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The Importance of Intercultural Communication Training for Planetary Science Teams

Presentation #104.01 in the session Mission-supporting Practices, Modeling, and Data (Oral Presentation)

Published onOct 23, 2023
The Importance of Intercultural Communication Training for Planetary Science Teams

Planetary science teams rely on instrumentation and spacecraft equipment crafted in different institutional contexts. Under NASA’s “confederacy of cultures” [1] each institution has its own culture. When brought together, these cultures may clash, producing miscommunication, incommensurate understanding of risk, and mistrust across divides. Such outcomes historically undermine collaboration, efficiency, personal reputations, and risk evaluation, even cost savings.

Three “cultural” elements produce clashes on mission teams. First, each center or participating institution’s culture facilitates local interactions, problem-solving and effective communication. Talk across these divides is complex [2]. Technical jargon may feature different local interpretations, and some groups view increasing directness as aggressive. Second, engineering organizations have a local “risk culture”: a means of identifying, quantifying, constraining, and making decisions about system risk. Culture clash across risk cultures can, in worst case scenarios, lead to catastrophic errors [3]. Third, “attribution errors” about personal competency increase in the absence of face-to-face interaction. Under conditions of remote collaboration, teams are even more likely to identify with their local groups, and miscommunications across divides are interpreted as failings on behalf of the remote party [4].

We report on an innovative and effective use of intercultural communication training to address these cultural divides on a NASA spacecraft team. Intercultural communication (ICC) has proven effective amid multi-national corporations and governance [5]. A recent turn in ICC focuses less on nationalist characteristics and more on multi-stakeholder power dynamics, addressing the decolonization imperative. ICC identifies dimensions of communication styles-ways of encoding and decoding messages-that can produce misinterpretation across divides with respect to axes such as direct expression, temporality, uncertainty, task vs relationships, identity, formality, and conflict resolution. We show how ICC training for science and engineering teams de-escalated conflict, enabled penetration into risks, soothed contractor/contractee relations, and provided a more effective vocabulary for resolving conflict.

[1] McCurdy, H, Inside NASA,1994. [2] Vertesi, J, Shaping Science, 2020. [3] Vaughn, D, Challenger Launch Decision, 1996. [4] Cramton, C.D. in Hines and Kiesler, 2000. [5] Ting-Toomey & Chung, Understanding intercultural communication, 2005.

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