Cultural Legacy and Mitigated Speech

crashI just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. It is a fascinating read. Basically, his thesis is that what makes a person succeed is not necessarily or only his or her ingenuity, energy, determination, or vision, but a series of events and legacies that this person is given. A great deal depends on chances this person is offered and takes. In other words, Gladwell is talking about the importance of our communities on whether we fail or succeed.

The chapter I found the most intriguing was about plane crashes. Briefly, it has been concluded that most plane crashes are not because of one catastrophic problem, but the accumulation of smaller ones. It is also concluded that the more people are actively involved in the flight of the plane, from the captain to the first officer to the flight engineer to the flight attendants, the fewer accidents occur. So, when little problems occur, many eyes and hands are on deck to help solve these issues. If these are managed, accidents will be diverted. So, it is a community effort that ensures the safety of the flight. It is absolutely critical, therefore, that there is clear communication between the flight crew when problems arise. It is a community effort that gives the captain and the airline an accident-free career.

In the nineties, Korea Air had so many plane crashes that it lost its status as an airline. A professional researched the problem and discovered that the culprit was “mitigated speech”, that is, downplaying or sugarcoating the meaning of what is being said. Because of the Koreans’ deep and traditional respect for authority, subordinate flight crew members would never ever try to instruct, correct or challenge a flight crew member higher up the rungs of authority. Once mitigated speech was corrected, Korea Air rebounded and became the respected airline it is today.

It seems that flight crew members today are trained on how to communicate clearly what they mean. There are precise levels of urgency and clarity. Also, it’s best for the first officer to fly the plane with the captain in the co-pilot’s seat. That way the captain feels comfortable challenging the first officer if something goes wrong. And everyone on the flight crew has authority when they notice a problem arise. Plus, everyone speaks to each other on a first name basis, avoiding labels that carry the intimidating weight of authority. Even those who have the cultural legacy of unquestioning respect for authority learn to divest themselves of this during training. Korean pilots are now among the most respected and accident-free in the world.

If we are as concerned about the “safety” of the people within our communities, then I find Gladwell’s insights applicable. The church has a cultural legacy of deep respect towards authority. When I came to this church from the Presbyterian, I moved from an ecclesiastical authority structure to a personal authority structure that is just as dangerous. Authority, authority, authority… I hear it all the time. The religious cultural legacy I come from demands that I not question authority. And it makes me wonder if this is the cause of so many fatal church accidents. Many become proficient at mitigated speech for fear of not just challenging authority, but even upsetting authority or hurting it’s feelings! It has taken me years, with limited success, to work against this unhealthy and even dangerous deference to authority. I think if we want to see religious communities succeed, we’d be wise to apply a few principals:

  1. No more mitigated speech. When it comes to the health of the community, direct communication matters. Enable people to mean what they say and say what they mean without fear of repercussions.
  2. Empower others to fly. Decentralize power and decision-making. Share the welfare of the community.
  3. Everyone on a first name basis. Remove all residue from former authoritative paradigms. Today, a lot of what is called post-modern or emergent is basically cooler and hipper mutations of our old accident-prone structures.
  4. If you’ve ever sat by the emergency exit on a flight, you know you are essentially emergency staff if a problem occurs. So… teams! Everyone is involved! Everyone can, if they wish, participate in the health and welfare of the community.

The cartoon is just a doodle. No one dares say anything. That’s why there’s silence as it crashes!

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14 Responses

  1. Semety says:

    When someone does say something – pay attention. 🙂

    Sometimes older people have more experience, but sometimes younger people see things differently.

  2. Gabriel says:

    The Trinity is in essence a non authoritive, firts name form of communication!

  3. Fred says:

    I REAAALLLY want to read that book! I was going to buy this with the gift card I got for Christmas–but I lost the gift card. 🙁

  4. Scott says:

    I enjoyed reading the book and wrote a review too. You came away with much more than I did from the book.

    Great review! Thank you!

  5. Mimou says:

    Another great one NP! Encouraged me as well.

    I was just thinking about dictatorships as watched yesterday the movie “Last King of Scotland” about Amin in Uganda in the 70s. It is really the fear in us instilled. It takes lots of courage, bravery and good self esteem sometimes to speak out. As equality is so far off in most communities.

  6. Jonathan says:

    Love it.

    @Mimou… hey you. Good movie… though very chilling.

  7. Richard Mullin says:

    Some great insighta — I love the Korean Air analogy.

  8. Gary Walter says:

    This book has been on my “to-read” list even before I knew about it. Gladwell writes so well, I already know I’m going to read anything he writes.

    Currently, as I seek to lead a faith community with a history of silence – ignoring several large elephants in the room – I am on a steep learning curve. In my previous position, as a church planter, we had already eliminated the titles and were on a first-name basis. However, in this traditional community, (of which I don’t even have childhood experience) titles are near and dear to others.

    I am coming to think that the titles help remove responsibility and shift accountability. They task me with the role of growth (numerical & spiritual), but tie my hands and remove the authority. Furthermore, no one is held accountable.

    In the past year, I’ve been lifting the curtain, to expose the elephants, my reward is to have my hands tied even more. Silently, we head towards the mountains of destruction.

  9. nakedpastor says:

    I know what you’re talking about, and it hurts. All one can do is continue to speak up, even if just to keep your conscience clear.

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