Conquering Cultural Competence

While Caribbean culture tends to be very laid-back and loosely scheduled, American business tends to be contrasting to those values. In our service learning project in Matelot, I anticipate this being a slight obstacle to overcome. Regardless, I am sure that the relationships being built will be very friendly, and we won’t have any trouble getting along with the locals that we work with. Another challenge of this project could come from the culture of informality in Trinidad, which will take some adjustment for us while conducting business.  Additionally, I think it will be difficult to get close enough to the locals for them to be willing to share personal information that could be useful for the project.

In the US, we tend to adhere to set schedules with everything; our entire week is planned out to the minute, filling each gap with tasks to get done. Our classes are scheduled to begin at an exact time, and they do. Being on time for a class or a meeting means being 5 minutes early, especially for serious students such as ourselves. These cultural norms have been ingrained into us for many years, which will undoubtedly make it difficult to adapt to a completely opposite way of planning out the day. By no means is this the “correct” way to go about a day; in Trinidad, timeliness is not prioritized the way that it is here. Instead, Trinis value what they are doing at the moment. If what is going on right now takes longer than expected, it is worth pushing back the next task in order to give the current activity complete attention. This goes for business as well as leisurely activities, which means that an extended leisurely activity warrants pushing back a business meeting. If our team went into this project without expecting these fundamentally different scheduling practices, then this would definitely lead to frustration. By preparing for it, I think that we will be able to avoid most issues that would come about from different values regarding time. Although timeliness is not highly prioritized, Trinis are very friendly and respectful, so I don’t expect any actual conflict to arise due to cultural differences.

Another potential source of difficulty in adapting to new cultural norms could be in the general sense of informality in Trinidad. While some of this stems from the differing sense of timeliness that I already discussed, it also extends to other cultural aspects such as attire. In the US, we tend to get dressed up for most business occasions. This might include a dress shirt and khakis when it’s a more casual setting, or even a suit for a more serious business meeting. On the other hand, in Trinidad, this type of attire is not as common; I don’t know exactly what to expect yet, but I anticipate that khaki shorts and a polo shirt will be the most formal dress in Matelot that we will come across. This is partly due to the fact that the Caribbean is so hot and humid that wearing a suit would not be practical. I don’t see this difference in formal attire being much of an issue except that it might make our more serious meetings feel less formal, which we should expect going into them. Outside of attire, I think that the sense of formality could be difficult to adapt to because the organizations in Matelot differ structurally from organizations that we are used to. I am not sure exactly how they are structured in Trinidad, although I think that the DORCAS Women’s Group will be relatively informal in their internal management and planning of events. This might be a little bit uncomfortable for us, as we are accustomed to very structured organizations and are not sure what to do when there is no list of tasks and procedures laid out. Additionally, I am not sure what to expect in terms of leadership. Organizations that we are used to usually have defined leadership roles. If we find this to not be the case while doing business in Matelot, it could make it difficult for us to know when it is appropriate to speak up or take the reins on a task.

Although it may be a little tough to adapt to the type of dress and structure in business situations in Trinidad, I don’t anticipate any other cultural differences regarding formalities that will be difficult to overcome. On the other hand, some personal differences in the two cultures may make business more difficult. Trinis and Americans share many values when it comes to business, such as social equality between men and women and being warm and welcoming when meeting a new business acquaintance. While these fundamental social norms are very similar, developing a personal connection with the locals could prove to be difficult because of how they perceive visitors. Trinis are used to short term visitors who come and go from Trinidad. Because of this, they see visitors as transient and lacking the capacity to form a meaningful relationship with. As a result, they are less willing to develop a close friendship with visitors or share very personal information. This could be a source of difficulty in our service learning project when we’re evaluating individuals’ sentiment about different people in the community, or even ideas about ecotourism. A lack of transparency will inhibit us from doing our work as effectively as possible. Outside of this lack of trust of visitors and differences in formalities, I don’t anticipate any other cultural challenges. Since the most fundamental cultural norms that are applicable to business are similar between American and Trinidadian culture, I don’t expect any real problems to arise while conducting business.

With these cultural differences identified and described, I feel fairly prepared to engage in business with the community of Matelot. There will be some curveballs without a doubt, but I think we are as prepared as we could be in terms of cultural awareness. Even with this cultural awareness, I think that the project will grow our cultural competence more than we could grow it by reading books and talking.

Reading the culturesmart book and doing research on Trinidad has provided a lot of useful insight and assisted in expanding our cultural awareness. Instead of experiencing complete culture shock, we will be able to go to Trinidad with some basic understanding of cultural norms. This will help us go about our business and talk to people without doing anything that is really looked down upon by the culture. This cultural awareness has also helped to set some reasonable expectations; By doing our research, we found out that time is not of major importance in Trinidad, so we will not be expecting to get done everything that we plan to do in a day. Even some of the smaller things are cleared up, such as the type of food that’ll be available. These basic understandings will make it much easier to stay focused on our tasks at hand without worrying about little details that are less relevant.

While our research has provided us with a good cultural awareness, it is merely a foundation for a solid cultural competence. During this trip, my main goal is to become as culturally competent as I can in the context of Trinidadian and Caribbean lifestyles. By being exposed to and engaged in Matelot’s community, I want to gain a better understanding of the everyday activities that go on in the Caribbean. It will greatly assist my personal development as well to understand the difficulties and challenges that are unique to the area and people. By getting outside of my comfort zone and seeing the differences between my lifestyle and the lifestyle of someone in a much different situation, I’ll have a lot more capacity for empathy. Since I’ve only ever gone outside of the country to Europe, I don’t know from a firsthand experience what life is like for someone in a totally different setting, like Matelot. By seeing an area with an underdeveloped economy in which jobs rely on the public sector, I’ll also be able to gain an understanding of the challenges that come along with economic development.

In addition to gaining cultural competence by engaging with a foreign community, I aim to get a lot of personal development from the project itself. By working on developing a course of action to get ecotourism started, I’ll be able to learn the first steps that are necessary in order to stimulate economic activity. I’ll also get great insight into the sentiment towards economic growth of members of a community that is so different from mine. This knowledge will be applicable in many situations, especially in a general understanding of the global economy.

Before going to Trinidad, my team and I have prepared by developing a solid understanding of the values and lifestyle differences of the area. This cultural awareness has revealed that some difficulties may arise in our project when it comes to timeliness, formality, and gaining the trust of locals. By preparing for these differences, we are able to craft our scope of work to account for them, helping to make our project more effective. Additionally, that same research has allowed me to set goals for what I’d like to achieve in terms of personal development. Those objectives can be summarized as a stronger cultural competence. Even with all of this planning and understanding, this trip will throw a lot of unexpected things our way- I’m extremely excited to see what they might be!