Outliers – Malcolm Gladwell


Before I begin I feel as though I should explain myself, reviewing a second Gladwell book right after the first. I read Blink last October and my review of that book can be found here . As a matter of fact, it’s been quite a while since my last post and I have been rather busy reading and contemplating what my next post should be about. I have read the Ender Quintet by Orson Scott Card, Clash of Kings, second in the Game of Thrones series by George R.R. Martin, a biography of Jony Ive, the lead industrial designer for Apple and, for throwback’s sake, The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. Between all these books and the thousands upon thousands of pages they occupy, I’ve decided to review Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell for a very simple reason: it had a far greater impact on how I see myself as an American, a Westerner, a visitor living in South Korea. While the books that I have read were exceedingly captivating, entertaining or informative, none of them had a greater affect on how I perceive my life in context of who I am and where I live than Outliers. And after all, I could gush about how much I liked Speaker for the Dead (second in the Ender series) and it’s exploration of Old World colonial mentality and religion in a futuristic context or I could take this opportunity for genuine self-reflection and it is the latter of which I wish to share with all of the strangers of the internet.

The purpose of Outliers is to explore seeming anomalies of success and find reasons and explanations behind rags-to-riches stories. The book examines allegorical evidence, summoning stories of The Beatles, computer wizards Bill Joy and Bill Gates, Canadian hockey players, Jewish tailors in turn-of-the-century New York, pilots of Korean Airlines, Chinese rice farmers and students in the inner city whose progressive education was inspired by the rice fields of Asia. The book deals in diverse terms regarding the definition of success and how true to form these stories are to what I specifically relate to as the American Dream, pulling one’s self out of poverty and making a life for one’s self. The first few chapters were interesting enough, easy to read, hard to put down but it wasn’t until the latter chapters that I began to identify with a lot of the content and how it applies to my own life.

I had a good laugh at myself and at my “American” attitudes here in South Korea while reading chapter four.  This chapter deals a lot with the power distance index (PDI) and how, culturally, people from each country deal with authority. As it turns out, Americans have the lowest PDI of any country, meaning that we don’t identify authority as being absolute but as something we can interact with. Americans, specifically middle and upper class Americans, feel comfortable in engaging in two-way dialogue with an authority figure, be it a police officer, a doctor or a teacher. This may not seem that outrageous until compared with the attitudes and characteristics of those from other cultures. For example, South Koreans, on average, have the second highest PDI just after Brazil. I see this personality trait in my students on a daily basis. If a student is acting up in class and I call them out, they will stand, head bowed, shy away from eye contact and avoid talking to me, even when I ask for a response. This is how students show deference; they never stand up for themselves and will accept any punishment dolled upon them even when  they are wrongly accused.

I have a good laugh whenever my wife and I go out for burgers. I don’t like a lot of the sauces used on burgers here in Korea and so I’ll often ask for my burger to be made without sauce. She just rolls her eyes at me upon my insistence but asking the server to leave the sauce off often requires a long interaction. I make my order in Korean and the server will often repeat my order with a look of complete obfuscation. This goes on a few times, as if there is one piece of the puzzle that the server just can’t seem to grasp. Eventually, my wife speaks up and will, in vain, make the same attempts to help our server understand my order. One day, after getting tired of my usual rant of how easy this all should be, she said, “you know, they’re not choosing to ignore you. They’re just not used to dealing with custom orders like that.” I have thought about that conversation quite a lot and how she, too, has the same problems and frustrations when helping me get my order. After reading chapter four, it all seems to make just a little more sense.

Koreans will often accept what is given them, forgoing the opportunity to alter their request at the convenience of whomever is serving them. They do not feel the same kind of American middle class entitlement to, as Burger King so eloquently puts it, “have it our way”. In other words, they lack the cultural context to deal with elements of alteration because it doesn’t fit into the typical paradigm of conversation. Imagine, making burgers, day in and day out, thousands upon thousands of these things, each made in the image of the last in a way that would make Henry Ford blush with pride and suddenly some foreigner with a strange accent when he speaks Korean asks for his to be made differently. Now it’s not that they simply don’t get it but rather that they haven’t been presented with the challenge and they’re eager to get it right. To exemplify this, I was eating out at Lotteria (Korean equivalent of McDonald’s) and I wound up having to talk to two employees and was referred to a store manager to so that they wouldn’t put any gross, sweet sauce on my burger. They’re weren’t being dumb and they surely understood the words I was saying. It was simply that they couldn’t match the meaning to something they had never had to deal with before and in Korea, the customer is always, always, always right. God forbid they displease me by misunderstanding me. And this provides a nice segue into a chapter later in the book, chapter seven, about communications styles in different cultures.

