Breaking the ice: How astronauts overcome their differences aboard the ISS

Astronaut

Look up—you can see the greatest feat of human cooperation orbiting 254 miles above Earth. As commander of Expedition 35 aboard the International Space Station (ISS), Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield understands the difficulty of cultural barriers in team work, and the life or death necessity of learning to communicate across those divides. The ISS is a joint project between five space agencies, built by people from 15 different nations—and each of them has a different take on what is "normal". Hadfield explains the scale of cultural differences aboard the spaceship: "What do you do on a Friday night? What does “yes” mean? What does “uh-huh” mean? What is the day of worship? When do you celebrate a holiday? How do you treat your spouse or your children? How do you treat each other? What is the hierarchy of command? All of those things seem completely clear to you, but you were raised in a specific culture that is actually shared by no one else." Here, Hadfield explains his strategy for genuine listening and communication. Whether it's money, reputation, or your life that's at stake, being sensitive and aware of people's differences helps you accomplish something together—no matter where you’re from. Amway believes that ​diversity and inclusion ​are ​essential ​to the ​growth ​and ​prosperity ​of ​today’s ​companies. When woven ​into ​every ​aspect ​of ​the talent ​life ​cycle, companies committed to diversity and inclusion are ​the ​best ​equipped ​to ​innovate, ​improve ​brand image ​and ​drive ​performance. Chris Hadfield features in the new docuseries One Strange Rock and is the author of An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything.

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TRANSCRIPT

Chris Hadfield: High above our heads is the International Space Station. It’s an amazing, complex thing—the most complicated thing we’ve ever built in space, one of the most complex international projects ever conceived and ever completed. But the keyword of that is international. It is a place built by people from all around the planet, 15 different countries.

And that just sounds sort of theoretical, until you start thinking: different languages, different units measurement systems—is it inches or is it meters? Different electrical systems—is it 220, is it 110, is positive ground, is it negative ground? But the most complex problem to deal with, often, is just people who have come from a wildly different cultural background, a completely different sense of what is normal.

What do you do on a Friday night? What does “yes” mean? What does “uh-huh” mean? What is the day of worship? When do you celebrate a holiday? How do you treat your spouse or your children? How do you treat each other? What is the hierarchy of command? All of those things seem completely clear to you, but you were raised in a specific culture that is actually shared by no one else.

If you have brothers or sisters, ask your brother and sister in detail about some stuff and they will disagree with you. They have a different culture than you do, so imagine if the people that you’re flying a spaceship with come from a wildly different part of the world, trying to find a way to share a sense of purpose so that you can overcome the natural barriers of a difference of culture to do something really difficult—that’s one of the biggest tasks that an astronaut faces.

You can start by just by learning language. It’s obvious if it’s as discrete as learning English or learning Russian or learning Japanese, that’s a clearly defined language, but have someone from Louisiana talk to someone from Brooklyn; they both speak English but the language is very different.

And if you want to speak clearly and communicate with that person you have to recognize that the culture with which they interpret the world is absolutely necessary for you to understand if you want to clearly communicate with them.

And for me the only real measure of clear communication and successful communication is a change of behavior of the listener. If all they did was go “uh-huh,” then you have no understanding of whether they actually comprehended and internalized what it was you were trying to communicate to them.

But if you can see that their actions now reflect a different idea, then you can measure whether what you were intending actually got communicated across, then the loop is complete and you’ve successfully crossed whatever cultural barrier was there. And so that requires a lot of extra effort.

Learning to speak the language, learning to express yourself in a way that is meaningful with the person you’re talking to, and then doing it on a frequent enough basis to be able to see that your message got through and see that that person is doing what it was that you were talking to them about and seeing a change of behavior so that you know for sure that the two of you are on the same page of this new thing that you’re doing. It’s complex. It’s not natural. It’s difficult, but it’s necessary.

And the higher the stakes are—if you’re doing something that is life or death or doing something that has a big financial consequence, then the necessity to communicate effectively and clearly just continues to skyrocket, it continues to go up, and it really puts more pressure on your own shoulders to learn to be a good communicator, but also learn to be as a sensitive and aware as you possibly can of the people that you’re speaking with. Try to overcome all of those natural barriers, try to accomplish something together, no matter where you’re from.