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The Asiana Crash, Loud Americans and Dating: How the ‘Cultural Free Market’ is Changing the World


In July, 2013 Asiana flight 214 crashed in San Francisco. As the initial phase of the investigation into the crash honed in on pilot error, I was not surprised to hear Korean culture mentioned as a possible cause. Korean airlines from the 70’s to late 90’s had a series crashes blamed on pilot error that experts said were linked to its culture. In these crashes, Korea’s cultural hierarchy prevented subordinates from directly challenging captains even when they were clearly screwing up. In fact, Korean Air was nearly banned from flying in the US until it addressed pilot training in this regard. (For an excellently-written but incorrect and factually flawed article arguing against the role of culture in these plane crashes, check out Ask a Korean)

Regardless of the outcome of the Asiana investigation, there is something to be learned about culture and how it can be made to change that is well-demonstrated by the history of Korean airlines. This is that culture can be controlled by economic forces just like a business. Furthermore, these economic forces are moving every culture in the world in the same direction which is to say it’s moving them towards a more universal culture with an ever growing number of universal standards and norms.

In the case of the Korean airlines, safety was deemed to outweigh Korea’s interest in maintaining their cultural practices, in the cockpit at least, and the Korean airlines found it necessary to change their cultural practices by demanding underlings speak up to superiors in English and without regard for overly wordy, formal politeness that typifies Korean language because it could save precious seconds in an emergency.

nelcrt537_1_2Another example of market forces working on culture can be seen with China. These days, it’s often jokingly said that children in the West should start learning Chinese. To this I say, “Not so fast!” China, no matter how powerful and wealthy it becomes, will never be able to export its language on the scale English has been exported. Why? Simple. It’s too difficult to learn, or in economic terms, it’s too inefficient. The Chinese alphabet has over 30,000 characters, a basic fluency in Chinese requires a person to learn 3,000 of them and that takes about 10 years of study, and that’s for someone who grows up speaking Chinese. While English is by no means the easiest language on Earth, it takes less than half the time to learn as Chinese. It also has the advantage of having a huge head start on moving around the world thanks to business, movies and TV. It’s also the language the internet is written in. Some argue this last one is actually what seals the deal on English becoming the universal language: kind of a right time right place kind of thing. So once again we see economic forces shaping what a universal culture will look like.

The first two examples, I think, are clear cases of economic necessities (safety and efficiency) objectively showing how culture will be shaped. However, what I really want to talk about are the more day-to-day elements of culture that don’t have any clear economic forces being exerted on them. Examples of this can be seen in certain cultural stereotypes we’re all familiar with: loud Americans, rude French, drunken Brits, and terribly dressed Germans. Just name a country and surely, somewhere, someone will have a derogatory thing to say about it as a means of generalizing its people. I’m sure even the Fins have something bad to say about their sexy, sexy neighbors in Sweden (What that could possibly be, I have no clue. Swedes are great). So what becomes of these cultural traits that are more accurately viewed as preferences than issues of safety or efficiency? What force of economics will shape them and move the outliers in the direction of a more universal standard? What culture can be made to change when the choices between one behavior or another, say shaking hands verses bowing, can be seemingly as unimportant as choosing between Coke and Pepsi?

american_touristWell, to answer this question you have to start by making an important observation and that is that every culture has a few behaviors, values or beliefs that cause them to stand out, some more than others. People don’t tend to notice how we’re similar. We notice how we’re different. So that some cultures stand out in ways that many other cultures notice means that culture is actually deviating from an unspoken norm. So, for example, if most cultures think Americans truly are loud, that means a lot of cultures are in some kind of agreement about what an acceptable speaking volume is.

Bringing this back to economics, what this could all mean is that a Cultural Free Market could develop in the world in which either the majority sets the standard or where the best idea wins, just like in a Capitalist Free Market. So, just like shoppers in a store go through whatever economic analysis they go through in order to decide which one of several similar products to buy, so too might people who travel and encounter different cultural practices start picking which cultural traits they would like to acquire and practice.

