Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Asiana Crash - Korean Respect Culture Under the Spotlight and Justifiably so

Even before the Asiana crash, I had been warning of the perils of Korean respect culture.  Then immediately after it, the suspicions about the cause of the crash started to resemble Malcolm Gladwell's cockpit culture theory, which was critical of Korean culture before with other plane crashes.  Ask a Korean then wrote about it on his site, pointing out that Gladwell wasn't as thorough as he should have been.  He was right about that, but he never proved Gladwell wrong and he went a step too far in insisting that talk of Korean culture being a factor in plane crashes was an example of a kind of prejudice called "Culturalism", which he compared regularly (and wrongly) to racism.

TheKorean's post struck a chord with many people on the left because there is nothing more popular than someone who strikes down an argument against a non-Western culture.  All cultures are equal, don't you know, in all given situations, they just do things differently and there is no such thing as right or wrong (except when it comes to the West, and the US in particular, being wrong) and those poor non-Western cultures always need (our) protection.

I wrote a response to TheKorean, I did so because I was disturbed by three things: 1 - One should not discount all possibilities when investigating a crash, truth is what counts, not cultural sensibilities when it comes to life and death; 2 - I was worried that comparing such thoughts about a culture to racism may dissuade people from honest truth searching for fear of being labeled "Racist"; and 3 - I knew the possibility of Korean hierarchical respect culture playing a role in the crash was a very plausible one.

In his most recent post, I feel TheKorean is doing some serious stretching of his previous arguments in his first (without acknowledging that is what he is doing) and he seems now to think that the first of my concerns above was something he was never arguing against in the first place.  What did he say about entertaining a question like whether Korean culture had anything to do with the crash?

TheKorean - "If entertaining that question seriously wastes time and distracts from asking the more realistic and pertinent questions, the question is not worth thinking about."

So he says all possibilities should be considered, including culture, but ..... it is silly and wastes time to do so. As I said in argument with him at the time, does asking the question really waste time?  Does it really stop a full investigation of all possible avenues?  Does TheKorean think that, when it comes to air crashes, investigators are not going to be as thorough as humanly possible?  It is ridiculous to think that they would turn around and say, " Hey, it was because of Korean culture, right?  Okay, let's just not bother doing any more work and go home."  Anyway, the fact that Korean culture was trotted-out as an explanation clearly annoyed him, if not why did he write what he did?

So why was I still so suspicious that Korean respect culture might have contributed to the crash (even before reading recent findings confirming that it surely did)?

The answer stares everyone in the face everyday, if you are living in Korea.  I suspect even many Koreans themselves know it as well, but like most of the foreign visitors to Korea also, they don't want to see it. Every time a woman automatically makes the coffee, every time an older worker gets away with being lazy simply for being older, every time younger people are forced to attend company dinners and get drunk at them, every time younger workers are given more work than their elders, and even every time when anyone has to "talk up" to anyone else.

Respect culture is unequal and discriminatory by nature, to be frank it is flawed by nature as it is sexist and ageist.  When it comes to children and grandparents it's nice, but when we all grow up it stops being useful. It is not necessary because respect of our elders comes naturally or not at all.  And as we all know in Korea, one person only needs to be a year older than the other to cause a significant difference in how they are spoken to and treated (a kind of fundamentalist ageism, don't you think).

In Korea, many people don't respect their elders - it depends on whether they earn respect or not, just like everywhere else - but they almost always fear their elders, or at least fear to not show their respect to elders. The difference is important because if you respect someone, being honest in disagreement shouldn't be a problem, but if you fear someone, being honest in communicating with them becomes a serious issue.

Some of the situations I mention above seem trivial, but they are not, they are everyday examples that habitualise a way of living and a way of being that is hard to be snapped out of.  The fact is that, in Korea, if you are older or in a higher position at work - and especially a man - you are more likely not to be told of your mistakes, if you are younger you will probably hear about them non-stop (over and above what naturally occurs in other cultures also).  I have no statistics to back up this statement, but it this seems so undeniable that it is a close to an unadulterated fact as you will ever get. Everyone knows this is true and I have never met a Korean who has denied it.

