In the realm of outstanding failures, what could be more compelling than mistakes that lead to loss of human life, especially when the same company makes the same mistakes repeatedly? Such was the case for Korean Air Lines and the Colombian carrier Avianca in the late 1980s-early 1990s, covered in the "Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes" chapter. With most of these crashes, it turns out that there was no equipment failure and no substance abuse by the crew. A measure developed by cross-cultural psychologist Geert Hofstede correlated quite closely with the nationalities of airlines that were having safety problems. That measure, known as the Power Distance Index, quantifies respect or deference to authority. In countries like Korea and Colombia that have a high PDI, what the captain said went, right or wrong, until it was too late to do anything about it and the plane crashed. The co-pilots and flight engineers of those planes took their notions of politesse and protocol to their graves. Only when Korean Air Lines addressed the rigid social relations among its crew members did its safety record improve.
The seductive fascination of this chapter wells up from the life-and-death drama of the flight recorder transcripts that Gladwell reproduces for the reader (a drama magnified manifold for anyone who bought this book to read on a cross-country plane trip). The details from the cross-cultural psychology studies are also a matter of some curiosity--who knew that the three countries best able to tolerate ambiguity are Singapore, Jamaica, and Denmark? Due to its length and the gravity of its subject matter, I consider this chapter the centerpiece of the "Cultural Legacy" half of the book.
Engrossing as this chapter is, I find the equation of nationality with culture to be glib and not in keeping with more nuanced arguments made elsewhere in the book. As anyone who lives in a diverse country like the U.S. knows, culture is not monolithic to the nation. The author himself makes this point in the previous chapter, discussing the peculiar legacy of violence in rural Appalachia and the cultural differences that cause Southerners to react more strongly to insults than people from other parts of our country. Then there is the chapter on Jewish lawyers in New York and how they were able to take advantage of lucrative business opportunities that the (Gentile) "white shoe" firms found beneath them. So on what basis can we then say that all Americans (or Koreans or Colombians) can be regarded as culturally uniform with respect to a Power Distance Index or any of Hofstede's other dimensions?
Be that as it may, the author would have us understand that studies of individual plane crashes did not yield insights that allowed individuals to correct their behavior and prevent future accidents. The problem of flight crew social dynamics could not be fixed at the level of the individual, only at the level of the group, in this case the airline's employees. This theme carries through the rest of the book, which ultimately seeks to add up its lessons learned to a call for "a society that provides opportunities to all" (268). In his view, individual responsibility is a necessary but not sufficient condition for success.