Social Interaction Matters – Dealing with demographics

May 05, 2021
IMO Women in Maritime Makhosi Mbokazi Master Mariner South Africa
© IMO Women in Maritime - Makhosi Mbokazi

ISWAN’s Social Interaction Matters (SIM) project aims to help shipping and ship management companies encourage seafarers’ social interaction and improve wellbeing on board using programmes with proven success. In this series of articles, we explore the themes emerging from Phase One of the project, in which we conducted research to examine the drivers and barriers to social interaction on board and identify which activities are most successful at engaging crew.

Crew differences such as nationality, gender, and age can affect the success of social activities on board. Understanding the impacts of demographics can help in the design of inclusive, engaging activities for the whole crew to enjoy.

Multinational crews are now the norm within the global fleet and are broadly seen as an asset – the diversity and creativity they bring offers the opportunity to build stronger teams. However, it is important to be aware of different cultural preferences when bringing crew together socially to ensure that recreational activities suit the majority and maximise engagement.

More than a third of respondents in our Phase One survey of seafarers and other maritime stakeholders identified culture or language as a key barrier to social interaction on board. One seafarer we interviewed after the survey told us:

‘If you’re not able to speak your native language it creates a difficulty to communicate more freely … when I’m alone on board I find myself more confined to my cabin because I already speak English or another language in working hours and then after work, I just withdraw myself a little bit’

If a seafarer is the only one of their nationality on board, there is a chance they may be marginalised. This can also apply to other minority groups on board such as women, ethnic minorities and those from the LGBTQ+ community. If there is no cohesion between different groups on board, cliques can form and minorities can be isolated. One seafarer respondent said:

‘I was the only female [on board], so I felt segregated. I was also a cadet, so my opinion really didn’t make it that far. In my off time I spent most times in my cabin watching movies or on deck looking at the ocean’

Good communication is crucial in combatting isolation on board. The hierarchical nature of the Merchant Navy means that the onboard culture is strongly influenced by the behaviour and example set by the captain and other senior officers, so strong leadership is key, particularly in the case of multinational crews. Different nationalities can also have different responses to authority, as this respondent noted:

‘… some cultures are more free where you can openly ask questions, in other cultures the boss is the boss and he’s always right, and that kind of culture we need to change the mindset of the senior staff. Juniors are coming in and they learn from us, so I think that must be the starting point’

© John Darrell M Jives

A supportive company culture which considers diversity and gender and promotes inclusion is vital to establishing a safe, happy and productive environment on board. Diverse crews can bring different skills, viewpoints and creativity – illustrated by these observations from female respondents:

‘I don’t know if it is just because women are better at it, but normally on the ships where I go, I think that I am better at gathering people than a guy would have been. I always arranged movies nights, or football tournaments, and I go down and knock on people’s doors or call them, and as my colleagues say, they don’t experience the same with male colleagues’

‘I think that men find it easier talking about the difficult stuff with women’

The age of crew members may also have an impact on socialising among the crew. Our research found that 49% of respondents over 40 years old considered WiFi a barrier to social interaction, whilst only 12% of those aged 18-28 considered it an issue. Younger generations have grown up with connectivity and internet access, whereas older generations may remember a time when alcohol and bars on board were focal points for social interaction. Engaging crew members of different generations with varying interests requires creative thinking – while activities involving social media and gaming may work for some, they will not necessarily suit everyone.

Phase Two of the SIM project is currently ongoing – ISWAN is working with a number of shipping companies who are trialling social engagement initiatives on board their vessels. The data and feedback from the trials will be used to develop a toolkit containing guidance for shipping companies. Find out more about ISWAN's SIM Project and download the Phase One report released in January 2021 here.

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