There are only 5 days between now and leaving for Trinidad, and I honestly could not be more excited! It seems almost surreal that we will actually be traveling to this incredible country, and if someone had told me that I would ever be going to Trinidad for a spring break service-learning project, well, I would have told them they were crazy. Now, with our 5:20 am departure (it’s a little rough but you know, gotta do what ya gotta do) coming up so fast, our journey is about to become real. It feels like just yesterday Hillary had come into our ethics class to explain this unique study abroad experience designed specifically for us CPLE students and now we finally can go! EEEEEK! I’m only a little excited if you can’t tell…
In regards to our main reason for this trip, conducting business, Trinidad and American business culture could not be more different. Here in the States, we are used to the fast-paced, jam-packed schedule with the constant pressure of producing quality work before the deadline. In Trinidad, however, a relaxed and easy-going atmosphere engulfs the island – it is even called “Trini-time” to highlight just how laid back everything really is. In America, our days are outlined almost to the minute, and this significant contrast to Trinidad’s loosely-tied schedule could be quite frustrating for us to become accustomed to. What is important for us to realize is that having a tight schedule is by no means the “correct” way to conduct business. There is no rule saying that everything must go according to plan, so when my team and I are in country, we will have to adjust to the relaxed attitude and understand that time is not necessarily the top priority with Trinidadians. Being culturally aware of not solely this difference in time management, but Trinidad as a whole, is crucial to being effective and successful throughout the duration of this project. As a team, we must take both approaches into consideration in order to be culturally competent and conduct business at a reasonable pace. We cannot anticipate what is happening next throughout the day as we must understand that schedules can change and that time is not the sole factor for conducting business. Personally, this will be one of the biggest challenges I face in-country. I am the type of person that would consider showing up 5 minutes early as late, so I know this different concept of time will be a huge shock for me.
On a similar note, the United States tends to be a low-context country, while Trinidad is deemed as high-context. What this essentially means is that American culture is more direct through their spoken language while Trinidad relies heavily on underlying messages, body language, and tone to convey their points. This could not only be frustrating for us, but also for Trinidadians when they are trying to understand exactly what we are attempting to communicate, and vice versa. In situations such as these, we would have to be extremely aware of what we are saying and be able to reword or adjust our sentences so that Trinidadians could understand what we are saying without hinting that there is another underlying message. On the other hand, we will have to try to understand what exactly the Trinidadians mean when we are talking with them and not be afraid to ask for clarification even if we feel uncomfortable doing so. In addition, we might have to rely on deciphering their body language and tone to understand what they are saying, and as this is something that does not tend to occur in the United States, we will have to adjust accordingly. Being flexible and adaptable seems to be the main skill taken from this project; we have to learn to think on our feet and be effective leaders while doing so. Traveling to a high-context country will certainly be a significant challenge that we will have to face, however, I am confident that my team will successfully be able to “pivot,” or adapt, on the spot and effectively be able to communicate with our client.
This notion of high and low context relates to the formality and informality of nations in general. As mentioned before with the concept of time, America is stricter with following schedules than Trinidad. Planning out days is more formal than allowing matters to flow loosely, and this cultural difference will be another challenge that my team and I will have to overcome while working with the DORCAS Women’s Group in Matelot. As we do have a more formal way of conducting business, we will have to understand that the Women’s Group will not be used to this specific style, so we may have to adjust our spoken and body language, repeat ideas, or ask someone else to describe what we mean in order for them to understand what we are trying to say. Switching from a formal culture to an informal culture will emphasize transferable skills that we would be able to use in almost all situations later on in life, whether it concerns international business or not. As mentioned before, adaptability and flexibility play a key role in being able to positively but thoroughly complete what we have to do while being in Trinidad.
In order to avoid some of these imminent challenges that our group will be facing, we’ve reached out to our resources, such as our advisors and Amizade (the Pittsburgh-based organization that strives to build connections between communities and with whom we are working to complete this project), to have a second opinion on how to reword the language in our deliverables. We’ve also directly communicated with the DORCAS Women’s Group to see how they would like us to relay information to them, and we came to the conclusion that interactive discussions and visuals would provide the best learning experience for all of us. As a team, we also decided that guiding the discussion through open-ended questions would not only be beneficial for the DORCAS Women’s Group to reflect on what is being talked about, but it is also beneficial for my teammates and I to see if we are doing a thorough job in trying to communicate with them.
Obviously, I will learn from these challenges and grow professionally, but throughout the duration of this trip, I hope to flourish personally as well. Being pushed out of my comfort zone certainly is a huge aspect of this trip that will test my limits and make me see how I react in situations that can be frustrating and not being able to rely on the familiarity of being at home. I am a little nervous, honestly, because I am used to things being a certain way here in the United States, and I will definitely be thrown a curve ball upon arrival in Trinidad.
In Matelot, I will have a completely different routine and schedule, and that is not necessarily due to the slight change in time zones. I am, like a majority of my generation, pretty reliant on technology – especially my phone. Although these past few weeks, I have already been trying to put my phone away for a few hours just to focus on myself or whatever I need to do, not being able to just check social media will be annoying for me the first few days (yeah this is really pathetic I know). In all honesty, though, I’m looking forward to being disconnected from the rest of the world and just enjoying what is right in front of me, whether it be the people, the land, the culture, etc.
Being culturally aware of what is going on around me, though, and gaining cultural competence by engaging however I possibly can, will allow me to make the most out of this experience and develop new skills as well. Being culturally competent will allow me to effectively communicate in (almost) any unfamiliar environment and hone in on awareness for other cultures. As a business student, I am confident that through this global service-learning project, I will be able to improve upon and develop a greater competence and attitude towards professional behavior in unfamiliar environments and hopefully gain a sense of awareness and knowledge that would be beneficial in both personal and professional ways in the future. Global intelligence is hard to come by and I am extremely lucky to have the opportunity to experience it at such a young age. Being culturally aware and gaining global intelligence are just two ways that I hope to improve personally upon the completion of this incredible trip to Trinidad.
Overall, this upcoming journey to Matelot will be the largest step outside my comfort zone that I probably have ever experienced in my life. The memories and relationships that I will be able to gain from this trip, though, are everlasting and life-changing, and I honestly could not be more excited to experience it all. Opportunities like this do not come around that frequently, and I could not be more grateful that I am able to endure this study abroad program. The next time I write will be after returning from Trinidad, so stay tuned to hear what happens!