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The Role of Power, Politeness, and Social Distance in Maritime Accidents

Current Research Projects

The Role of Power, Politeness, and Social Distance in Maritime Accidents

Nicole Ziegler

Over the last thirty years, the commercial shipping industry has experienced steady growth worldwide, which has led to the development of a global labor market comprised of mariners from a wide variety of cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Although there are a variety of factors that can affect the ability of the crew to ensure the safety of the vessel, poor communication is a major contributing factor in the occurrence of an accident (Ziarati, 2009).  In addition, pragmatic factors, such as interlocutors’ perceptions of politeness and indirectness, vary across different cultures and contexts (Blum-Kulka, 1989; Tannen, 1994), potentially leading to misunderstandings due to cross-cultural differences.  As modern seafarers have become more nationally, culturally, and linguistically diverse, these differences have had a significant impact on communication and safety at sea. 

This project investigates the use of face-saving and politeness strategies, as well as the role of power and social distance, in the novel context of on-board and ship-to-shore communication. Using a discourse analysis approach, the current research investigates the role of indirectness in the collision of the containership Cosco Busan with the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge. Transcripts used for analysis are taken from the recorded conversations between the pilot, master, and crew on board, as well as the conversations between the pilot and the Vessel Traffic Services (VTS) on shore.  

Findings indicate that interlocutors’ use of indirectness was influenced by power and social distance, as well as culturally specific politeness and face saving behavior, and directly contributed to the collision. Results highlight the potentially dangerous consequences of indirectness, and are discussed in terms of the need for continued investigations from an applied linguistic perspective into the communicative and pragmatic needs of the multi-cultural shipping industry.