A Life Changing Experience

A noticeable cultural difference between the United States and Trinidad was the pace of the day. Trinis have a slow and laid back approach to their daily lives while in American culture, it is common to have a pace that is more catered to a schedule. It was difficult for the group to adjust to this change the first day. Although we knew it was going to happen, reading about this in our Culture Smart book and actually witnessing it first hand it were two different experiences. We experienced the concept of “Trini time” our first morning in Trinidad. Breakfast was scheduled to be at 8 AM, and in American culture that means be ready for breakfast by 8 at the latest, arriving early is even better. This is exactly what happened, my peers and I were ready by 8, but breakfast didn’t start until about 8:30. Despite this initial misunderstanding of Trini time, we soon adjusted to the slower pace of life and enjoyed every minute of it. It was nice to take a break from the regimented pace of day that we were accustomed to and took the opportunity to relax. However, we had to be mindful not to get too comfortable and forget why we were there. We still had work to do with the DORCAS Women’s Group. Another aspect of the Trini culture that shocked us was the tight knit community of Matelot. Every person there didn’t hesitate to wave or strike up a conversation, even though they never met any of us. This also caught us by surprise because this is uncommon in the United States. During our first day in this friendly community, I found myself waiting to see if the people in Matelot would wave to us. However, after a day in Matelot, we were able to appreciate this difference in cultures and were waving to everyone we saw, compared to our first day in Matelot when we were hesitant to do so. I managed these differences by appreciating the culture shock I was experiencing. Early on in the week, I recognized these noticeable differences in American and Trinidadian culture and accepting these differences made the transition between cultures much easier. Another way I managed these differences in culture was through flexibility, which is a transferable skill that I can apply to other situations in my academic and post academic career. Adjusting to Trini time took a lot of flexibility since operating on a schedule is something I have been doing my whole life. I quickly had to become flexible and understand the fact that there would be multiple instances during the week where things wouldn’t happen on time. I had to be patient and not get frustrated with the situation I was in. Developing this transferable skill in flexibility will definitely help me later on in life.

It was interesting to see the differences of how business is conducted in Trinidad versus the United States. A negative characteristic of Trini business was made clear by the DORCAS Women quickly, the quality of customer service. During our discussion about customer service with the women, we did a skit demonstrating examples of bad customer service in the United States. Right as our skit ended, two of the members of the group decided to do an improvisation skit on customer service in Trinidad. They were excited to portray this because customer service is notoriously bad in Trinidad. The women did not hesitate to provide the many examples of poor customer service they have experienced in their lifetime. Even though not all customer service in the United States is perfect, there is still an expectation that Americans have when it comes to the quality of customer service that companies possess. I remember when we were giving examples of customer service in the United States, we told the women that organizations usually give the customer something as an apology for poor customer service (a discount on your next purchase or even something given for free). Needless to say, they were shocked by this practice. The idea of compensating a customer for a faulty product or poor customer service as a way for an organization to apologize to the customer was a foreign concept for them. Some of them even joked about moving to the United States so they could take advantage of the customer service here. Another noticeable difference between Trini and American business relates to the pace of day that I already spoke about. Stores in the United States have set hours of operation. We even explained to the DORCAS Women’s Group that employees get annoyed when customers enter the store five or ten minutes before the store closes. This is a product of the schedule based society of the United States. In contrast, stores in Trinidad do not operate this way. On multiple occasions, my classmates and I noticed signs on stores that said things like, “open any day, any time.” This surprised us, but we soon realized that this is due to the laid back pace in Trinidad. We were confused by this way of running a business so we asked the women how this worked and how Trinis knew when to go to the store. Their response was that you would go to the store and hope that it was open, if it wasn’t, you would come back another time. Despite experiencing this difference in how business operates in Trinidad, my perspective of global business has not changed. Before I left for Trinidad, I recognized that every country has a different culture, therefore, a different way of doing things and this includes business. However subtle they may be, every country has differences when it comes to conducting business. My experience in Trinidad confirmed what I already felt was the case regarding global business.

From this study abroad program, I learned that I am able to be open-minded when it comes to experiencing new things. Whether it was saying hi to everyone I saw in Matelot or trying new foods, I felt I did my best to experience the foreign culture around me. When traveling to a new country, you can’t experience culture shock if you don’t allow yourself to step outside of your comfort zone. If you try to stick to experiences that are familiar to you, you won’t ever challenge yourself or see what you are capable of accomplishing. A major aspect of working with the DORCAS Women’s Group was building relationships with them so that they would trust my peers and me. Gaining this trust was crucial to our project because we conducted discussions on good customer service and networking practices. If we didn’t build relationships with the women and gain their trust, it would have been difficult to have these discussions with them. I was able to gain their trust, but not in a way I expected. One of the DORCAS Women, Michelle, needed help setting up her new iPhone and she asked me to help her. I helped her with her new phone and it ended up working and I thought that was the end of it. However, the next day, Michelle needed help with some things she was having trouble with on her computer. I guess she thought I was a technology wizard because she specifically asked for me to help her with her computer issues. Before I knew it, I became tech support in Matelot for the week. A different woman in the DORCAS Women’s Group heard that I helped Michelle with her laptop and decided to drop off her laptop to me to see if I could fix it. Unfortunately, the issue with this laptop was beyond my knowledge of technology and I wasn’t able to fix it. Even though I wasn’t able to fix this problem, it still felt good knowing that the members of the DORCAS Women’s Group trusted me with their personal and expensive belongings after only knowing me for a couple days. This was one way that I stepped outside my comfort zone because I’ve never done something like that before. This was a great way to work on my communication skills and prove to myself of what I can accomplish. Another way my classmates and I gained the trust of the DORCAS Women’s Group was by making it clear that an important part of our project was working with them, not coming to their community and acting like we knew everything. We wanted to avoid going to Trinidad and telling the women how they should carry themselves when conducting customer service and when networking with potential clients. We made it clear to them that we understood that we were in a different culture and that we would never fully understand their culture. We proved this understanding to them by making the topics of customer service and networking discussions so that the DORCAS Women’s Group and Pitt Business students could compare and contrast the aspects of these topics based on their respective cultures. This strategy was successful because both parties were able to gain insight on how the cultures differed or were similar on these topics. The week I spent in Trinidad was one of the greatest experiences of my life and I’m glad that I went outside of my comfort zone. I wouldn’t change a thing about the trip and will reminisce on the amazing time I had for years to come. I built closer bonds with my classmates and met amazing people in Trinidad who I will never forget. Thank you Pitt Business, Amizade, and the DORCAS Women’s Group for the once in a lifetime opportunity!