Remember, culture is not a collection of inherent traits, but rather learned behaviors, values and beliefs. Since it is learned, any particular cultural trait can be willingly unlearned and replaced with a behavior someone feels benefits them more. I’m not saying it’s always easy, but there’s no reason it can’t be done. And yes, I understand that the idea of a Cultural Free Market picking certain cultural traits as winners and losers flies in the face of cultural relativity; however, there are just some ways of doing things that are better than others. Period. The end. Go to a place where people wait in well-organized lines to buy things and then go to place where people cut lines, and push and shove, and tell me it’s all relative. Not only that, but I’ll bet good money that most people from a culture where pushing is OK will prefer the cultural practice of waiting in lines if given the chance to experience it.

One recent example of one culture encountering another’s norms and preferring some of them was mentioned in an article I recently read. It was about the increasingly notorious reputation of China’s international tourists, who now travel more and spend more money overseas than any other country. As people who have traveled to China may know, some commonly seen sights in China would not fly anywhere else in the world, cultural relativity and piles of tourist dollars be damned.

In this article, the Chinese Prime Minister called on Chinese tourists to stop doing certain things that are arguably common practices in China. Specifically he addressed spitting while eating in restaurants, speaking loudly, and crossing streets while traffic lights are still red. The article also mentioned one Chinese practice that could offend even the most understanding cultural relativist, which is tourists allowing their children to defecate pretty much anywhere, including in restaurants, which is something I have seen firsthand while in China. The PM’s remarks could be a case of one culture caving to already established – though unofficial – international norms, or it could be Chinese who have seen both ways of doing things preferring the new way (Personally, I think once you realize you don’t have to put up with kids shitting in a restaurant, there’s no going back).

Now, I don’t say all this to pick on China, it’s just one of the easiest examples to use to show economic forces acting on culture, and, historically, this makes sense. Many Asian countries, and especially China, have been extremely isolated and have developed very differently over the past several thousand years as a result. In fact, it is only in the last two centuries that this situation of extreme isolation has even begun to change. However, while places like China are only just now starting to integrate with the rest of the world, the rest of the world has been more deeply engaged in this process for a much longer period of time than most people realize and have, as a result, already bridged many gaps. What? You think half the world started covering their mouths when they sneeze by coincidence? As the world keeps moving more and more together, we’re all going to continue to find things our own culture does poorly relative to another and will, over time, adjust our learned behaviors towards ways of doing things that are more beneficial, pleasing ,easier, healthier, efficient, etc.

woman-with-burka_64However, this Cultural Free Market has the power to affect much, much more than just our concept of manners. It can affect some much bigger problems. For example, objectively speaking, Arab culture treats women horribly, no way around it. Earlier this year an Islamic cleric in Saudi Arabia argued that women should be barred from using the AC while their husbands aren’t home – and just in time for their 120 degree summers! Why the ban? Because it might signal to a man passing by that the woman is home alone and might “invite immoral behavior.” But, in the coming decades, and as the world continues to integrate, Arab culture and many other cultures whose treatment of women is severely behind modern standards are going to find themselves competing more and more against men from cultures who treat women better. Furthermore, to go back to my Free Market metaphor, women, who are increasingly underrepresented in many populations (China and India, and countries that are already losing women to cultures that treat them better), are going to have more options in picking men. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that the more options women have in picking a partner, the more leverage they’ll have to demand better treatment, more independence, and more rights. Women’s rights, it can be said, is an example of where the Cultural Free Market will overcome the majority’s norm – the poor treatment of women – and replace with a new standard – gender equality. Women, will increasingly get to vote on how they are treated by when they get married and who they choose to be their partner, and this will replace the old standard with a new, better and more universal one.

Sidebar: Obviously this is a broad topic and this piece does not do it justice. This was just my first attempt to explain something that’s been in my head for a long time. If people have issues with something I’ve said, see a weakness in my argument or want to hear more about it, leave comments. I’d be happy to respond to critiques and/or expand on an explanation where necessary.

Brian M. Williams
Brian is the author of the recently published travel memoir "Stranger in a Stranger Land: My Six Years in Korea." (Click this profile for more information.) He's also a law school grad with Southern charm and Virginia roots. He recently returned to America after nearly seven years traveling and working abroad. He loves dive bars, international travel and foreign accents. He's particularly good at small talk and was the first person to notice there's no "I" in "team."

12 thoughts on “The Asiana Crash, Loud Americans and Dating: How the ‘Cultural Free Market’ is Changing the World

  1. As a graduate in anthropology I really enjoyed this article.

    As an American, I believe we speak loud because it’s hard to hear us over all that freedom.

