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How Speech Works?

Gougen and Linde (1983) used concepts from linguistics in order to identify ineffective speech patterns associated with crews involved in aviation accidents. They describe three main aspects of speech: first, communication has propositional content, that is to say, an utterance contains information. Second, an utterance can be characterised by its linguistic form. The linguistic form is the particular verbal formulation used to deliver the utterance. Third, an utterance has social force, which is the intended outcome of the utterance. In Excerpt 8.2, the captain states that ‘you’ll pro[bab]ly [...] circle to eight’. The propositional content of this statement, clear in hindsight, is that the captain expected to land on Runway 08. From the subsequent outcome, we know that the social force of the speech act was inadequate: the FO did not understand that the filed flight plan would be altered at some stage. The linguistic form of the speech act can be characterised as indirect; in effect, it took the form of advice and guidance rather than a formal instruction. If the linguistic form and the social force are not aligned, then communication will fail.

The authors discuss aggravation and mitigation as two major modifiers of the linguistic form of a speech act. Both modifiers can be seen as being related to the concept of politeness or ‘face’. Face can be thought of as the public self-image of an individual and links to the concept of self-esteem discussed in Chapter 4. Face- threatening acts limit actors’ perceived freedom of action: they impose upon or inhibit individuals in a similar way to incivility. The opposite, polite acts, bring the goals of two actors into alignment and sustain a consistent self-image of the individual concerned. In effect, communication is enhanced when the self-esteem of the other is taken into account. Aggravated speech is often of a direct nature, which, in turn, can often seem impolite. Studies by Fischer and Orasanu (1999) and Sexton and Helmreich (2000) have found that direct orders or commands and the use of the first person (T want...’, ‘give me...’) are perceived to be less-effective forms of communication. Mitigated speech tends to be of an indirect nature and is considered more polite. It tends to be phrased in the first-person plural (T think we should...’). It works by making an implicit appeal to the sense of a shared crew responsibility for task accomplishment. Mitigated speech often comprises suggestions about what the crew should do next. Gougen and Linde observed that the operational context affected communication. They examined two situations, crew-recognised emergencies and crew-recognised problems, and in both, mitigation was reduced as the need to consider causing offence was less relevant.

Nevile and Walker (2005) noted two characteristics of poor flight deck communication: overlap and pauses. In aviation, the particular constraints of using radiotelephony have resulted in protocols and standard phraseology for communication. So, one speaker cannot start until the previous speaker has finished broadcasting. Human communication has some similar characteristics in that people are quite good at detecting when one speaker’s turn is about to end and the second speaker can begin. Overlap occurs when one speaker starts before the previous speaker has finished, and often before important information has been conveyed. Pauses, in this context, refer to a failure of the second speaker to respond when a response would normally be expected. The authors also identified acts of repair, in which one speaker corrected the performance of the other, even where no intervention was necessary. Excerpt 8.2 illustrates overlapping. Note how the FO never finishes a sentence:

Excerpt 8.2

FO: Alright, sorry, so I.. .again we.. .brief whatever approach they gave us, and then expect the visual? you’re sayin’

C: Ninety nine percent of the time approaches you do in San Juan are visual

approaches FO: Ok so you...

C: They give you an ILS...

C: They give you an ILS to get you inbound, an’ then they prolly gonna ask

you ‘you got the airport runway eight in sight?’ ‘roger’, ‘clear Lagoon Visual Eight’. You’re gonna circle to eight.

C: That’s the most common approach they do here

FO: Ok

C: The only time they do approaches here, to minimums, is when it’s raining.

The effectiveness of interpersonal communication is reflected in the degree of congruence between the speaker’s intentions and the addressee’s response. Consider this next excerpt (Excerpt 8.3) from the San Juan CVR transcript. It represents the formal briefing for the approach, conducted with 12 minutes to run.

Excerpt 8.3

C: Approach briefing

FO: Uhhh, we’re doin’ the ILS ten

C: Yup

This excerpt comprises the totality of the technical content of the brief. The use of structured communication protocols is intended to bring a degree of reliability to the process, and the approach brief is a recognised component of the preparation for arrival. However, the quantity of information in an exchange is not necessarily important if both actors possess a common understanding of the task (Hutchins, 1995). However, as we have seen, this was not true of our crew on the day in question. The excerpt is an example of how repetitive tasks easily become abbreviated with the result that the risk of a communication failure increases. A form of consolidation drift, crews undertaking multisector days are known to resort to the use of ‘standard briefing’ as a shorthand for the required brief. This use of linguistic analysis has allowed us to examine what gives communication, its force and allows it to achieve a goal. The process is disrupted by mismatches between communication acts or inefficient structure.

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