Specifically, “Western communication has what linguists call a ‘transmitter orientation’” meaning that it is the responsibility of the speaker to communicate effectively, the burden of understanding upon her or his abilities. “But Korea, like many Asian countries, is receiver oriented. It is up to the listener to make sense of what is being said.” How this mode of communication works is well beyond me but that’s to be expected, I suppose. It reminded me about one of the trappings my the kinds of communication problems between my wife and I. She says I repeat myself too much and it makes her feel like I see her as an inferior. In my Western context, I’m giving her the benefit of understanding while in her Eastern context, it comes across as belittling. I found this communication orientation fascinating and since finishing the chapter have been able to identify each of our orientations in how we communicate almost on a daily basis.

Korea is brought up often within the book as the base of comparison representing Eastern culture. Within the same chapter, Gladwell examines Korean Airlines (now Korean Air) and why they had one of the worst safety records for any airline in history until the the late 90’s when they suddenly held and maintained the best safety rating in the industry.  The key? Pilots had to switch to English in the cockpit. There is a simple reason why switching to English had such an enormous impact: Korean has six levels of honorifics built into the language and English lends itself well to a diminished PDI. Imagine a conversation in the cockpit going something like this, “Captain, it’s quite cold today,” meaning the wings are iced up; we better de-ice them before takeoff, using the highest level of honorifics when talking to a superior. The captain is the be-all, end-all authority in the cockpit and the levels of honorifics and codes of conduct built into the Korean language reinforce that. Now assume that the captain is tired or whatever and dismisses the co-pilots suggestion. This puts the aircraft into serious jeopardy. In English, however, the levels of authority are far less rigid and codes of conduct do not increase power distance but rather puts members of the cockpit well within the same level of operation. Making this point, Gladwell contends that cultural legacy plays a huge role in success.

Along those lines, why are Asians so good at math? Now I would like to make the same distinction that Gladwell does, which is to say why are East, mainland  Asians so good at math? The answer is surprising: it has to do with linguistics. It turns out that when asked to remember numbers, we do not have an allotted space for a specific number of digits but a time limitation, which turns out to be about two seconds. This is to say that every human on earth, on average, will remember two seconds worth of numbers in a series. When spoken out loud, East Asian language have very short, mostly monosyllabic words for numbers and numbers in English, by and large, are long, linguistically irrational and cumbersome. For example, most East Asian languages follow a number pattern geared toward logic. What we say for eleven they’ll say ten-one. What we say for fourteen they’ll say ten-four, or in Korean, ship-sa. East Asian languages keep the 100’s in the 100’s column, 10’s in the 10’s and 1’s in the 1’s and not the hokey pokey of English wherein when we count through the teens we suddenly swap the 10s and 1s places into the twenties. This kind of linguistic rationale makes mental math much easier than decoding words and representing those words with reordered numbers like we do in English. In this, Gladwell makes the point that cultural (linguistic) legacy has both advantages and disadvantages, even when considering the same languages.

I found Outliers fascinating and would suggest it be required reading for anyone coming to East Asia to visit or, especially, to live. This book has helped make sense of the cultural legacies that I find so frustrating while living here and my own cultural legacies that leave me with falsified feelings of entitlement and ineptitude with numbers. This book was a fun means of self-discovery; I had a hard time putting it down and when I did it was often to talk my wife’s ear off while she politely humored me by listening, waiting for me to shut up and start reading again.

Pages: 317   FoA pages: 33505

3 thoughts on “Outliers – Malcolm Gladwell

  1. Wow, Sean. I have been wanting to check out Outliers for some time, and now I feel compelled to do so. I particularly found the “mental math”discussion interesting. Top marks.

    • Thank you so much for the positive feedback! A hobbyist may enjoy working alone while an enthusiast gets as much out of sharing something as much as they did encountering that which they want to share! In this case, this book. Much appreciated 🙂

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