In roughly 6 days, 13 hours, and 32 minutes we’ll be touching down in Bolivia (but who’s counting)! As excited as I am to finally get to see Cochabamba and meet the incredible people of CEOLI, I know there is so much more I still need to do to prepare. Aside from packing and getting mentally prepared to leave Pittsburgh, there are a multitude of challenges I expect to come face to face with during the week. Just some of these challenges include conquering a difference in cultural contexts, overcoming the language barrier, and managing the relationships I have and will make. As a class, we have been learning all semester about how to best prepare ourselves for the culture shock and the challenges we can expect, but I don’t think you can fully prepare for everything. A lot of how I’ll handle these challenges will have to come from my ability to adapt and being aware of myself and my environment to make the best decisions for myself, my group, and CEOLI.
One of the biggest challenges I expect to face is one that I never even knew of, heard of, or thought of two months ago. This is the difference in cultural contexts. I’ve never been outside of the United States, so I’ve never thought about the differences in the way that people communicate. I had never heard of high context or low context until it was brought up in class a couple of weeks ago. The United States is one of the lowest context cultures in the world. This means we say exactly what we mean and say everything explicitly. Bolivia, on the other hand has a higher context culture, meaning their language is less precise, and you have to read between the lines. Navigating conversation will be completely different than here in the US, so it is a challenge I’ll be facing head-on every minute we are there.
Often times, higher context cultures find lower context culture communication to be too blunt and even rude. When working with a client, I never want to come across as too blunt or straightforward, especially when our client is an organization as great and caring as CEOLI. In contrast, I may think that people in Bolivia don’t come across clear enough. In their high context culture, you have to interpret what they are saying and think about the subtext around the conversation and interaction. When in meetings with people from CEOLI, we really need to make sure we get all the information we can and fully understand it, so we can help them out with our recommendations and reports in the best way possible. I’m worried about interpreting what they say wrong which will then cause us to leave with the wrong information. While I should ask plenty to questions for clarity, I don’t want to offend them by asking too many questions or trying to force them to say more than they are comfortable.
Working through this over the course of the week will be difficult. It isn’t like we will be there for months to figure out how to communicate — we only have about 6 days! I plan to initially keep conversation light and personal. They are a culture that values relationship building, so this will benefit us anyways! I think starting with basic conversation will allow me to figure out communication barriers right away. I think the biggest thing I can do to adapt to the differences is know that there is a difference. Being aware of the differences in how we communicate going in already puts me in a better spot than not being aware would, and it will be easier to adapt as conversations get more complicated.
2. Language Barrier
Another major challenge that will be obvious is the difference in languages. Bolivians speak Spanish, and English is not a prevalent second language in Bolivia. While I have some recollection of Spanish from my high school days, that will likely prove to be useless with native speakers who speak faster and with a heavier accent. Luckily, Amizade is equipping us with translators who will be available for some big conversations, but not all the time. The language barrier will provide challenges when using translators and without translators that will be hard to prepare for.
While I have never had conversations utilizing a translator, I imagine it will be harder to connect with the people you are having a conversation with. Tones can’t be recreated by translators, so some of the authenticity of the conversation gets lost. Not only will the conversation content be different, but having a conversation with a translator involved will be difficult because of the timing. It will be hard for me to remember to speak in smaller segments with pauses so the translator can listen and speak it back in a way that CEOLI will understand. During the times that I won’t have access to a translator, I will have to use the very limited Spanish I do know to generate goodwill with CEOLI and people who live in Bolivia.
Learning to overcome this challenge will have to come fast or else no conversation will be useful. I think one thing that will help me in conversations is body language. People say that 55% of communication is body language, and that is something that we can all see and understand. Also an important thing in our conversation will be reframing concepts and questions in a way that other people will understand. Since this will be the first time I actually get to interact with CEOLI, communicating will have to focus on clarity so we both are on the same page. That might mean having to rephrase a question multiple times before they actually understand it, and vice versa. I think one of the biggest things I will need to practice in communication with Bolivians is patience. Us Pitt Business Student Consultants and CEOLI have the same goal — to help CEOLI reach financial stability and sustainability. Since we are on the same page, if we are patient with each other and learn to communicate effectively, I think talking with CEOLI will be a great chance to get to know our clients and learn how to navigate through a language barrier.
