Successful survival and evasion isn’t just about physical things, fire, water, and food. Nor is it just about those things plus attitude.
You must understand people and the local culture. You must understand people are different and it is highly likely the local culture is different from your culture.
Rarely can you avoid third parties entirely during a long range attempt to return to your own lines.
If you understand the local culture enough to communicate your need for assistance, you have a greater likelihood of success. It will always be dangerous communicating with the locals, but there are ways of making the odds a bit more favorable to you. Don’t be the guy who died of starvation watching a luau from the bushes.
The ordinary greeting
I remember helping run an e & e training course in the Appalachian Mountains a few decades back. One of my fellow directors was a RAF Wing Commander who told of evading through Europe in countries where he didn’t speak the language. He found it useful walking down streets simply nodding to passer-bys and mouthing a soundless vowel. If anyone tried to ask him directions he mutely point to the bandage around his neck under his collar. A type of greeting body-language coupled with a non-threatening gesture made him more invisible than averting eye contact. Mind you, that was in Europe where he looked like the locals, and direct eye contact was an acceptable practice.
That was passive interaction. Knowing a few words and phrases can be more productive. There is the Czech proverb, “You live a new life for every new language you speak.” Well, at the very least; you have one life you want to protect.
More to the point are the words of the 16th Century English scholar, Roger Bacon, who said, “Knowledge of languages is the doorway to wisdom.” I don’t know about wisdom, but ultimately the minute you can communicate a few words orally or through gestures, you are beginning to learn another culture. If you need assistance, you will need to how to get that other culture to become a protective envelope.
A good friend, Dr. Winston Tellis, hitchhiked and used public transportation to travel from India to England in 1965. When he was among the Bedouins he spoke not a word, but because he had been advised that if you did not actually speak to Bedouins, you could not insult them. The Bedouins were quick to claim insult and do you in.
So he used hand signs. Of course, in many cultures you can unconsciously insult someone using hand signs. Thumbs up in most cultures influence by Roman civilization means “approval” or “you’re doing okay.” In Brazil however the same gesture is an insult with vulgar overtones.
The Taboo Lecture
In the Navy when you enter a port or arrive at an overseas duty station you get a “taboo lecture” normally from the intelligence officer.
In Korea and the Middle East it is an insult to show someone the bottom of your shoes. When you think about it, that’s the dirtiest part of your attire. In China women will not look a strange man in the eye, even in a business situation. In China you don’t slap your counterpart on the back or call him by his first name. In America, many of us think informality relaxes people. In many foreign cultures that is not true. In many, many countries disharmony of any kind is consider selfish and destructive. We as Americans believe a certain amount of disharmony helps create a better “product,” that it strengthens our culture. What we think is unimportant. You are looking for help from someone who is not an American.
I had a Ranger officer work for me in the tactical operations center in South Korea. He hit the trifecta, within ten minutes he called his counterpart his first name, slapped him on the back, and made a joke about this officer’s diminutive stature (as compared to that of the Ranger officer). That Ranger officer spent the rest of the exercise computing tide tables during the midwatch, far, far from our allies from the Land of the Morning Calm.
The old salts used to collect “taboos” like baseball cards. They could tell you everything you could do wrong anywhere. They enjoyed the contrasts in cultures. Who the heck wants to sail half-way around the world to a country identical to the one you just left?
Be a collector of taboos.
A vest pocket dictionary is always a good thing to carry, but wary of “word for word” translations. I was studying judo in Japan when I was invited out for a beer by several of the Japanese students. An Argentinian judo student asked if he could come along. Using my dictionary and my limited Japanese vocabulary I told them I was in the United States Navy and gave them my rank. This was easily and unambiguously understood by the Japanese students, one of whom was in the Japanese navy. The Argentinian judo student asked me the words for “engineer” and “foreman,” and hastily grabbed my vest-pocket dictionary. “Engineer” was simple and unambiguous, and then I saw him point to himself and say “daijin.” I cringed. “Daijin” could be used for a “foreman,” but it literally meant “big man.” Others can refer to you as a “daijin,” but in most countries, especially Japan, you don’t immodestly refer to yourself as a “big man.” I think he realized his mistake. We never saw him at practice again.
Never, ever, trust word for word translations. If you get a puzzled look or a look of emotion, immediately try another tack, another set of words and phrases.
Don’t trust the fact that your listener is nodding. In many cultures that means he’s being polite and he’s saying simply, “I hear you.” It doesn’t mean, “I understand you.”
One of the best gimmicks for communication I’ve seen was something pioneered by the military in the China-Burma-India Theater in WWII called a “pointie-talkie.” It was pocket-sized illustrated dictionary.
A modern equivalent is Dieter Graf’s Point it: Travellers Language Kit which includes a passport-sized dictionary “[a]llowing you to be understood anywhere in the world…without words and waving about…used not only by tourists but also by UN peacekeeping forces, Olympic athletes and speech therapists.”
There are other comparable illustrated dictionaries. Ones that are designed for travelers will probably be the most useful. As an evader, you are simply a traveler on the lam.
I think the user must be very sensitive to the many possibilities of misinterpretation. If you point to an image of a river, your counterpart may interpret that as “water,” “flooding,” or “your place of origin was a place near a river.” Don’t expect instant understanding. Come at your problem cross-checking using several images.
The best way to make yourself understood, is learn the language, but if you’re just passing through, or thrust into an unexpected place, that isn’t practical.
When you travel, you should always be contemplating a way to communicate with those around you. And you should be testing it out. Perfection isn’t essential, this is about survival, and better yet, it can be fun.
I have friends who speak no none foreign language – they can barely speak recognizable English – but they can make themselves understood anywhere. Several make a practice of finding a girlfriend-interpreter, or as the British in the days of the Empire used to “engage a pillow-dictionary.”
Watching American football on the tube eating hamburgers
You’ll never sharpen your skills staying stateside on garrison duty. The way to get to the survivor’s Carnegie Hall is practice, practice, practice.
The 20th Century movie Italian screen director, Frederico Fellini, said, “A different language is a different vision of life.” You must seek out a different view of life from time to time.
Communications skills make your brain stronger, and they just may allow your heart to keep beating longer.
About the Author
R. L. Crossland is a retired naval captain with 35 years’ service, active and reserve, as a SEAL officer ("one cold war and two hot ones.") He holds a merchant marine captain’s license and practices trial law in New England. He is a graduate of numerous military and civilian survival, evasion, and related schools. His survival interests are varied and range from cold weather subsistence to lifeboat navigation to emergency communications to assisted evasion, and beyond.