Column: What I liked about Outliers

I liked much about Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book Outliers. While I disagreed with its premise that luck trumps drive when it comes to success – and let us remember that critique comes from someone who writes about things like toilet naps –  I enjoyed many of the chapters.
The best was entitled “The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes,” which also could be called “Proof That Asians Can’t Drive in The Sky Either.” I can say that. I was rear-ended at a stop sign in Hollywood by a minivan full of Chinese people. When we pulled over to exchange information, person after person spilled out. It was like a clown car that released an endless stream of embarrassed, mumbling people.

In the chapter on plane crashes Gladwell links a pilot’s nationality to the likelihood he or she will crash. He used Korean Air as an example. In 1997 Korean Air Flight 801 hit the side of a mountain in Guam and killed 228 people. Twenty years earlier, a Korean Air Boeing 707 flew into Russian airspace and was shot down by a Soviet military jet. Two years after that a Korean Air Boeing 747 crashed in Seoul. Three years later the airline lost another 747 in Russia, followed by a 707 that went down over the Andaman Sea in 1987. They were followed by crashes in Tripoli in 1989 and in South Korea in 1994. While the 1997 Flight 801 crash was being investigated Korean Air experienced five more crashes. The airline failed at a stunning rate.

What caused Korean Air to crash so often? The answer is mitigated speech. Mitigated speech occurs when an individual attempts to downplay or sugarcoat the meaning of what is being said. It happens when people defer to authority.

A tragic example of mitigated speech occurred when the flight engineer of Korean Airlines 801 (Guam crash) tried to tell the captain that bad weather made it too dangerous to land the plane by sight. Instead of questioning the captain’s tactics and saying exactly that, the first engineer said, “Captain, the weather radar has helped us a lot.”

The sentence sounds innocuous, but in 1997, on a Korean Airlines flight, a subordinate saying those words to a superior should have been tantamount to screaming danger. Unfortunately, the pilot was not listening. Mitigated speech depends on the listener for interpretation.

Passive or ambiguous speech is pervasive in countries with a high Power Distance Index

(PDI). The PDI measures how much a culture respects authority. In a high-PDI country like Korea, an employee is less likely to disagree with his boss. The top five pilot PDIs by country are Brazil, South Korea, Morocco, Mexico and Philippines. That list, writes Gladwell, matches up similarly to the ranking of plane crashes by country. (Korean Air has since taken successful steps to improve cockpit communications.)

(This man is Brazilian. Instead of saying, “I am not wearing a shirt,” he might say, “A shirt rests comfortably in a closet, not on my body.” Photo by Arpenas Imagens/Flickr.)

American pilots have one of the lowest PDIs because Americans are not afraid to speak up.

I recently witnessed this in action. My mom – whom I would describe as very American – is an active backseat driver. She has put thousands of extra miles on both her car and my dad. While I was home for the holidays, I drove mom around while we shopped. As I approached the street I knew we needed to turn down to get home – the street I grew up on and trick-or-treated on and rode my bike up and down a thousand times – my mom actually tapped my elbow and said, “Turn here.”

She thought I would miss it. She spoke up. It is what Americans do.

Imagine the scene inside the minivan I mentioned earlier. The vehicle is barreling down on my red 1991 Buick LeSabre, which might be the largest car ever made. I would describe the 1991 Buick LeSabre as having Mafia-pleasing trunk space. You could not miss it. But the man driving the minivan is not stopping. He is headed right for me. My rear bumper is getting closer. The back of my car is growing larger and larger in the windshield. The minivan is almost on top of my Buick. And none of the 175 other people in the minivan says a word. Or maybe one of them says, “Father, the front bumper will help us a lot.”


He hits me.

The minivan smashes into my Buick in a stereotype-confirming collision of rubber and steel.