Culture and how it Affects Communication in the Cockpit


Culture can be defined as “customs and civilization of a particular time or people,” (Waite, 1994). Each person has their own slightly different culture; “the self is shaped by cultural forces and affects many, if not all, communication behaviours,” (Singelis & Brown 2006). This means that each person has their own communication style, it may be similar to others, but nobody is exactly the same. This can have detrimental effects on the accuracy of cross-cultural communication. There are not only the normal stages involved with communication, but others as well. Firstly a communicator needs to understand the other person’s culture and how it is different from their own. Then the communicator needs to respect this difference. The next step is to understand how the culture affects the communication styles. Once all of this has been realised then the communicators can come to a compromise as to how they will communicate.

Culture in the Cockpit

Airlines are constantly becoming increasingly more multi-cultural. This mixture of cultures is having an effect on the communications within the airline, mainly in the cockpit. 25% of the pilots employed in Northern Europe are not nationals; this trend is mainly observed in low cost carriers (Anderson, Embrey, Hodgkinson, Hunt, Kinchin, Morris & Rose, 2001). With the increasing emergence of low cost airlines, it can only be expected that the commonality of flight crews made up of different cultures will increase.

Tam & Duly (2005) highlight that differences exist between western and non-western crews in attitudes, working practices, behavior, responsibilities and roles. They note that these differences will have global implications for training, safety and communications in aviation operations. It was found that current research of human factors in the flight deck generally used participants from Europe or America, suggesting it did not take into consideration human factor issues in non-westernised countries and flight decks with a mixture of both.

Multi-cultural cockpits will also come into strife with communicating when it comes to the different power gradients they might have been brought up in. In cultures with a high power gradient, not much information is shared between team members, especially not with subordinates. Effective communication is vital for the safe operation of an aircraft. This means that all information needs to be shared amongst the crew. If a co-pilot comes from a country with high power distance for example, Malaysia (Clearly Cultural, 2009), then they are less likely to share information with their Captain. If the captain comes from a culture of low power distance then they would be expecting a better sharing of information. This lack of communication and understanding can lead to poor team work (Anderson, et al, 2001) which in not an ideal situation on the flight deck. The Flight Safety Foundation (2003) claim that without friendly chatter amongst flight crew, boredom can become a problem; this boredom can then lead to undesired flight states. If the crew is made up of different cultures then they may be uncomfortable or even unable to engage in friendly conversation to deter boredom.

Power distance can also be a problem when the crews are from the same culture. If their culture is one of high power distance, then the Captains decisions are not questioned nor will he or she ask for advice from their First Officers. There has been a strong correlation found between countries with high power distance and the occurrence of plane crashes (Woessner, 2009). This could be due to a severe lack of effective communication between the flight crews.

The power distance in the cockpit needs to be understood and recognised by not only the flight crew but also management. Where multi-cultural crews are concerned, efforts need to be made to reduce the power gradient so, while the Captain still retains authority, the First Officers feel comfortable, are willing and able to communicate with their Captains.

Does it exist?

Hutchins (2002) notes that there is no definitive evidence that shows national or regional culture has an effect on flight safety, however he does recognise that culture must exert some influence on the patterns of behaviors enacted by flight crews on the flight deck. From his literature review he notes that many researchers have correlated national culture with accident rates and concluded pilots from certain countries are safer that others, however Hutchins (2002) finds this statement too simplistic and many other factors much be taken into account when makning such a bold statement. It is Hutchins (2002) argument that current methods in measuring or categorizing culture leaves us with the question, are we speculation or actually observing cultural impacts on the flight deck? He goes on to say that culture cannot be measured and therefore to truly understand its existence we must carry out research through observation. We first have to ask does culture exist on the flight deck and then we have to show what effects it has on flight safety to understand the impacts it may have.

[[bibliography title=" References "]]

**Anderson, M., Embrey, D., Hodgkinson, C., Hunt, P., Kinchin, B., Morris, P., &

Rose, M., (2001).** The human factors implications for flight safety of recent developments in the airline industry, a research study for the JAA: Final report, Version 2. Icon International Services Limited: London

Clearly Cultural, (2009). Making sense of cross cultural communication: Power Distance Index. Retrieved on 6th September 2010 from
Flight Safety Foundation, (2003, March - April). //The human factors implications for

flight safety of recent developments in the airline industry. Flight Safety Digest, 22 1-92.// Retrieved from Flight Safety Foundation Website

Singelis, T.M. & Brown, W.J., (2006). //Culture, self, and collectivist communication

linking culture to individual behavior. Human communication research, 21, 3, 354-389.//
Retrieved on 2 September 2010 from,

Waite, M., (Ed.). (1994). The little Oxford dictionary of current English (7th ed.).

Oxford: Clarendon Press

6 Hutchins, E. (2002). Culture and Flight deck operations. Prepared for the Boeing Company under Sponsored Research Agreement 22-5003. Retrieved on 24 July 2012.

7 Tam, L. & Duly, J. (2005). Beyond the West: Cultural Gaps in Aviation Human Factors Research. Proceedings of the Mini-Conference on Human Factors in Complex Sociotechnical Systems. Retrieved from: on 17 July 2012.

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Want to know more?

1 : Culture in Aviation
- This page provides a description of all the different types of National Culture and how they can influence aviation
2 : Orasanu, J., Davison, J. &| Fischer, U., (1997) What did he say? Culture and language barriers to efficient communication in global aviation International Symposium on Aviation Psychology, 9th, Columbus, OH; UNITED STATES; 27 Apr.-1 May 1997. pp. 673-678. 1997
- This reading provides a more in depth look at how culture effects communication than what is offered on this page

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