So when TheKorean makes an argument that says why would a pilot risk the lives of everyone on the plane just to be polite to his elders or those of superior rank, he misses the point entirely:

TheKorean - "No sane person would be willing to die for the sake of keeping up with manners"

It is more than likely there is no conscious choice going on inside the head of the pilot, he is simply acting in way he has been conditioned to behave over his entire life.  He would not be playing eeny, meeny, miny, moe with couple of hundred passengers, himself and his co-pilots on the one hand and his concerns with politeness on the other, that would be absurd.  The whole point of the cultural explanation is that it works around logic; it is behaviour that has become ingrained and hard to break out of, even in possibly critical situations.

People from countries without respect culture are also prone to not speaking out against their superiors and this is the argument for, "cockpit culture", generally and that this is just a fact of life across all cultures. Sure, it can happen in anywhere, but what kind of cultures are more likely to have a problem with questioning their superiors?  Honesty and common sense points you towards the Far Eastern respect cultures. Korea's hierarchical respect culture is still so rigid that it will be prime suspect when it comes to possibly life and death breakdowns of communication and should always be investigated.  Forget offending another culture, this is about moral responsibility to discover the truth, which is far more important.

Bobby McGill over at BusanHaps gave a good summary of some of the recent information from the interviews by crash investigators of the pilots.  Now, I'm not going to be all smug and say, "I told you so", just yet but things aren't looking good for those who think, not only that Korean culture had nothing to do with it, but that it was wrong to even think of it as one of the leading contributory factors.

Before the Asiana crash my wife had signaled a number of warning signs to me when she talked about her job as a nurse in Korea.  This is when I became convinced that cultural etiquette in the form of too much "respect" (I would call this fear) could be life threatening.  She recanted a story which I shared in the post I mentioned earlier, "The Perils of Respect Culture", of nurses fearful of speaking out to their superiors as they witnessed a patient's blood pressure dropping precipitously, failed to act with enough urgency to then tell the doctors for fear of being scolded, and finally - after the lucky escape of the patient - younger nurses were not listened to regarding the possible cause of the patient's near death, despite one of them having witnessed a similar case in another hospital, while the others were generally flummoxed.  Other stories of patient care compromised by a failure of honest communication were also forthcoming on a regular basis.

So in a situation with any chain of command, any natural hierarchy of rank or age, I think we are right to be a little suspicious of Korean culture.  In my time here, there have been too many times people have not proved consistently able to handle these kind of circumstances in a satisfactory manner.  There are often too many crossed-wires and too many unfair, and illogical decisions going on from those of high rank and in my experience they are rarely, if ever, questioned by younger or lower ranking individuals.  Until Korean culture can sort itself out in this regard, the culture brings the suspicion upon itself.

This is not an attack on Korean culture as a whole, just one specific aspect of it.  Much like when there is a group of football fans causing trouble or violence in a city holding an international football tournament, many people from other countries might think of English supporters first, sometimes countries or cultures can deserve some of the judgments made about them.  This isn't to say you should look at a random English football supporter and discriminate against them or automatically think they are trouble, but I don't think I'd blame a bar owner being a bit worried about of a group of rowdy English supporters coming through their doors after England lose an important match, for example. 

In a more recent example, the PISA results for student performance in different countries has given many Western countries great cause for self-reflection about their own culture of education and that they might be doing something wrong and some of the Far Eastern countries are doing something right.

To sum things up, I think I will just use the words of another because they are so damn good.  A comment was left on TheKorean's recent post (posted by "Michael") that hit the nail so squarely on the head as to close the matter entirely, especially the last paragraph:

TheKorean - "CNN will continue running stories about Korean culture whenever a Korean plane crashes, while never raising questions about American culture when an American plane crashes. That is the discrepancy that I want you to think about."

Michael - "CNN (and most other news sources) usually discuss American gun culture whenever a mass shooting happens. Yet I don't recall any discussion of Korean culture playing a role in the Virginia Tech shooting. Is this unfair to American culture? No, because we have no reason to believe that any aspect of Korean culture was relevant to the Virginia Tech shooting. 

With American plane crashes, we've never had reason to believe that culture played a role. With some Korean plane crashes, we DO have reason to believe that culture was involved. That is why it gets discussed. 

