Cultural Differences- helping strangers in an accident

This is from personal observation, experience, and hearing stories from other foreigners, not from anything I’ve read or from any lessons on culture.

This is one of the hardest things for North Americans to understand or, to be honest, to excuse.  Even the most culturally intelligent, sympathetic, and understanding westerners I know have a hard time accepting this difference.

I have mentioned before that when we were in Bukidnon, I saw more accidents in a week than I’ve seen in a year in Davao, and that I have nightmares.  Let me describe what I saw- not the gore, but the reaction.  We were in a small town and the bus was stopped, and traffic up ahead was stopped.  I was watching and looking out the windows ahead and to the side trying to figure out what was happening.  I noticed people outside the passenger window racing up the sidewalk, toward whatever the cause of the traffic stop was. They were racing, grabbing each other to join in, looking excited.   I peered ahead, and the bus inched closer I saw a huge crowd of people in a circle on the side of the road, and the crowd was growing quickly as more pedestrians raced along as fast as they could go to join the group. People had the cell phones out and were taking pictures.  I’m thinking minor (or major) celebrity sighting, a band, or something like that.

As the bus inched along further, I saw a motorcycle smashed and broken in the road, and then a pool of blood and then another fractured motorcycle and then I realized the crowd was standing around the victims of the accident.  Some of my fellow passengers stood up and took pictures just as I put my own cell phone away, feeling sick and disoriented.  Nobody seemed to be helping.  Nobody seemed to be using their phones to call for help- I realize I couldn’t see everything, so maybe somebody was, this was just my impression from a slowly moving bus.

It stayed with me, those images, and haunted my sleep but I didn’t talk about it with anybody right away.  Recently, I was with three missionaries who have been here longer than we have, two of them years longer, and they are all quite well versed in cultural differences and fairly immersed in the culture.  We were talking about driving and traffic stuff, and motorcycles- they drive cycles, and one of them said she felt perfectly safe driving a motorcycle around Davao but she wouldn’t do that in the US.  I agreed Davao was pretty safe, but said was that in Bukidnon I had seen an accident, and before I could say anything else, one of them cut in and described the scene as though she’d been there-  the racing eagerly toward the accident, the huge and growing circle, the cell phone cameras out- and nobody helping.  It’s so common they were able to predict what I saw without knowing anything more than that there was an accident.

One of the missionaries says her Filipino friends regularly post pictures of stuff like this to social media. Now, her friends are youngish, the 20 somethings, mostly singles.

We heard the story of an American who came across a woman who was pinned, trapped when she had a wall fall on her.  When he came by there was a large circle of Filipinos watching, but nobody was doing anything.   He got a couple people to help him move her to safety (there was a possibility the rest of the wall could still fall on her), and helped the ambulance treat her properly- and promptly became locally famous for a couple of weeks.   In the ensuing huge social media discussions, again and again people assumed the victim was his wife or girlfriend, and when people who knew would say no, she was a total stranger the response was, “Well then, why would he do that?”

There are social customs and assumptions and presumptions against being presumptuous, taking on more leadership or authority than one ought to have.  And in America, if you have an accident in a crowd of strangers or with just one or two people around, you are also more likely to get help quickly in the presence of just one or two people, because in a crowd everybody assumes somebody else is better able to handle an emergency than oneself.  But I have been in or witness to similar accidents and disasters in the US and the response is still very, very different.

In a lighter example of at least part of what I think is going on, a Filipina friend told me history had not make any sense to her when she was in college, because she couldn’t see why she should care since none of those people were related to her.  Plenty of Americans don’t care about history, either, but I was struck by that reason- ‘they are not my family, so why does it matter?’

I’ve blogged before about the importance of relationships in this culture, and it is a beautiful thing.  Relationships are incredibly important. But that also means that where you have no relationship, you also have no responsibilities (or few).  More than once I have had a discussion about adoption with people from other cultures- Japan, Korea, and here in the Philippines.  A Japanese Christian told me the Japanese can’t really adopt because the adopted child would always be the stranger, the guest, and would always have to be served first and given the best and that would be unfair to any biological children.  Koreans do not really understand why it makes me flinch when they learn the Cherub is adopted and they ask if any of our children are really ours (this is the way to say it in Korean- the children are adopted or they are our ‘real children.’)  Filipinos more than once will comment on how often and how readily Americans adopt.

