In less than a week (which I still can’t believe), a group of six students from the United States will be conducting business in a South American country that we have only ever read about. I couldn’t be more excited, but I also realize that no matter how much preparing we have done in class throughout the semester so far we will ultimately face many challenges once we’re actually in Bolivia. We have spent a good amount of time researching what the “cultural norms” are in Bolivia in order to prepare ourselves for the in-country part of the class. It’s important to have a strong sense of awareness, both personal awareness as well as awareness of the environment of the country you’re going to, when traveling abroad. Keeping awareness in mind, I know that it is still inevitable that we will face challenges along the way. Building personal relationships, the fact that it is a high context society, differences in timeliness, and the Spanish-English language barrier are the main cultural norms that may be challenges I anticipate to encounter when trying to conduct our business in Bolivia.
The first cultural norm in Bolivia that I anticipate being a challenge to conducting the business we need to conduct is the norm that they have about spending time building personal relationships, even in a business setting. In class, we talked about the difference between “logical and task oriented” societies versus “situational and relationship based” societies. The United States is definitely the first kind, and Bolivia is definitely the latter. Because of this, I think that we have to be able to adjust our own perceptions of how business should be done, and spend time building relationships and connections with the people working at CEOLI rather than getting straight to business like how things are usually done here. Even though we are only there for a week, it will be important to get to know the people we are working with before jumping into the business side of things. Those connections are so highly valued, it would be both disrespectful and unproductive to disregard building that relationship in the beginning.
In the United States, we are known for being one of the lowest low-context societies in the world. Good communication in a low context society, which is what we are used to, is simple and precise. Messages are direct; they are both expressed and understood at face value. Bolivia, on the other hand, is a high context society, meaning that listeners need to read between the lines because messages are conveyed more implicitly. This could be a challenge for us because we are used to expressing things in a very direct way. We must go into the meetings that we will have in Bolivia with this in mind. Although we might think our message is being sent in a direct and simple way, it could easily be received differently than how we intended. This ties back to awareness again; if you are aware of how communication is generally sent/received, you will be more successful in your communication.
In addition, being on time (or usually early) is one of the most vital cultural norms to know when conducting business in the United States. In other countries however, there is not as much value placed on being on time to things. Specifically in Bolivia, deadlines and scheduled meeting times are not treated the same way that they are in the United States. Although this may be frustrating to someone from the United States doing business in Bolivia, when you become aware of the host country’s expectations you can align your own expectations with theirs and adapt to what their environment calls for. This might be a challenge for us in-country, but I think that my team and I will be flexible and always willing to adapt.
Finally, the language barrier will obviously be a challenge once we are in-country. As we discussed in class, it’s important to be able to rephrase the question that you are asking. Saying the same question over again but louder is something that people from the United States tend to do when talking to a non-English speaker, but doing this does nothing to help you communicate. In class we talked about how this will be a challenge because we have to ask a question in English to a translator, make sure that she understands what we want to know, and have her translate that question into Spanish as well as the person’s response back into English. In order to avoid having our questions “lost in translation,” it is vital that we understand how to ask a question in multiple ways.
Although these challenges may make conducting business more difficult than it would be in the United States, these challenges will also teach us so much as we overcome them. The takeaways that I expect to obtain from the international service learning experience in Bolivia include intercultural competence, consulting skills, team skills/project management skills, and how to pivot or adapt.
Intercultural competence is one of the biggest takeaways that I believe I will get from this experience. It is defined as “effective and appropriate behavior and communication in intercultural situations.” As we learned in the article from class “Developing Intercultural Competence by Participating In Intensive Intercultural Service-Learning,” it is measured by two things:
- Cultural intelligence = drive (motivation) + knowledge (cognition) + strategy (metacognition) + action (behavior)
- Intercultural sensitivity, defined by Chen as “an individual’s ability to develop a positive emotion towards understanding and appreciating cultural differences that promotes an appropriate and effective behavior in intercultural communication”
The “action” component of cultural intelligence is the in-country part of the class. Physically going to Bolivia will build our cultural intelligence because we will have that action component finally, and it will also increase our intercultural sensitivity. Going to China on Plus3 last year definitely increased my cultural sensitivity, so I know that going to Bolivia will increase it even more. I developed a greater appreciation for learning about and understanding cultural differences while I was in China and that appreciation will only grow as I experience Bolivia.
Another takeaway that I hope to gain from this is developing consulting skills. In the book Flawless Consulting by Peter Block, he outlines the three main goals of a consultant. They are the following:
- Establish a collaborative relationship
- Solve problems so they stay solved
- Ensure attention is given to both the technical/business problem and the relationships
Pitt Business already has a collaborative relationship with CEOLI and Amizade, but when we arrive in Bolivia that’s when my team and I will really establish our relationship with them. We will also solve the problems that we are meant to solve in year three of the project in a way that allows the team next year to continue working on the project without having to take any steps back. Finally, the third goal is the one that I think it the most important, especially because we are working in a high context/relationship based country. I think that the experience in-country will really help me understand how to maintain a balance between the business side of things and the relationship with the client, which is crucial to any kind of consulting work. I think it’s so unique that we get to work on a global consulting project as sophomores, and I can’t wait to develop these skills in Bolivia.
In addition to learning more about consulting and developing those skills, I hope to learn more about team skills and project management. We read a few articles in class detailing different team challenges, and we also discussed the positives and negatives of working on teams. When making a list as a class, it seemed like it was a little too easy for the class to list off the negatives of working on a group project. My team in this class is at a bit of an advantage I think because we were all friends before this, being in either Delta Sigma Pi or Phi Beta Lambda together. We aren’t a perfect team, but at this point in the semester we seem to have smoothed most things out and work pretty well together. I think that in Bolivia, things could change because of unexpected challenges that may (or probably will) arise. It’s important that we continue to work together and support each other when we’re working on the project here, as well as when we’re working in Bolivia.
“Pivot” is a word that is used a lot in the business school. I think that this is one of the biggest transferrable skills that I expect to learn from our experience in Bolivia. We have to be ready to adapt to our environment and expect that it won’t be exactly like what the CultureSmart book said. If I had to write about communication in the United States, I do not think that I would be able to condense it all into one section of a small book, especially considering how different communication can be across different regions of the United States. This is important to keep in mind because the same applies to Bolivia; the communication section in the CultureSmart book is definitely helpful, but there’s no way for it to encompass everything about Bolivia. We have to go in with our prior knowledge, experience what its actually like for ourselves, and then pivot when necessary.
I’m looking forward to finally meeting everyone at CEOLI and exploring Cochabamba! In just under a week we will be on our way to one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of our lives up to this point, and I couldn’t be more excited. I will apply all of what I have learned in class thus far, but I also have to remember that change is expected and welcomed, and being able to pivot is vital. It’s time we take this from the classroom to the world!