If you suspect that an aspect of American culture played a role in an American plane crash, please discuss it on your blog. I would probably find it interesting. And I certainly wouldn't get offended or upset if someone were to investigate whether my culture played a role in an airline accident."

Note: Also read Michael's other comments (here and here) don't mean to be overly complementary (which is not usually my style), but he is now my new hero and makes perfect sense.

I hope I have explained well enough why we do have reason to believe Korean culture could very well have played a role in some of these plane crashes and are justified in suspecting so.  One can't help but also think that if there was no reason to suspect Korean culture as a cause, why did the theory ever come up in the first place?  It all seems a clear case of cultural relativism to me.  We have a right to point out the cultural theory and Koreans need to listen carefully and decide whether we have a point and whether they need to change this aspect of their culture or at least work extra hard on making it disappear in the cockpit.


  1. The connection between the "junior" not wanting to speak up to the "senior" is a documented fact in the case of KAL 801. It's not just some theory. Transcripts of the cockpit voice recorder are filled with the junior pilot trying to say something to the senior pilot and either beating around the bush or being rebuffed when he tries to be more direct.
    I went to grad school for aviation management, and the KAL 801 case is--quite literally--"a textbook case" of what can go wrong in the Crew Resource Management books.
    Trying to paint this as an anti-Korean racism thing as some people have done is simply nonsense. This is verifiable fact.
    Good article. I wish I knew how to attach a sound file. I was interviewed on BBC5 Radio about this very topic a day or two after the crash. Not only did I have nearly a decade in Korea, but also a decade in aviation, including being in charge of crash response at an airport.

    1. Thanks for the info, it's good to have an expert opinion on matters.

      I don't think TheKorean, actually said it was an example of racism against Koreans, but he certainly went as close a you can go to saying it in his original post by strongly comparing what he called "culturalism" and racism. I have discovered many other people claiming that looking at the cultural explanation is only something white people tend to do to non-whites, which certainly implies racism on those who think the cultural explanation has some validity (this occured on a facebook page as well as the comments section of TheKorean's blog). I think this is ludicrous, as it is pretty clear Western countries that are traditionally majority white use cultural explanations all the time for many other issues (rightly or wrongly) regarding other traditionally white Western nations. For example, obesity, healthcare, and guns in the US, violence and drinking and hooliganism in the UK, and the economic crisis in Southern Europe.

      Many thanks for commenting.

      PS: Is there a link to that interview? It could have stayed on the Radio5 archive somewhere, I would like to hear it.

    2. Matt

      "The connection between the "junior" not wanting to speak up to the "senior" is a documented fact in the case of KAL 801. It's not just some theory. Transcripts of the cockpit voice recorder are filled with the junior pilot trying to say something to the senior pilot and either beating around the bush or being rebuffed when he tries to be more direct."

      Don't you see the contradiction in what you just said.......the co-pilot spoke up and questioned his superiors, both indirectly and directly. In other words, to be plain, he questioned his superior.

    3. There is no contradiction in what he wrote. I would hope that "Junior" said something before a plane crashed!! The fact is he beat around the bush for too long because of Korean hierarchical respect culture and then was not listened to when he was finally direct down to Korean hierarchical respect culture. It is quite clear he did not want to question his superior and was uncomfortable doing so, this being a contributory factor to the crash.

      The whole argument is not that Koreans never question their superiors, especially in matters of life and death, but they are less comfortable doing so and that superiors are also less likely to listen.

    4. Well now you have just moved the goalposts - the junior spoke up, indirectly and directly, which contradicts the idea that he did not question his superior. The manner in which he did it is irrelevant. Furthermore, neither you, I, nor Matt, can possibly know whether the junior pilot "wanted" to speak up or not.

      The transcripts of the cockpit voice recorder were - according to the first commenter - "filled with the junior pilot trying to say something to the senior pilot". Filled. That does not sound like reluctance to me and the fact that he beat around the bush could be the result of his particular personality, or specific respect for that particular senior pilot, or any other possible reason relating to the specific life experience of that one individual.