  2. I think that it’s equally important to explore what’s lost with cultural homogenization. While it is certainly true that children shitting in restaurants is horrid and based on hygiene alone, we can see the merits of the elimination of that cultural element, at what cost is that achieved (not just the shitting issue)? I’m not going to sit here and argue that the westernization of eastern cultures is only disadvantageous, but elements of eastern culture like respect given to elders, or the emphasis on education we see in eastern culture can only suffer with increased western influence.

    1. Good point Alex. However, I would like to note that being a westerner, I do see problems with what you pointed out. Respect given to elders is all in all a great thing to have. But when it comes to “I’m old, I can do what ever I want to do” mentality, it goes beyond what should be appropriate. How many times have adjoshis or adjumas had their way with no one calling them out on it for them being wrong? The Asiana flight incident that Brian mentioned shows exactly what kind of issue can be raised with that mentality. That being said, we in the west do need to increase our respect a bit more for our elders. I for one am going to bring that part of Asian culture back with me (again something that Brian mentioned). However, in western culture (well I know in Canada and most of where I’ve been in America) people move out of the way for our elders, we give them seats on the bus, etc. So respect is given to our elders, but in a different way where it comes down to not letting them do everything they want (ex denying drivers licenses in fear that you may no longer be physically fit to drive). Attitude wise though I fully agree we need to give a bit more respect and not dump them into retirement homes.

      An added note to the elderly reasoning, I fear it is mainly due to economics playing into our change in cultural policies. not that long ago (within the last century in fact) we treated our elders with possibly as much respect. I believe it is a money issue now. It has come to a dog-eat-dog world where there may be some slight resentment to our elders for setting up existence like this for us (aka lack of jobs due to lack of retirements, using up a lot of fuel, setting policies that hinder the next generation, etc). In time, things change, and the change may come from within, not from an exterior source.

      The education aspect, can be a good and bad thing. Too much education can actually be very detrimental to youth. Study after study shows that kids need the time to go outside and play, do some art, etc. Studying all the time results in non-creative beings. Education is important, but not if you are killing the kids with over education, thus causing a stagnant culture with little creativity which moves the economy forward or a high depression rate.

      All in all though, some great points that made me think!

      1. Thanks for the thoughtful response Tom. As an American-born Korean myself, I do understand where you’re coming from. This is a debate that has been and will keep going on, especially as cross-cultural influences expand. All that being said, it is true there are many benefits aside from economical motivators that make this process one that should be continued, but like I said it isn’t black and white. I believe that culture is a zero sum game in this regard. You cannot assimilate one culture into another and NOT lose one cultural identity, even if it is what we perceive to be a very small part of the culture in question. X) just my two cents!

    2. I have to say, I think you’re framing the issue wrong, but I can see where it comes from given the examples I used. This is not an East v West thing, this is about economics and it works on every culture, and my main contention is it’s driving all cultures in the same direction, if that direction appears to be Western it’s only because the West has been having these forces of cultural interaction working on it longer. In fact, many Western cultures sought out cultural interaction (not in a mutually beneficial or harmonious way, but they sought it out nonetheless). In the article I talk about Asian cultures so much because of the far East’s historical and extreme isolation which is, relatively speaking, only just now ending. In terms of economics, that isolation acted like a trade barrier; it kept other cultures out which caused the society to not change for thousands of years which resulted in cultural practices that wouldn’t have or shouldn’t have been able to carry on to continue and now that those barriers are coming down, a flood of change is happening in the East more so than anywhere else because the rest of the world has already been involved in this Cultural Free Market for a long time. Now, is there a price to be paid for cultural homogenization, for sure and will all the practices that should win win? absolutely not. I guess the big flaw of this article is it makes it all sound a bit rosey, and it certainly is not. But I think the overall net effect, because of the nature of economics, is positive. This process will fix and improve a lot of things for a lot of people.

