Socio-Cultural Effects on the Flight Deck
This Article is a short introduction to the subject of socio-cultural differences and some of the negative effects that may arise if these differences are not acknowledged, accepted and surmounted. It is recommended that readers also consult the Article Managing Socio-Cultural Diversity to understand the subject more deeply and discover mitigation measures.
The term socio-culture refers to the combination, or interaction, of social and cultural elements. Whilst socio-cultural factors can affect the performance of an individual working alone (e.g. due to ethical reasons), we are here concerned with socio-cultural factors where two or more people are interacting in the workplace. The definitions given here are tailored to suit the aviation perspective, especially on the flight deck.
- Social factors: relate to personal interactions between people who find themselves in the same place, at the same time, and who need to coordinate with each other to achieve a common task, i.e. flight crewmembers.
- Cultural factors: refer to the collective values, beliefs and behaviours held by a group of people who share a common identity; especially as differentiated from other (different) groups of people.
From the definitions above, it is evident that culture can greatly affect an individual’s social interactions with someone from a different culture. But also, interactions between people from the same culture can be affected where the degree (or depth) to which values and beliefs are held vary.
The Current Situation
When we socialise with someone we are primarily concerned with how to appropriately communicate: “appropriate” varies between full-on, to none at all. We inevitably focus on elements of the other person’s personality and character that facilitate or hinder this; rather than our own! Culture can be described as the personality and character of a group of people, and it is clear that culture influences individual personality and behaviour as well.
It is a common situation today that flight crews often consist of people with different cultural backgrounds, whether they share the same nationality, or not. Therefore, situations may arise where socio-cultural issues add to the complexity of interactions among crewmembers – both flight deck and cabin.
A dynamic peculiar to medium and large airlines (due to size of workforce and fleets) is the fact that crews are temporary, and pilots and cabin crew rarely fly with the same crewmembers and combinations of crewmembers. This means that at the commencement of every task, crewmembers need to socialise (whilst working) with people who could be strangers to them. This socialising would take place on the level of personality and character within a shared organisational culture; however, flight crewmembers should attempt to understand how other, more general, cultures can affect these social interactions and especially how they relate to flight safety.
Most safety critical tasks in aviation require coordination and cooperation with others, whether working as part of a team/crew, or using outside agencies for support. It is in the close face-to-face environment of the flight deck where effective teamwork is essential, that socio-cultural diversity can be most pronounced and visible, and therefore, where colleagues need to be able to “get on” with each other. This means, not only getting to know “the person”, but also getting to “know” their culture! Hold back the assumptions and stereotypes and show an interest.
Effects on Flight Deck Communication
Frequent quality (balanced correctly between professional and social) communication is indicative that a crew is working well together. If cultural differences do exist, then quality communication is the only way to understand them and prevent misunderstanding. It is not so much cultural differences that hinder effective communication, but the social skills of the people involved. In the same way that our moods can affect the quality and frequency of our communication with others, so too can reticence over perceived cultural barriers or insensitivities towards cultural factors. Of course, reticence in asking questions, and openly admitting errors can themselves be specific cultural traits (see "General Cultural Differences" below).
Hindrances to communication include:
- language (different capabilities),
- accents, volume, tone, emphasis, meter
- interpretations, and
- variations in understanding what the aim of the conversation is, and what the goal of the task is (i.e. lack of shared understanding of goals and levels of importance).
Whilst cultural differences may amplify each of these hindrances, these hindrances would still exist within a mono-culture; and they are only resolved through further communication.
The first two hindrances shown above are often clearly obvious and we use our social communication skills to adapt. The last two hindrances, however, will not be clearly “visible” unless crewmembers habitually test understanding using their professional communication skills, i.e. as provided through CRM training. Different interpretations of events and aiming towards different goals may only become visible when a crewmember reacts, or behaves, in a way different to what we might expect. This may be much more likely to occur in situations where one or more crewmembers are stressed.
As described above when introducing hindrances to communication, some misunderstandings may not become evident until someone reacts in a manner we do not expect; in some circumstances this may seriously endanger safety. Latent differences may exist due to past training and organisational cultures, and also more general cultures such as nationality, race, religion etc.
Organisational Cultural Differences: Crewmembers who have experience working with a different organisation in their past, different aircraft types, and even different fleets within the same airline, will “carry” with them values, beliefs and practices that may differ from those shared by their current employer. In terms of occasional variations in the application of a skill and/or procedure, this can happen habitually from learned behaviour. Reversion to past practices can endanger safety at moments of critical stress and importance. The same process can occur with how much a crewmember values certain tasks and the factors they use to prioritise those tasks. Including the importance placed on frequent, frank and open communication. This organisational cultural baggage, from a person’s past, can be an invisible socio-cultural latent trap for crews, and needs to be addressed by organisations. Organisations that fail to identify cultural differences of new employees are creating risk on the flight deck; see Managing Socio-Cultural Diversity.
General Cultural Differences: These differences can cover a broad-range of subjects, from how people communicate, what they think is appropriate communication and behaviour, and how they interact with others in their society. A more detailed description is provided in the Article Organisational Culture; below are listed some of the key issues:
- attitudes concerning rank and age
- attitudes concerning male/female differences
- reactions to errors, particularly their own
- openness, levels of communication (friendly/professional, proactive/reactive, self-disclosing/self-protecting)
- ability to separate work from other cultural (and personal) issues, and
- attitudes to being offered help (including use of technology)
- Managing Socio-Cultural Diversity
- Organisational Culture
- Safety Culture
- The Human Factors "Dirty Dozen"