    5. I think you are desperately trying to hold on to this argument. No goal posts have been moved. We obviously cannot know 100% what is going on inside someone's head, but air crash investigators listened to the voice recordings and decided the communication wasn't up to scratch, period. If you look at the nurse example in my post, you will see exactly the same thing occurred. And in my experience this kind of awkward dialogue with superiors is so commonplace in Korea, it is hard to describe to you how often it crops up, far far more than in the UK, my home country and far more than I have ever seen anywhere else on my travels.

      I'm not even sure TheKorean would argue what you are arguing because he must know the nature of Korean respect culture. Perhaps you should ask him what he thinks. You said you never lived in Korea, what is your experience with Korean culture? Are you Korean American?

    6. I'm not trying to hold on to anything. I find your reasoning and logic unconvincing. I could cite several more situation that show how over-stated this argument is that westerners are more likely to question authority.

      The Penn state child abuse scandal comes to mind, the years of subordinates, superiors, and police overlooking or keeping mum about Jimmy Saville's abuse of literally dozens of kids. The list goes on.

      We call it a conspiracy of silence and attribute these kinds of things to personal failures of judgement - but in both these cases, there is a strong hint of a culture of reluctance to challenge the actions of authority figures, not just from subordinates, but also from officials. Yet, were these cultural factors even considered or discussed? Hardly.

      I am not denying that Korea might have the kind of cultural mores that you describe, I just question whether you can accurately compare it with your own because you seemingly misjudge or have a skewed perception of the degree to which western cultures might discourage challenging superiors.

      I don't see what my race or ethnicity has to do with anything, but no, I am not Korean and I don't really need exposure to Korean culture to know that our western acquiescence to authority is highly under-stated.

    7. You need exposure to Korean culture to understand just how influential and powerful their respect culture is and the role it plays everyday in people's lives. I am sounding unconvincing to you because you just can't comprehend it unless you have had experience of it.

      Once again, I am not saying that Western people always question superiors or even question them a lot, but the difference between the cultures in this regard is not a minor one, Koreans are definitely more uncomfortable with it. Reverence to elders is something that is driven into their very core and silence is traditionally thought of as a quality, you can see it when kids are scolded at school. They look down and say nothing, even when asked a question, in their classes, they listen and write. Dialogue, debate, asking questions, disagreement is not encouraged in anywhere near the same way.

      Look at the tradition of oratory, where did it develop? Free expression, where did the idea develop? Democracy, where did it develop? The principles of equality, where did they come from? Where is there greater petty crime and social disobedience? Where is the greater propensity for licentious and rebellious behaviour? Who do you think are more difficult to teach because they are less obedient and respectful? Where did the great revolutions occur? Where does the idea of individualism come from (hence greater confidence, even arrogance in one's own opinion)? When you live in Korea you understand why all these things didn't start/happen or don't happen in Korea. Without the experience of Korean culture you cannot possibly understand what you are talking about with regard to comparing Western and Korean culture.

      Let me provide a link, it is an interesting couple of videos on youtube, but it explains the cultures rather well. It has a bit of a school video style, but it's good.

      Part 1:
      Part 2:

      After you watch these, you might get why I am saying what I am saying. This is the best I can do without you actually coming to live in Korea for a while.

  2. Well, I don't really see what point you are trying to make and you wonder why I'm skeptical.

    Are you really trying to say that crime and crime rates are an indication of rebelliousness? The last time I checked, crimes are committed by people who have fallen thru the cracks in some way or are mentally unhealthy. Besides, Japan and S. Korea rank 6th, and 11th, in the list of total crimes committed well above several western nations. Murder rates for NE Asia is roughly equal to that of NE Europe. I hate to tell you this because I think it would destroy some of your fundamental beliefs, but high crime rates in the west - the US and UK, and maybe France and Germany - are all too often associated with inequalities stemming from discrimination and unequal opportunities for ethnic minorities.

    Plus are you really saying that revolutions are uniquely Western? I am happy to link you to reports on civil disobedience in Asian countries, but be warned I can give you dozens of examples.

    I'm not denying cultural differences, I'm merely saying that your ideas that westerners are more likely to question authority is unfounded. Like i have said on TK's blog, there are so many examples of important situations where questioning superiors and authority would have been the expectation if your assertion is true. Yet, time and time again, we see that when it counts the most, westerners usually fail to live up to the hype. What is the point of possessing this quality if it doesn't manifest in important situations?

