Our trip to Trinidad last week was a life-changing and phenomenal experience for me. We met so many amazing people and got to experience a beautiful island. On the business side of the trip, we met with many different influential groups within the town of Matelot and gained a lot of valuable information for our project.
The culture of Trinidad, and more specifically Matelot, is much different than the one that I am used to in Pittsburgh. Some of the cultural norms there that were tough to adjust to included “island time”, communication, and living conditions.
Adjusting to island time was harder than I thought it would be when we first arrived. Even though I was aware of it going into the trip, it was worse than I anticipated. Most of our meetings started at least thirty minutes after they were scheduled to, and there were a few times that we just entirely cut something out of the schedule. Since it was only for a week and the town was so beautiful, I would just tell myself to sit back, relax, and enjoy the view and weather while I still could. However, there were still times that it was frustrating, and I just wanted things to go according to the plan. If our trip was for a more extended time period, this may have been a larger issue, but since it was only a week, it was a lot easier to just let it go and move on.
Another cultural norm that was tough to adjust was the speed and accent that they spoke with. On top of having the thick Caribbean accent, Trinis speak extremely quickly, which makes it very hard to communicate with them. There were a few times when I found myself unable to understand something that they would say, so I would ask them to repeat it, and then I would awkwardly come up with a response when I still could not figure out what was said. They were really good about slowing down the speed they spoke with in order to help us understand what they were saying, but it was still difficult to understand what they were saying at times. As the week went along though, I became better at hearing through the accent and being able to have longer, smoother, and less awkward conversations with the locals. This was one of the biggest accomplishments of the week for me because it allowed me to truly form some relationships and create bonds that I will treasure forever. No matter how hard I tried though, I could not understand any of what they were saying when they spoke to each other. They spoke so quickly that it almost sounded like an entirely different language. Fortunately, they spoke much slower when communicating with us, or I do not think I would have been able to hold any conversations all week.
The last cultural norm that was a challenge to adjust to was the living conditions. Prior to departure, we were informed that the conditions would not be what we were used to, but I did not think much of it. The living conditions were perfectly fine and required little to no adjustment on the night that we spent in Port of Spain, which led me to believe that the whole trip would be that way. I was very wrong though. When we first dropped off our bags in the house we were staying at in Matelot, the first thing I noticed was that the roof did not connect to the walls. This meant that anything that wanted to come inside could do so, and the bugs welcomed that opportunity. We had to sleep under a mosquito net every night to keep out all kinds of bugs, including spiders, hornets, and others that we found in the house throughout the week. This was by far the hardest part of the culture to adjust to. I did not enjoy sleeping under the mosquito net, but as the week went on, I slowly adjusted and was able to overcome it. By the end of the week, I actually did not mind the bugs and the beds and found myself wishing I could spend more time in Matelot.
I learned two very important lessons regarding global business while in Matelot, both of which I mentioned as part of the cultural norm differences that we faced. The first of these is the difference in how communication works for us and them. This is not just limited to how we communicate with each other, but also includes how well they communicate with each other within their organizations. It seemed as if there was a severe lack of communication between themselves making the schedule and plans break down a few different times. If everyone is not on the same page with something that is happening, it causes a ton of confusion and frustration and sometimes can cause a breakdown in plans. On top of that, the language barrier, or just different styles of speaking the same language in our case, can also make communication between separate organizations very different as I mentioned previously.
The second insight I gained into global business is the importance of understanding the culture and habits of business operations of the organization that you are working with. For our trip, this is manifested in the concept of “island time” that we experienced while we were there. If we did not know about the difference in our cultures before we traveled there, we may have perceived their lateness as a sign of disrespect or lack of interest in working with us. This could have caused a lot of problems for our collaboration with them and for our project in general. Fortunately, we were aware and none of that happened, but that just goes to show the importance of understanding at least the major differences, so no one is offended by anything that they do not understand.
I learned so many amazing things about the people, the place, and the culture while I was in Matelot, but I think the most important lessons I left with were about myself. The first thing that I learned is that I am used to the living conditions that I have had my whole life and I do not enjoy giving those up for something less. At the beginning of the week, I did not feel comfortable at all in the bed that I slept in and missed my bed at home a lot. Similar to that, I discovered that I use my phone a lot more than I thought I did. I have always thought that I did not use my phone nearly as much as most people. After spending a week without being able to use my phone, I realized that I felt deprived and wanted to know what was happening in the outside world. At first, it was a little bit relieving to just relax and enjoy what was happening around me rather than focusing on what was happening on my phone. However, once we got back to Port of Spain and had wifi, I found out that I really missed knowing what was happening with all of my sports teams, and I spent an hour just sitting on my phone trying to catch up.
On an entirely different note, another thing that I learned was that I connect with kids very easily. I have always been told that I was good with kids, but I never really realized it until this trip. I found it very easy to spend time and joke around with the kids and really had a good time with them. They were truly the hardest to say goodbye to at the end of the week. Any chance I got I found myself talking to them and playing games with them to help keep both us entertained. At our farewell dinner on our last night, I held several of them and sang Disney songs with them, which is a memory that I will treasure forever. This showed me that I love kids more than I had any idea about, which was really special and cool to discover about myself.
Lastly, I learned that I am capable of adapting and adjusting to just about anything that I give myself a chance to. By the end of the week, I was content with the living conditions and found ways to make myself comfortable when I was outside of my comfort zone. I did not even realize that I was missing my phone and sports until after we were able to use them again. I had adjusted to life without it, and eventually stopped missing it and used the extra time I had in my life to enjoy what was happening around me. I also adapted to the culture, and the uncomfortable and weird feeling I had at the beginning of the week melted away and was replaced with a sense of belonging and community by the time we said our final goodbyes to Matelot.