Cultural Nuances of “Help” for the World Traveller (any age) – Emergency Situations

This post is inspired partly by my experiences as an expat. We spend a lot of time thinking – I am connected – I have a mobile – I have business counterparts who can help, and we forget there are times we are alone in our “global travels”.

1. Learn to Say Help Me and More in the Local Language

As an expat who moves from country to country – I have learnt how to say “Help” in the local language and there are cultural lessons in those learnings too. First of all “Help Me” is far more powerful that a general cry for “Help”. “Call the police” – followed by “Does someone speak English” is even better. I moved to Taiwan as an expat when English was rarely spoken and confined to Karaoke bars. My son was two years old, suffering from high fever was clingy and following me everywhere. That day I was doing the laundry. My son followed me to the balcony and locked us out. We lived on the 11th floor of a building, my mobile was in the house – my husband would probably only be back after 9pm. There was nothing in the balcony except laundry detergents and some odds and ends.

I opened the window and yelled “Help Me Please” (some variation of Qǐng nǐ bāng wǒ xiě)…of course my pronunciation must have been terrible because the neighbour next door did not even look out. I got the attention of the people on the streets but they all looked away embarrassed. Must have thought crazy lady – wanting to jump. Taiwanese are very superstitious and it is bad luck to be associated with an accident – or a person who will be in one or is in one as then you take responsibility for the person. When you see a foreigner (already an unknown quality) screaming from a 11th floor window – you kind of want to look away and walk from the scene as fast as possible. After waiting one hour with a crying baby who was hysterical by then with the noise I was making – I had two options – try and make the 90 degree jump to the kitchen window (if I missed it was 11 floors down) or try and break the glass. I chose the latter option – it took one hour. Culturally I would have done better to say “Help me – can you call this number and tell them to come home immediately”. people would have helped then.

Most mobiles have translators – this is good to have. There are cultural differences in how people react to helping strangers. Levine et al (2001) looked at 23 cities across the globe and found variations in how people helped strangers, They find that cities that are more helpful tended to have lower PPP! See the chart below – it may surprise you!!!

Levine et al 2001

Levine et al 2001

2. Be Connected – Know Who You Can Call (keep your mobile with you at all times)

My colleague’s daughter moved to a new country and a new home and found her first interaction with the language was when she got stuck in the lift and had to call the police. She needed to say more than help (she was not sure if they could trace calls) – she needed to be able to explain with her broken German what happened. At least she had her phone with her!!! Always make sure you have an emergency number you can dial for help – let them know you will call them if there is an emergency so if you ring at 3am in the night – they will pick up. Check if they do pick up (I know many business people who turn off their mobiles).

Another situation is when you are in the hospital of a strange country and you are not sure your doctor understands what you are saying. It is critical you have a good reliable translator. I have had family members in situations where I have thought valuable time was being wasted because they were sure we were “foreigners” reacting to the stress of a new place. I remember when my husband was in the hospital in Taiwan – they did his fasting sugar test after his breakfast and then told him he had diabetes that was off the charts. The instructions for the test were in Mandarin which he did not know how to read and it said he was to eat after the blood test!

3. Keep Vital Information With You

Carry key medical records on your flash drive, mobile or keep it in the office so they can be faxed if required (especially if you have conditions that can be life threatening – diabetes, heart problems, medicine allergies, surgeries etc). A small sheet of key points – on a laminated card that can fit in your wallet is great for emergencies. Code it bright red or orange.

ICE is the code for “In Case of Emergency’. You should have ICE  contact numbers of family, office and lawyers. Add it to your mobile. These people will have information and resources to help you.

Many business men travel no matter how they feel and long flights can be dangerous for obvious reasons. Trust your gut instinct – your health is worth lots more than a business meeting, millions of dollars (though your company may think differently and then you need to ask yourself – is it the right place for you) and technology has evolved to let you work from even a hospital bed! This age of global travel and technology may impact health a lot more than you think!

4. Empower Kids to Cope with Demanding Situations So They Grow up Street Smart

I mention kids because many of today’s children are fortunate to be global travellers. My kids have been jet-setting since they were babies. But with kids – keep in mind “Help” is a very powerless word. Help and Fear are related and can sometimes have negative consequences. Empower your kids when you travel. As a kid when my parents spent two months travelling Europe – I remember being left on the platform of a railway station as the trains doors closed and the train sped away. We had left our home in USA and were moving back to India (No idea of the address), we had changed hotels and countries almost every few days (no idea where we were staying) and no idea what the people spoke there. It was a very helpless feeling. So for my kids who are global travellers we had some rules. They always knew what a policeman looked like in that country, they always had the address of the hotel we were staying in their pocket. They had money to make a call and they knew our roaming phone number. We also had instructions that they would stay on the same route till we found them. While I want them not to be afraid of asking for help – i don’t want them to be fearful of the situation itself and think they are helpless!!

I must have done a good job. When I moved to Dubai my daughter was four years old. We were shopping at a grocery store. I though she was with my husband and I think he thought the same. I saw an expat woman and her daughter with a shopping cart holding my daughters hand and she came to me and said “Oh there you are”. I did not know her! She continued –  “Your daughter came to me and said – My mother is lost, can you help me find her – she looks like me”. She smiled and handed back my daughter to me “You do look like her”.


About Melodena

Professor Marketing Strategy & Branding Passionate about Branding, Entrepreneurship (especially social entrepreneurship), Place Marketing, and Crisis Management. Working to educate the world about MENA regional opportunities!
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