3. Relationship Management
Our relationship with CEOLI is unique because we aren’t just setting the tone and managing the relationship for ourselves, but Pitt Business’s 10 year plan with CEOLI means that we are also working to gain trust and credibility for future PBSC teams as well. As much as we want to meet everyone from CEOLI and have a great relationship, we need to set a positive tone for the fate of their future. However, this won’t be easy. Because of the differences in cultural context and the language barriers, building relationships will be a little more complicated than it would be if we were working with a company in the United States.
Something that I’ve learned about business in Bolivia is that they care about building relationships before getting into the business of a meeting. In the United States, a lot of meetings start right away talking about the company and what they need to get done, but that is completely different in Bolivia. They won’t even think about talking about business until they have gotten to know you and know that they can trust you. Trust is a huge deal with them, and not everyone gains it. I think this will be especially hard for me to overcome because of the short time we will have with them. Only being in Bolivia for a week and only getting to be at the school for a couple hours each day means time is limited to gain trust and learn about the organization. In the United States, business is very fast paced, which isn’t always the case in other countries, so that will add to the time challenge we face.
Overcoming this won’t be easy, but I think it will make our trip to Bolivia more worthwhile and interesting. While getting to know everyone on a personal level will leave less time to work towards our project, it will be incredible and a once in a lifetime chance to learn about the incredible people who work at and attend CEOLI. I think it will make us more driven to help the organization and more invested in the project. Because this challenge has major benefits, I look forward to overcoming it. I want to get to know everyone on a personal level, and I think this will make our business conversations easier as well because we will be able to understand the background of all the people at CEOLI. Gaining trust with CEOLI will help us this year and will help Pitt Business for years to come, so I plan to approach them with an open heart and an open mind for both their benefit and mine.
Being in Bolivia, I expect to learn a lot from my international service learning experience. Mainly, I expect to increase my cultural intelligence, which is made up of four components: drive, knowledge, strategy, and action. The drive will come from finally getting to work with CEOLI and seeing their first hand. I think with increased motivation will come increased self-efficacy, which will allow us to do our project even better. The knowledge will come from the crossover of what we learn in class and how it actually applies when we are in Bolivia experiencing another culture. The strategy will come from how I interpret everything we learn and how I will use it moving forward in the project. A big necessity of this will be communicating and being transparent with my teammates, so we can morphe what we all learned to make the best recommendations and action plans as possible. Finally the action will come from us physically being in Bolivia and experiencing everything first-hand. Everything we have been working on in class and will do in country link directly to increasing our cultural intelligence. I look forward to being able to understand different cultures better by experiencing one that I have not grown up in.
I think one of the major things I will learn in Bolivia is that a lot of what we have been learning is wrong. Our professors have been telling us this from day one — that everything we talk about in class about other cultures is theoretical and things will change when you’re actually in country. This means that as much as we have been preparing, we will have to adapt to what is reality. Our ability to pivot will be vital in making it a successful experience for us and for CEOLI. Because of this, it is so important to go in with an open mind and not let change scare me. If class has taught me anything so far, it is that I need to be comfortable outside of my comfort zone. As hard as this will be, it is what will allow me to learn and grow the most while in Bolivia.
I’m so excited to finally make it to Cochabamba and be with CEOLI for the first time. On top of the challenges I know I will face, there are sure to be even more that I’ve never thought of, but overcoming these challenges will prove to make me a better person. I can’t wait to learn and grow with my friends and teammates, and start working with CEOLI’s staff and students to work towards making their organization financially sound and happier!