain, later immigrant to Canada who spends much of his time in the U.S. wrote fascinatingly about psycholinguistics, culture and not lunchtime conversations but plane crashes. In his 2008 article “The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes,” he records in a typical crash, the weather is poor, not necessarily terrible but bad enough that the pilot feels a little bit more stressed than usual. In an overwhelming number of crashes, the plan is behind schedule so the pilots are hurrying. In 52% of crashes the pilot at the time of the accident has been awake for twelve hours or more meaning that he is tired and not thinking sharply, while 44% of the time, the two pilots have never flown together before, so they’re not comfortable with each other. Then the errors start, typically not just one but seven consecutive errors which are rarely problems of knowledge or flying skill, but failure to communicate about negotiating some critical technical maneuver.

He reports that two famous crashes, Colombian Avianca 052 in 1990 and Korean Air crash seven years later, are classics for study in aviation school. The transcript from Avianca 052 flying in thick fog demonstrates a kind of mitigated conversation (which refers to any attempt to sugarcoat the meaning of what is being said) between the Captain and the First Officer, with extended silences at a time of emergency.

Korean Air and Avianca Captains overwhelmingly said they would issue a command, but First Officers who were talking to their boss overwhelmingly chose the most mitigated alternative — they hinted. Gladwell questions if there was something more profound, more structural going on in the cockpit of crashing Avianca and Korean Air flights. Would U.S. pilots only hint or would they be more likely to directly say “Listen, buddy we’ve got to …”

Combating mitigation has become one of the great crusades in commercial aviation by using work from the '60s to the 2000s from the Dutch psychologist Geer Hofstede, who was perhaps inspired by Foucault’s “techniques of power.” He collected questionnaires from IBM employees in more than 70 countries about how, for example, they solved problems, worked together, and what their attitudes to authority were. From this huge database, he analyzed the ways in which cultures differ from one another.

For example, in some cultures, individuals are expected to look after themselves. The U.S. scores highest on the individualism end of the scale, not surprisingly. At the opposite end of the scale are Guatamala and Ecuador.

Another of Hofstede’s dimensions is “uncertainty avoidance.” How well does a culture tolerate ambiguity? Cultures best able to tolerate ambiguity are Hong Kong, Sweden, and Britain (not the U.S.), and countries most reliant on rules and plans, and most likely to stick to procedures regardless of circumstances, are Greece, Guatamala, and Ecuador. Hofstedte certainly wasn’t saying that these are ironclad predictabilities; rather, each of us with our own distinct personality is overlaid with tendencies and assumptions and reflexes handed down to us by the history of the community we grew up in, and the differences are extraordinarily specific.

Perhaps the most interesting of Hofstede’s dimension is what he called “power distance,” which is concerned with attitudes toward hierarchy, with how much a particular culture values and respects authority. Hofstede wrote in Culture’s Consequences (2001), “In low power-distance-index countries, power is something of which power holders are almost ashamed and they will try to underplay. The U.S. is a classic low-power-distance culture. When 'push comes to shove,' Americans fall back on their American-ness, which means usually thinking of each other, in particular an air pilot and second officer, as equals.

At the other end of the power distance scale is Colombia (and Ecuador) and the Avianca crash.

Robert Helmreich’s (1994) brilliant analysis of the Avianca crash demonstrates how nationality and the predicament of someone who had a deep and abiding respect for authority could only use mitigative language as a subordinate . Avianca then investigated four accidents that had occurred in quick succession, concluding that “the copilot should have advocated for his own opinions in a stronger (rather than mitigating) way,” and pointing out that our ability to succeed at what we do is powerfully bound up with where we’re from, and being a good pilot, while coming from a high-power-distance culture, is a difficult mix. Similarly, the analysis of the Korean Air crash seven years later was in large part attributed to poor communication between pilot and first officer.

Korea, like many Asian countries, is receiver oriented –- perhaps Ecuador too? It is up to the listener to make sense of what is being said. Gladwell (2008) points out there is something beautiful in this subtlety of exchange, where each party must pay attention to the motivations and desires of the other. It does not permit insensitivity or indifference, but works only when the listener is capable of paying close attention with the luxury of time to unwind each other’s meaning … not in the cockpit of an airplane.

Knowing that cultural legacies matter, Delta Airlines, invited by Korean Air, evaluated the English-language skills of all of the airline’s flight crews. If pilots wanted to remain pilots, they had to be fluent in English, the language of the aviation world. In this way, the pilots could access an alternate identity. Perhaps their problem was being trapped in roles dictated by the heavy weight of their country’s cultural legacy. They needed an opportunity to step outside those roles when they sat in the cockpit and language was the key to that transformation. In English, they would be free of the sharply defined gradient of Korean hierarchy. They were offered an opportunity to transform their relationship to their work.

If who we are cannot be separated from where we’re from culturally with our own distinctive mix of strengths and weaknesses, tendencies and predisposition, we do ourselves and our country of location — Ecuador — a major disservice. Language and culture are indelibly intertwined. For English speakers the role is just as complex.

We use a language –- English — constituted from many sources. We are used to and negotiate the anomalies of “husband” and “wife” (Norse/ Saxon) and “son” and “daughter” (probably from Saxon) easily and find “esposo” and “esposa” and “hijo” and “hija” curiously similar and apparently simple. Perhaps, as native English speakers, what we have to learn just as much is that we cannot make cultural assumptions about power, which we are so used to sharing equally, or take our comfortable confrontations with uncertainty for granted and assume their universality in our adopted country.

Next time I shop in the Coral department store in the Mall del Rio and find myself becoming irritated at the length of time for service, or the kind of physical and verbal (in Spanish) responses to service I receive, or that there is only one of the kind of item that I want and it must be reboxed in a box that takes many minutes to locate, I plan to consider not mere superficiality of service, but possible cultural differences in language, thinking, and planning –- mine and theirs!

Whilst Walmart in Canada or the U.S., with its unequalled apocalyptic treacheries to its employees (M. Moore – Capitalism 2008), demonstrates an equality of welcoming its shoppers, frequently by visibly handicapped citizens who accentuate no uncertainty that they will help us serve in any way humanly possible, I plan to remember when shopping in Coral that the fact that a plastic gas container may not logically and linguistically (well, by my European/North American logic) be co-located with a weed eater that it will serve might be a difference in cultural thinking and filing systems. That the plastic gas container is perhaps located on another floor in the plastic section (because it’s plastic) makes some kind of sense. The fact that it is not in either location is perhaps an error of organizational power (?) or maybe an example of avoidance of uncertainty. Where should it really be displayed? So, it’s not on display at all! It’s out in the storage area.

Coming from two cultures that according to Hofstedte’s dimensions engender high levels of acceptance of uncertainty and ambiguity, I had, in fact, “expected the unexpected” and politely checked that possibility.

Oh well, I take a breath. … After all, this experience is not an issue of mere consumer superficiality and commodity organizational systems. It’s definitely connected to cultural dimensions between and amongst us!

And I hope very much that the janitor continues with his provocative linguistic questioning on Fridays.

Anne Carr teaches in the University of Azuay’s Schools of International Relations and Tourism; she also teaches Applied Linguistics at the University of Cuenca. She moved to Cuenca four years ago and can be contacted at anneyuk@hotmail.com.



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