    On that note, I'm actually shocked that as a fellow Brit you have forgotten the difficulty of social mobility in the UK. Right up until the 1980's and even to today somewhat,the UK has poor social mobility. That is, if you are born working class, then you pretty much stay that way. What does that say for supposed propensity for questioning of the status quo?

    We are obviously not going to agree on this subject and I'm glad the discussion has not veered into unpleasantness, but I think I will leave it at that. We just won't agree. But I do want to ask, how good are your Korean language skills? Unless you are fluent, I think it is impossible to make the kind of judgements that you want to make.

    1. Petty crime, binge drinking, petty violence (not talking about all crimes) are often signs of rebelliousness as well as the problems you mention, of course there are other factors, but you are missing my wider point about all the things I mentioned COMBINED.

      I have not forgotten social mobility, and again, I am not saying Western people and people from the UK always question authority, even do it a lot or even are very good at it. They maybe terrible at it like you said with plenty of examples of it like you said, it is just that Koreans are less comfortable (more terrible) with questioning superiors BY FAR. They are not brought up to do it and it comes even more unnaturally for them. Once again if you had any experience whatsoever with Korean culture, you would understand this.

      Just don't understand how you can be so confident in your assertion that Koreans aren't less likely to question superiors having had no experience of Korean culture whatsoever.

      To provide more examples for you, recent PISA results for student attainment put SK one of the highest, why? Because they spend all day at school? My students 8am to 11pm, why would they do this because they obey their parents without question. Can you imagine UK kids doing this and behaving as well? I did a lesson on fears the other day and so many of my students said they fear their mother. Partly a joke yes, but many a true word is said in jest. Also, why would one of the most totalitarian unquestioned regimes in world history just so happen to have cropped-up in Korea in the North? How is it Kim Jong Un. Kim Jong il, and Kim il Sung are so revered? Culture have nothing to do with it?

      My Korean language skills are ok ish, they aren't fluent, but I'm pretty sure my Korean wife's are and she would 100% agree with me on what I said. She doesn't want to live in Korea because of the respect culture, which seeing as she is a woman is worse. She hated being forced to drink and get drunk by doctors when she was a nurse on forced staff outings, for example, but she could never say anything. She would also be poorly treated at work, even bullied by her superiors, but she couldn't say anything. This is a common complaint in many workplaces in Korea. Basically, I can't write bullshit on my blog about Korea because she reads my blogs and quality controls them and I usually consult her on them when I am unsure about things.

      Finally, you are lucky in a way, I am the kind of person that doesn't really respect authority or even always expertise, even experts can be wrong. But ask yourself this; who is more likely to be well informed about Korean culture? Someone with no experience of it, or someone who has lived there for nearly 5 years and has been married with a Korean woman for 3 and a half of those years? I would be a lot less confident in my opinions should the roles be reversed between us. Ask a younger Korean person (especially if they have traveled overseas) what they think about this subject, I bet they say the same as me, they usually hate it more than anyone.

      Anyway, thanks for the dialogue.

    2. " But ask yourself this; who is more likely to be well informed about Korean culture? Someone with no experience of it, or someone who has lived there for nearly 5 years and has been married with a Korean woman for 3 and a half of those years?"

      Weird. TheKorean has about 10 time your experience in Korean culture yet you seem very confident he is wrong.

    3. Weird, I have more experience than TheKorean with Western culture, yet he seems very confident that I am wrong about Western culture.

      Let me spell it out for you. She had NO experience with Korean culture and yet I still respected her opinion and debated with her because she debated like an adult, did not throw out insults and made logical points because I know authority and expertise can always be wrong sometimes.

      Now let's say you are a Physics professor for 30 years with a theory, but someone newly graduated in Physics comes up to you and politely says your theory is wrong and here is why. Then someone with no education Physics comes up to you and says the same. You would surely have a more open mind to the first person being right (and indeed this happens all the time in science, i.e. younger scientists proving older scientists wrong, without it we wouldn't move forward!!!). The second person could still be right, but you would probably respect their work less. That is all I am saying. I did respect that commenter and debated with her for a long time because she was polite and respectful in her comments.