Now, adoption is complicated issue. There are a lot of problems with that on the American side- we created poverty orphans and a blackmarket in other people’s children, and there have been abuses and victims and all kinds of problems and we have leapfrogged over solutions which would involve helping families stay intact-  and that’s incredibly important and I don’t want to make light of it.  But also, in many cases, in the beginning, there were children who would not be growing up because they country was in the aftermath of a devastating war, they had thousands of war orphans, and even if they hadn’t been struggling to feed themselves,  their culture did not have a strong culture of taking in or caring for other people’s children.  If you were an orphan or abandoned by your family, that was your fate , possibly even your fault (particularly in belief systems which include reincarnation), and not somebody else’s responsibility. There are still cultures where that is true.  Americans don’t really have a longstanding cultural practice of sitting back and accepting fate for themselves or for others.  Sometimes that means we act like the world’s police force and stick our noses where they don’t belong, and scoop up other people’s children instead of helping families stay intact, but culturally, it also means we are more likely to help in an accident than to run to watch and take selfies with the bleeding, unconscious victims.  Generally speaking, that is. I read about the youtube creep who visited Japan’s suicide forest to take pictures of the suicides.  He’s been shamed around the world, but I think he still has a pretty large youtube following.  And cultural practices shift more rapidly in the global age.

Not helping can also be an artifact of experiences and knowledge- people who know what to do, who have some background knowledge that might apply are more likely to step up and use it.  My husband has pulled a man out of a burning truck while a crowd watched, but my husband has had red cross training. The friend who pulled the woman out from under the wall had previous first aid training. Possibly such training is more common in the U.S. than in the Philippines, I don’t know.  Possibly also there’s a connection to the cultural differences between a being and a doing culture, but that is also just me guessing.

It’s not that Americans are perfect here- there are lots of articles written about bystander effect and that research started with a notorious incident in America.  But I think perhaps one difference is that in a more individualistic society vs a more collective, group oriented society, you are more likely to get somebody in the group who steps forward and shakes people out of their shock.  And I am writing this as an American, so I am more uncomfortable with this reaction to accidents than somebody from a more collectivist culture would be.

The bystander effect seems to be true in every culture, but perhaps it’s more pronounced in some than others.  All the articles I found cite the Kitty Genovese case in New York and  they cite the version that has been debunked, but it is the Kitty Genovese case that started the research on bystander effect.

The studies done on this are quite interesting. Here’s another:

““I would claim there is a predisposition in some people to help whenever the opportunity arises,” said Oliner, who contrasts this group to bystanders. “A bystander is less concerned with the outside world, beyond his own immediate community. A bystander might be less tolerant of differences, thinking ‘Why should I get involved? These are not my people. Maybe they deserve it?’ They don’t see helping as a choice. But rescuers see tragedy and feel no choice but to get involved. How could they stand by and let another person perish?””

Culturally we may have just as much trouble with the bystander effect.  However, I am pretty sure the majority of North Americans would not assume that the only reason a person would pull somebody out of a burning car or out from under a teetering wall is if they were related to the victim in some fashion, because nobody would do that for a stranger.

And that is a cultural difference that is really hard for me to wrap my head around.

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  1. Donna
    Posted April 9, 2018 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    Does this mean that the gospel is accepted more or less in these cultures? If a stranger (Jesus) gave his life for them, does that have a greater effect on them or does it confound them and make it harder to accept?

    • Headmistress
      Posted April 10, 2018 at 5:14 am | Permalink

      I don’t know. But it’s a good question.
      Have you ever read Eternity in their Hearts? The premise of that author is that there isn’t really such a thing as a culture where accepting the gospel is harder or easier, it’s a matter of finding the redemption connections, or redemption threads, or redemption analogies that God has placed within each specific culture. So if it made it harder to accept, there would be some other aspect of the culture that made it easier to connect. That’s kind of an oversimplification, but I think that’s the gist of it.

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