Anticipated Cultural Differences and Opportunities for Personal Growth

As of now, we are officially counting down the days until we leave for Bolivia. I can’t help but smile and be filled with excitement any time I begin think about the adventure ahead. And what an adventure it will be. While our departure will begin our travels to Cochabamba, we have spent the past couple of months preparing for what is ahead. Preparing in ways that are beyond packing sunscreen and cameras. We’ve been preparing for our upcoming travels through getting acquainted with the concept of service learning and with Bolivia as a culture, all of which we have explored in our global service learning class. This class has instilled in me an incredible perspective on service learning and how valuable it is to partake in it; while doing so, it has opened up a door to look at service learning through a critical lens and look at this upcoming opportunity in a similar way.

In addition to exploring the fundamentals of service learning, a huge component of the preparation process has been to get acquainted with Bolivia. With any new country, or culture for that matter, it’s important to explore the aspects that make it unique. Through getting acquainted ahead of time, we are allowing ourselves to be prepared for what we may encounter once we are in country. It’s important to look at these difference in a way where we appreciate them, rather than focus on how they may contrast to what we are used to. In other words, we have come to realize that this trip is an opportunity to understand what is unfamiliar rather than judge what is unfamiliar.

We have cumulated information from a diverse set of sources, one being the Bolivian edition of Culture Smart. In referencing this book, we have been able to gather knowledge about Bolivia as a whole and begin to understand what pieces make up that whole. The book has been an excellent resource in gathering demographic information about areas of Bolivia, as well as gathering information about cultural norms that we may come into contact with during our trip. Understanding the norms that govern a society are important to be aware of as visitors because it reflects a sort of respect for their society.

One aspect of the Bolivian society that is important to be aware of is their perspectives on punctuality and the concept of time in general. As we have come to learn, being on time to a social event or arranged meet up usually looks like showing up about thirty minutes late. In fact, showing up at the agreed time is often interpreted as disrespectful. These ideas of time are applicable in most settings, but is not applicable in a business/professional setting. This aspect of Bolivia is important to be aware of for multitude of reasons, especially when it is an aspect of their culture we will come into contact with every day. It is important that we respect this aspect of their society by acquainting ourselves with this approach towards time. Although this is not necessarily applicable in the business setting, I think it does point to how time will be embraced in any setting, including a business setting. We should expect to follow a slower pace when it comes to conversations and interactions in the professional setting, as well as a more casual setting.

Along the lines of time, another cultural norm in Bolivia that we will come into contact with when conducting business is the emphasis on forming relationships and building trust before any conversation about business occurs. This element of the professional world reflects the priority of family and relationships in their society and how that aspect of their society translates into all elements of life. This cultural norm will shine through in our conversations throughout the week and the interactions we have with the important individuals we converse with. This being said, this could arise as a challenge. We don’t always experience this emphasis on forming relationships in professional settings in our society. Forming relationships is of value in our society, but it is clear that sometimes completing a professional transaction becomes more important than forming a relationship. We are also used to professional conversations skimming the surface, resembling that of small talk. In Bolivia, however, that is usually not the case. At various points in the semester we have had discussions about the value of relationships that is present in Bolivia and how that value is incorporated into various aspects of life, one of which is the business setting. Before inquiring about CEOLI, for example, there is the chance that there will be a conversation about topics other than business, whether it be about family or the community or current events. This ensures that the element of trust is established.

This element of business in Bolivia may present itself as a challenge within the first days as it is not something that would be expected if we were doing business within the United States. In looking at this aspect of their culture, it’s important to think about where this value of having relationships is seen in other elements of their society and what that element reflects. It’s also important to recognize the contrast that is present. In the United States, business is often conducted in a way where the potential transaction takes priority over getting to know the other party involved. This aspect isn’t better nor worse than what we will experience in Bolivia, but is certainly interesting to consider and recognize.

The goal of this trip is not to develop competence. On multiple occasions our discussions in class have resulted in a conversation about how being immersed in another culture does not translate into cultural competence. Rather than becoming competent our focus is to be aware. In embarking on this adventure, we are putting ourselves in a position to learn and to grow from the discomfort of being in a new setting that is governed by different practices and values. By the end of the week, my hope is to develop a broader awareness of how cultural norms, like the ones discussed prior, contribute to making a culture unique. I’ll also be interested in seeing how the value of relationships is reflected in short conversations, especially our interactions with strangers.

As mentioned above, the goal of this experience is to develop cultural awareness, not cultural competence. Which leaves me thinking, why do I hope to further develop an awareness of culture? By developing an awareness for other cultures, I feel as though I am putting myself in a wonderful position to learn how valuable individuality is in a world where individuality contributes to our unity. This international service learning trip will ask of me to be adaptable, which is something I look forward to being challenged and convicted by. Through being actively engaged with the opportunities ahead of me, I look forward to learning and seeing how the growth I endure will transfer into different settings once we return.

While in country I look forward to developing an understanding for the importance of global business. Knowledge of how to conduct business on a domestic level is fundamental to operating on a global level. When you reach a global status, however, one has to pivot and recognize how something that is physically the same may be interpreted and appreciated differently depending on the culture that is present. I anticipate seeing this be brought to light in working with CEOLI, for example. One of our hopes is to explore how CEOLI can increase their revenue. It will be interesting to converse with individuals about different ideas. This being said, it will also be interesting to see the differences between our two cultures as we explore what ideas can be successful and what cannot. With any experience, it’s important to be conscious of the context that is present and how that context contributes to whether or not something would have the ability to thrive.

I not only look forward to experiencing all that is ahead, but reflecting on it as well. That, after all, is how we learn. To quote John Dewey, “We don’t learn from experiences. We learn from reflecting on experiences.” Reflection is vital to any learning opportunity, especially this one. When we are in Bolivia there will be so many opportunities to be engaged with what and who is present. The learning will be a result of taking the time to reflect on what we see and what we encounter. By reflecting we will have a better ability to answer the question of, “so what?” In other words, we will develop further understanding of why what we are experiencing is important and how what we learn can translate into our actions. In any setting, the presence of leadership is vital. This being said, we want to be sure that we are leading sustainably and ensure that the ideas we promote are ones that remain respectful of the Bolivian culture and abide with their values.


image of Cochabamba: