Prior to departing for Trinidad, there was a host of expectations that I had regarding the challenges related to cultural and ethical norms while abroad. As anticipated, some of these expectations held true, and others were found to be meniscal and had little impact on completing the project itself. The primary difference I had expected to happen and that did indeed happen, was the differing pace of life among Americans and Trinidadians. Upon arriving in Port of Spain, our group was eager to arrive in Matelot and begin executing our project while simultaneously building relationships with the DORCAS women and the community as a whole. Because of what I am accustomed to in the United States, I assumed that there was a specific time we were expected to arrive in Matelot and that there would be limited to no stops on the way there. This ended up being completely opposite of what had happened, and we ended up making around three stops before eventually arriving in Matelot. The first was to try a local food called doubles and use the bathroom, the second was to get ice cream, and the third was to a grocery store. Although these stops were exciting and I enjoyed them a great deal, I recall our group joking around and saying, “we are never getting to Matelot at this point”.
These two contrasting paces of life that we were used to persisted to be a challenge for the remainder of the trip. A key component of our project was to build the best relationships possible with the women that we could in the restricted time that we had. This meant that a strong portion of our trip was spent doing what we thought of as relaxing and completing small portions of work at a time. In addition to that, almost nothing happened according to schedule, and we were constantly having to adapt and be flexible with the changing schedule. As our relationships with the women grew, we spent even more time just talking and learning about each other and the places we live. I began to recognize that although an imperative part of our project was building these in-depth relationships with DORCAS and the Matelot community, we still had deliverables that needed to get done and the laid-back lifestyle hinted that we could definitely slack off and not follow through with our promises if we wanted. This recognition prompted me with a sense of urgency, and I could feel myself becoming concerned that we would not execute our project in the time span of the trip. This frustrated me at times, and I could tell that it also frustrated most of my group members. We did a great job recognizing when we were feeling this way and adjusting our behavior accordingly. Because of the stress-free lifestyle, we had to do our work in small increments and tailor our presentations to their lifestyle so that they would be most effective.
As our relationships grew, the more responsive and engaged the women were during our workshops, and we could sense that they were genuinely understanding what we were presenting to them by the time we went on the planned site visits. To see the women actually put the skills that we had shared with them related to networking and customer service into action, demonstrated to us a tangible outcome in a project that seemed to have no tangible results associated with it initially. We could see that we were indeed building local capacity by watching the women participate in the site visits and utilize the skills we had shared with them in our workshops. It was at the moment that I realized that the time spent doing things unrelated to the deliverables actually contributed to how effective our group was able to be in terms of implementing the project itself.
In addition to the pace of life presenting a clear difference in terms of cultural norms, the level of distraction associated with the area also proved to be a stark contrast between what we are used to in America. Business in America, especially presentations and workshops, is often done in controlled settings with limited to no distractions. However, in Matelot, the level of distractions associated with the location and the culture’s familiarity with these distractions, definitely proved to be a challenge associated with completing our project. For instance, our workshops were all done outside on a beautiful hillside overlooking the ocean. While these workshops were occurring, the location of them alone presented a clear distraction for our group because we were so engulfed in the beauty of what we were seeing. Furthermore, the women and our team were constantly losing focus because of the needs of the nearby kids, other community members, the group dynamics of the DORCAS group, and the fact that everyone in Matelot knows each other and is quick to start up a conversation. Essentially, the distractions due to the external environment and the close-knit community, lead our group to adjust to these interruptions and learn how to pivot and find ways to keep the women’s attention span and our own in check.
In relation to ethical norms, I found that my time spent in country could be tied to a lot of the learning that takes place in the CPLE. For instance, from our first interaction with DORCAS we could sense a rift in the group dynamics that was evident from the start. Usually in my experience, groups try to disguise these rifts to outsiders and demonstrate to others that their team is 100% in sync and on the same page. Although it is easy for these conflicts to become evident to outsiders as time goes on, I found it interesting that we were able to pick up on these rifts from the start. Although we never got specifics on why the group functioned in this way, we did have the opportunity to sit down with one member and learn a great deal about the organization. Because of her, we were able to develop a theory regarding why the group is plagued with these interpersonal conflicts and why they continue to gain complexity. We were told that there was a power struggle between older and younger members, and that the younger members struggled to get their ideas across to the older members, especially those who held positions within the organization. We talk a lot about servant leadership in the CPLE, and it was clear from our conversation with this one member that a lot of the group perceived those in charge as having poor leadership and a lack of awareness in terms of how their peers viewed them. This particular member even expressed a desire to leave the group because of the tensions and the lack of the organization fulfilling the reason she had joined, to get involved in activities and be a consistent community participant.
I was able to learn an abundance of things related to global business just from the one week spent in country. I have never been abroad in this capacity before, therefore I was really invested in the time I had to spend in Trinidad and was very focused on gathering as much information and perspectives as possible. Prior to departure, the only exposure I really had to global business was from the readings and discussions that had taken place in class. That being said, I was very excited to actually put these concepts into action and test out my ability to participate in global business in an effective way.
The first perspective that changed during my time abroad was cultural competence, or my ability to intermingle successfully with DORCAS and the other community members. I found that a quick transition to the culture, although difficult, contributes to one’s ability to expand upon that cultural competence the best, especially when you have limited time to complete the business at hand. Specifically, our group was rapidly able to adjust and change our behavior based off of the culture. For example, everyone in Matelot said hello to each other and we began doing this immediately in order to help build those interpersonal relationships within the community. In addition, we were actively trying to walk slower and eat slower in order to fit in better with the leisurely pace of life. These adjustments lead to mutual learning between ourselves and the community, while also enhancing my perspective on how cultural competence relates to global business. Essentially, I came to the conclusion that the more you can adjust your own culture to fit with the one in which you are doing business, the more effective the outcome will be. This fits in perfectly with the concepts taught in class stating that it is our job has consultants to adapt to the culture in which we are doing business in, not vice versa.
Along with my perspective of cultural competence shifting, I found myself developing a strong perspective relating to cultural understanding and how that fits in with doing global business. Throughout my time abroad it became clear to me that what I am used to in America and what the people residing in Matelot are used to is very different. All residents walk everywhere in the community, and some students walk as long as forty minutes to get to school. There are hardly any economic operations throughout Matelot with the exception of one bar, a few small stores to purchase minor items such as snacks, and Amizade student groups. They value the community over the individual, and they have extreme appreciation for their town and the people in it. Most of those things are very different and present a stark contrast to what my team and I are used to experiencing in America. However, those unique things that make up the town of Matelot are what give it its incredible spunk and make it an excellent location for a future ecotourism business. Through identifying these differences, my cultural understanding was put to the test. I had to decide if I thought that my experiences and what I had the opportunity to do in America was superior to that of Matelot. I know that sounds very egotistical, but I think it’s something that a lot of Americans might think, especially those who are not well traveled like myself. Through this experience I realized that I definitely do not think that, and each culture has something unique that makes it worthwhile. My major takeaway from this new perspective on cultural understanding is to never assign value to differences, sometimes things are just different and that is perfectly okay to take note of. This realization is something that I will carry with me forever, especially when doing global business and international service. Overall, these changing perspectives did indeed modify my perception of taking part in global business.
Throughout my time in Matelot specifically, I began to think about how an individual can use traits that are inherently in their personality to make them more culturally competent and successful in the realm of global business and in this case international service. This led to an abundance of personal learning for me that sparked my curiosity when it comes to how I operate internationally. More specifically, I began to realize that while abroad individuals can tap into parts of their personality that best fit with the culture and therefore be more effective when completing business transactions. For instance, a huge element of my personality is humor, and I love to incorporate it whenever possible. A huge element of Matelot’s culture was also humor, and that mutual connection lead me to be able to build relationships with the women that were very strong given the limited time we had to spend with them. Once those relationships were beginning to blossoms, I was much more effective in my communications with them in terms of the project itself. We were able to continually incorporate humor into our workshops and that caused them to be extremely collaborative and the workshops became mutually beneficial for both DORCAS and our team. This collaborative effort was a huge goal of the project and that fact that tapping into a specific part of my personality contributed to achieving that goal definitely caused me to gain a new perspective and a positive one at that.
Along with the above, throughout my time in country I began to really understand and learn about how to apply the transferable skills that were often talked about within the course itself, specifically communication. Trinidadians do speak English, but they have a very thick accent that can be extremely difficult to comprehend at times, especially when they are speaking to each other. Throughout the program, I was able to practice my listening skills and focus on each word that they would say in order to understand as much as possible and allow for our communications to be improved. More specifically in terms of the project itself, there were numerous instances throughout the trip where we were required to explain our project to individual’s native to Trinidad. Because our project focused on ecotourism and there are numerous negative connotations associated with that, I had to think strategically and thoughtfully while being sure to discuss both the positive and negative aspects of establishing tourism in Matelot. As I began to explain the project more and more, I started to expand my communication skills and discover the impact that coded language can have when trying to conduct business abroad. When doing international service, it is extremely important to pay attention to what you say and how you say it in order to ensure that you do not depict a message other than the one that you had originally intended. Cross-cultural communication is a tricky thing, and elements that make communication unique to each culture such as satire and humor, don’t necessarily carry over well when speaking to diverse groups. Because of this trip, I was able to gain exposure to communicating with a culture other than my own and thus develop transferable skills in the realm of communication that will undoubtedly make me a better conversationalist in my future pursuits.
The last thing I want to touch on is something that I know had the biggest impact on me during my time in country and resulted in a huge learning experience for me. Traveling to Trinidad as a white individual was the first time that I was ever in a location in which I was the minority. I was raised to respect all cultures and all races, but I always struggled to relate to people and the challenges associated with being a minority because I had virtually no experience when it came to those topics. Upon arriving to Trinidad, most of my group members and I naturally stood out to locals, and because of that attracted a lot of attention. Being paid attention to because of the color of my skin made me feel uncomfortable, insecure, and as if I was on the outside looking in. Those feelings are something that I would never want to bring upon someone else, and having this experience is something that I will consistently think about both when participating in international service and in everyday life. Recognizing the privilege that I have because of my race, and in turn using that to ensure that I am expressing humility and appreciation for others that don’t look like me, is something that I have never really done prior to taking part in this project. I remember having a conversation with the site director related to these topics during one of the debriefs, and she kept saying that at the end of the day we are all the same, have the same human processes, and want the same thing, to be loved and respected. I will carry those words with me in many capacities of my life moving forward: my personal life, my career, and when traveling abroad and participating in international service. I recognize that cultural competency is a process, and that it takes a lifetime to really be in tune with cultures differing from your own. However, this experience was the first major step for me in developing that competency, and I can’t express how grateful I am to Pitt, the DORCAS women’s group, Trinidad, and my peers for that.