Remember Sofia Coppola’s movie “Lost in Translation”? When cultures clash, the misunderstandings can be pretty amusing; the airline industry abounds in such mix-ups. One example is this exchange between an Air China pilot and an air traffic controller at New York’s Kennedy airport from 2006, notice the increasingly exasperated voice of the controller here:

Fatal consequences

Unfortunately, language barriers in air traffic can be decidedly un-funny. The list of deadly misunderstandings is long. Just one example: in 1977, two Boeing 747s collided on a runway at Tenerife, in the Canary Islands. The disaster in which 583 people died happened in a dense fog, but misunderstandings of orders and acknowledgments between the aircraft on the runway and the air traffic controllers were at least contributing factors.[i]

In October 2011, the International Civil Aviation Organization, a UN agency, issued recommendations to promote English-language training. But English, which has been the global aviation language since the 1940s, is full of nuances and double meanings (when there is static on the walkie-talkie, “No!” sounds dangerously close to “Go!” which can make all the difference to a pilot). English may not lend itself to the unambiguous communication needed for aviation safety.

Business consequences

In business, culture clashes usually don’t lead to physical deaths, but can still be very costly. When Microsoft set out to launch Windows 95 in China, it had the operating system translated into Chinese. The company made one tiny cross-cultural mistake: failing to stand in the shoes of its Chinese customer, it used programmers in Taiwan to write the software. Chinese government officials who looked at the operating system were in for a bad surprise: the software was programmed to display references to “communist bandits” and to exhort users to “take back the mainland.” Furious with Microsoft, the Chinese government decided to back Linux instead—a decision disastrous for Microsoft in a country that is now the second-largest hardware market in the world.

What do you think?

What culture clashes, funny or serious, have you experienced in your own business dealings, and what were the costs? I look forward to reading your answers here.

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