Isn’t That Technically America?

Puerto Rico.  That’s technically still the United States, isn’t it? The culture there is probably similar to what we experience in America every day, right?  Wrong.  While Puerto Rico may be an official U.S. territory and you don’t need a passport to pay a visit, the people there live their daily lives much differently than what we are used to.  In less than one week, I will be fully immersing myself into a brand new culture for the first time, and I couldn’t be more excited.  With that excitement, however, comes a few fears. What if I do something to offend the people there?  What if I misunderstand what they are saying?  What if I can’t understand them at all?  Luckily, throughout this semester, my team and I have learned so much about the culture in Puerto Rico as well as some tips on adapting to the cultural norms of the areas.  I feel as though this class has readily prepared us for what to expect while conducting business in country.

Context: When Low Meets High

So maybe visiting Puerto Rico won’t be the world’s largest cultural shift for me, but it will definitely be different. The biggest adaptation we will have to adjust to is going from an extremely low context culture like that of the United States to a very high context culture like that of Puerto Rico.  When a culture is low context, that means communication is clearly spelled out and defined in conversation between two people.  There is not much room for body language or other things of that sort. Conversations are normally very quick and to the point much like the relationship between the two people speaking. On the contrast, high context cultures rely more on implicit communication such as hand gestures, voice tones, and facial expressions.  One thing in particular of people from Puerto Rico that I learned about while doing cultural research was how closely they will stand to the person they are speaking to. That is certainly something I am not used to as I do enjoy my personal space!  Puerto Ricans will often talk very loudly, interrupt your sentences, and even touch you while conversating.  None of these actions are to be considered rude, however, because of the high context style of communication they are used to.  In the mainland U.S., it is definitely considered quite impolite to interrupt a person while they’re speaking and is something that would really take some getting used to. High context communication users also prefer conversing face to face and close in proximity, while those using low context would rather communicate via technology channels when applicable.  Identifying with one of the lowest context cultures, I can definitely agree with this statement.  It seems like everywhere you look in the United States, whether it be at the store, in class, or sitting at a red light, someone around you is on their phone.  A large majority of business communication is conducted via email, and some business meetings are even online! These phones are small pieces of technology that we as a society have essentially become addicted to.  While in Puerto Rico, I am going to challenge myself to power down my cell phone and enjoy the experience of a lower context communication style.  This will definitely be a challenge for me but I am excited to try it!

While still on the communication aspect of cultural differences, it will definitely be hard for me to get passed the language barrier I may run into.  Although Puerto Rico is an American territory, Spanish is the official language.  In fact, Puerto Ricans actually developed their own unique version of the language that is slightly different than your typical Spanish.  Not that I know very much Spanish to begin with, but this could pose another element of confusion during the communication process.  Fortunately, most Puerto Ricans are also taught English as a second language in school.  However, a very small percentage of them are actually fluent in this second language. I don’t see the language barrier being too much of a hinderance while conducting business because the members of Caras we will be with also speak English.  The language may affect us in our everyday routines there, however, and could contribute to a “culture shock” experience.  

As far as specific business practices in Puerto Rico go, honestly, they are pretty similar to what we are used to here in the U.S.  The main difference between the two is that business in Puerto Rico is generally a little more relaxed than in America.  Because of the very hot climate, it is common for business professionals to dress in more casual attire to stay cool.  Professional business suits are usually not worn except in people with executive positions and to events like job interviews.  It is also common for coworkers to have close relationships both inside and outside of the workplace.  The overall work environment in Puerto Rico is slightly more laid back as work is truly to be considered as a “fun” piece of their lives.  A typical trait of most people from Puerto Rico is that their “internal clock” is about fifteen minutes behind for, well, just about everything.  Being slightly late for work events is still kind of considered on time for them as it probably wasn’t going to start on time anyway.  However, Puerto Ricans still have a very strong work ethic and are very serious about the business they conduct. Being used to a more rigid style of business here in the United States, it might be a little hard for us to adapt to the more casual style they practice on the island. In the end, it is important for us to remember that business is business, and that while we can have a close and laid back relationship with our clients, we must always be both professional and respectful in all that we do.

What Will I Learn From This? The List is Never-ending!

One of the biggest reasons I applied to take this course and be given this opportunity is because I felt that there was so much for me to gain from this experience.  As I stated in my previous blog post, I have never left the country…ever.  I have never had the chance to truly experience a culture other than the one I have been living in for the past twenty-one years.  I’ve seen movies, read books, and done research on various other cultures, but I have never had the true experience of being immersed in another one. This alone will teach me so many things that cannot be taught in just any classroom or with some lousy five hundred page text book.  This will teach me about things that I had no idea were going on outside my home country. It will teach me ways of observing an unfamiliar culture and how to properly and appropriately adapt.  It will teach me professional business skills that I can transfer to my everyday career when I am working with people who have backgrounds other than my own.  It will provide me with a whole new perspective on life.  It will change how I perceive this world after being exposed to something beyond just my personal bubble of the United States. 

Like we talked about in our service learning class, to truly learn, you must be fully engaged.  I believe engaging myself in the community through the service portion of this trip will be very eye opening for me. Chances are, I will be surrounded by people who are not nearly as fortunate as I am.  However, it is important to treat them like any regular person you meet as we are not there to be “American heroes”.  In the article relating service learning and intercultural competence, it stresses how intercultural service learning can help address the need of bringing people together across differences to address both local and global issues.  I see this as something I will really be able to experience firsthand.  My service in this country will really have an immense impact on the people there.  However, the article also addresses the fact that service learning can sometimes strengthen stereotypes students have before entering the foreign country.  I will use everything that I have learned throughout this semester to curb any stereotypes that may arise before or during my in-country experience.  Overall, I believe this class has provided me with enough intercultural competence to succeed with conducting business in Puerto Rico.  I look forward to my time in country being exposed to a different culture and reflecting on everything I have learned and every skill I have gained when I return to the States.