    3. Also, I’d like to give a quick economic explanation of the focus Eastern cultures have on their kid’s education and say that it’s not altruistic. In the East a child is the parents’ retirement plan. Their societies/cultures are set up so that kids take total care of their parents when they get older (part of the respect for elders that’s built into the culture and that is meant to guilt kids into doing it). So this interest in a kids education isn’t about a kid’s well-being as much as it is about a parent’s interest in having a comfortable life when they retire. Proof of this is how much “interest” is shown in a child’s education vs how much interest is shown in a child’s happiness. In the west, on the other hand, parents’ plan for their own retirement and so, many parents aren’t as focused on their kids education arguably because they don’t plan on receiving a direct benefit from it, however, in the west, more parents are concerned with their child’s happiness. Which is better? In America it would be good for parents to be more involved and parents in old age need more support, perhaps tying their fates together more would yield some benefits. In the East where kids are pretty unhappy (many studies show this) having parents plan a bit more for their own retirement and taking some pressure off their kids would also be good. Who will win? I can’t say for sure, but I will argue economic forces will play a big role. And it’s hard for me to see how, while the price of raising kids keeps going up and the size of families keeps getting smaller, and people keep living longer, the Eastern model can sustain itself. Who can afford to raise kids and take care of their parents in the modern world? So the forces of modern development, not western culture, will change this part of Eastern culture, eventually.

      1. Great point, though to be perfectly frank, the focus on children lasts much longer in terms of the average child in the East vs those in the west. Yes, part of that very much has to do with parents seeing their children as the proverbial retirement plan. That being the case, parents are more willing to fully support their children well into adulthood. On the flip side, western children are much more likely to get “cut off” once they are 18. Left largely to fend for themselves. Since this isn’t a society of absolutes I won’t say that one is better than the other, HOWEVER, it is undeniable that children in the East have a better understanding of hard sciences and while this isn’t the only barometer for success, it is important to give props where props are due. On a side note, it is sad to see kids stuck in some sort of class 90% of the time they’re awake, but I’d trade that any day for a child that places at the bottom of students in among developed nations in terms of academics. Perhaps we do need a happy medium and maybe that’s where we’re going, but I thunk the jury’s still out on whether one system is better than the other.

      2. I would have to greatly disagree with you Alex over the comment that children in the East have a better understanding of hard sciences. Let me subject you to this website:

        While the eastern culture does project an influence in engineering and doctors, those positions are typically a memorization practice with some creative ideas put in place.

        I also would like you to look up this website:

        There is a great set of graphs including that of happiness. Clearly a good balance is needed like you said in your last comment. There are great things to be taken away from western culture, and great things from eastern culture.

        1. Would also like to link one more:

          This is more of an economic trend than a cultural trend. Also the lack of education in western cultures I would have to argue is more subjected to America as it is again an economic issue. Where if you grow up in a poor neighborhood, the likelihood of getting a better education is lessened. in Korea for example, if you grow up in a poorer area, you will more than likely end up less educated. In Seoul, almost everyone is roughly middle class, so the luxury of education can somewhat be afforded.

          1. Tom, I think you’re a bit off the mark. You’re talking about the immediate economics of an economy whereas I’m talking about cultural economics. So it’s not so much an issue of were there budget cuts this year or do kids in poor neighborhoods get a worse educations. It’s about the why and how a culture values education and what that means for education. Canada does better on test than the US because of one teaching method or another than (and hopefully economic forces would mean the better method gets widely adopted), however, it’s unlikely it views or values education in significantly differently than American.

        2. Lovin the research. In response I would argue that A) there are more universities here that produce academic texts and B) there are much more funds available in terms of grants in the US. This is not synonymous with what we were discussing which was the average level of academics that we see in primary, secondary, and collegiate education systems especially in high-skilled fields such as the hard sciences. I point you to this article by NY times revealing a bit of the problem. Another piece that might help you out is this one Basically since ’98 we’ve seen a steady decrease in the number of US citizens attaining PhD’s here. As it stands currently, there are more international students earning the PhD’s here than there are citizens. Further, jobs that require high levels of creativity and engineering aptitude are leaving the US. Even the iPhone, which is arguably one of the most highly engineered products in the world, was made outside the States. “Steve Jobs is said to have told President Obama that the reason Apple employs 700,000 people outside the United States is because it couldn’t find 30,000 engineers in the United States.” …. in any case, I’m loving the dialogue but can’t in good conscience agree with the statement that the West isn’t behind in terms of education. As to the happiness factor, I can’t argue with it. I grew up a very happy kid compared to the children in South Korea, but I wasn’t doing Calculus in 8th grade and wrapping up finite mathematics in high school.

          1. Well, with the iPhone, it’s said it was dreamed up/created/invented in America, engineered to work in Japan and built in China. Japan got the biggest cut of that pie. And a lack of 30,000 engineers doesn’t explain 700,000 jobs overseas. But again, this is all surface level economics.

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