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Advanced VR Research Centre

Hedging and Equivocation on the Flight Deck

Hedging and Equivocation on the Flight Deck: An in-context analysis of indirect language and its effect on flight safety


This is a study of indirect communications during cockpit conversations on public transport aircraft. Microanalysis of such conversations indicates that there exists a small but recurrent range of lexico-grammatical devices which signal the use of vague or ambiguous language in the form of hedging. To understand the underpinnings of such strategies this paper identifies a number of conventions specific to airline operations, including the need to portray competence, deference and politeness to colleagues. When any of these conventions is placed under pressure the potential for hedging arises. Research into the concept of equivocation (another form of hedging) offers an explanation for the hedging seen in these circumstances. Hedging is also used as an indirect way of expressing opinions, emotions and appealing for support. Under certain circumstances hedges can be used to shift responsibility and they can also provide both support and justification for actions. This research aims to place existing research into these phenomena into a real-life context where the need for clear communication can be critical. By illustrating the conditions favouring the strategic use of hedging, the aviation community can add this knowledge to the growing corpus relating to aviation human-factors. 

Aims & Objectives of the research


Research being undertaken


Expected Impact

The analysis of conversation fragments in this study indicates that both hedging and equivocation are frequently used in airline operations as a strategy to express uncertainty and tentativeness and, in some cases, to distance the speaker from responsibility. The hierarchical nature of the airline context with its conventions such as deference to authority, politeness and the need to avoid face threatening acts all conspire to make it particularly challenging for subordinates to express uncertainty directly. Such an institutional context is highly conducive to avoidance-avoidance binds and as a consequence, indirect communication. In common with other researchers I found it difficult to pin down the influence of formality on indirect communications except that using informal language appeared to encourage solidarity and support even in the face of uncertainty. There were examples of hedges being used to sound out a proposal before indicating that one was committed to it. This reluctance to make a direct proposal in case it was subsequently proved to be wrong was evident in speakers at all levels of the hierarchy and appeared to be underpinned by the need to appear competent, or more importantly to avoid being seen as incompetent.

The value of such research is to illustrate that in the aviation airline context, indirect communications represent a commonplace and under-researched risk-factor and to highlight some of the institutional conventions that contribute to their prevalence.

For further information please contact R P Newell or R.S. Kalawsky