I just want to first start off this reflection by saying that Trinidad truly was amazing. This personal and authentic experience of a vastly different culture is something I know I’ll never forget. I met an abundance of great people, tried so many new foods, and laughed more than I ever have all throughout it. I’m proud of the work we were able to accomplish while we were there, and I’m excited for the new experiences ahead of me in the global realm.
This difference was very clear to me, because I spoke in another reflection of how I used to find great difficulty in going with the flow of things. I have always found great personal success in plans, knowing what is going on, and overall structure. But if I ever wanted to grow and have a more realistic work perception, I had to force myself to learn how to be more carefree, open, and accepting. Where I once saw change and strays from the norm as inherently bad, I now understood it as opportunity.
The second cultural difference that became largely apparent to us the more we experienced Matelot was the overall closeness of the community. We got to see firsthand how tight-knit and friendly Matelot really was, as exemplified through the kind demeanor we were met with by every member. This was a very refreshing look at human life, as it is often sad to see people just looking down at their phones all of the time in Pittsburgh, and not up into the faces of their neighbors. I know because I am guilty of this myself. These people were very quick to smile, and even quicker to joke or poke fun in good spirits toward us and each other. I laughed more than I ever have in my life throughout this trip, and it was all thanks to the norms of the community. This made our work not feel like work at all. Building meaningful relationships with the people of Matelot was an absolute blast, and I would have rather done nothing else with my spring break. The only slight drawback that may arise from this cultural difference is that sometimes work will get delayed too long, and focus is hard to capture, just because everybody is having a good time and constantly forgetting the purpose of this project and the reason we are here in the first place.
Now, to answer the question, an emphatic yes. The first and biggest discrepancy between Trinidad and The United States of America, in terms of cultural norms, is found in the overall pace of life. In the CultureSmart books, we read about a concept called Trini-Time, and we couldn’t possibly understand it in its full capacity until we actually got to our destination. The effect was immediate. The first night, we all slept at Samise Villa and prepared for a relatively long bus ride to the town of Matelot the next morning. What we thought was going to be a simple, quiet trip to our new temporary residence, was anything but that. We stopped at approximately 5 or 6 different places along the way, doing things like picking up simple groceries from a street vendor, or getting ice cream at a shop. This was initially a little concerning, because I was still so used to being on a tight, strict schedule, but I remembered that things are a little different in Trinidad. After thinking about the fact that we really didn’t have much else to do that day, I was able to just sit back, relax, and just go with the flow of happenings around me. This was a very important concept to understand early on, because it proved to be the most effective way of dealing with this massive cultural difference. Another instance of this occurring was later in the week when we were supposed to be giving our guided discussion on networking and general business professionalism. One of the women, Michelle, was feeling a bit under the weather, so the DORCAS Women had decided to postpone this discussion. This would have normally made us very uneasy and perhaps unprepared, but since we realized early on that we simply had to go with the motion of the ocean, it wasn’t a problem. One final example can be found in one of the most simplest activities, walking. At the beginning of the trip, Andre and Michelle had to constantly remind us to slow it down, look up at the world around us, and take in the sights of the world while in transit by foot. This was an interesting difference to see because without even knowing it, we’d be walking uphill about 40 yards ahead of our Trinidadian friends, just because we were so used to having places to be, having a strict schedule, and following it in a rigid manner. And so again, just being more loose overall and learning to take a moment to slow it all down was an important skill we have to quickly develop, because had we not, we might have not left as good as an impression as we did on the DORCAS Women.
The main aspect of learning that I had expected to acquire throughout this trip was in overall perspective. I wrote in my previous reflection about how I was most excited to get a glimpse into how life differs in different parts of the world, and while the above section talks about this in more general terms, I will also outline some more business-specific ideas in this section.
The largest new business perspective I learned was actually in transit to Matelot from Port of Spain. We pulled over on the side of the road to get some lunch at a street corner. A man was making Doubles (A traditional Trinidadian dish) and I was surprised to see that he wasn’t looking for payment before he had prepared my food, or even immediately after. There was just this kind of unspoken trust and understanding that we weren’t going to just dine and dash. He knew that he was going to get his money, and while we were all coming up with the funds, he simply moved on and started helping the next customer. This experience made me think about the importance of trust and communication in business dealings across different cultures. I told my friend about this experience that I had and he made a joke that if we were in his hometown in New Jersey, other people in line would be tossing your goods off the counter before you even had a chance to pay for it. But in Trinidad there was just this unspoken trust that the man was going to get his money, and it was all going to be ok. Now, obviously this ideas isn’t as applicable on a larger scale, nor did we have much exposure to transactions in that volume, but it is still important to think about and something to keep in mind for sure when branching out to other businesses internationally.
And herein lies the importance of prior research. If I was the CEO of a company from the United States of America, and I hadn’t know this tiny tidbit about this specific cultural difference, then depending on the nature of the industry, I could lose out on whatever deal I could have made because I was not culturally competent enough. This speaks to my altered perspective of global business as a whole. I now understand the full value of not only doing background research on companies from a different nation, but actually going and experiencing it for yourself as well. Now I understand why it is not uncommon for a businessperson to go conduct personal research by immersing themselves in the culture of other countries. It is to get a good feel and sense for what the nature of negotiations may be like, because you would never want to appear ignorant or ill-informed.
It is my belief that humans should always be actively learning. Because we are an imperfect race, we often make mistakes and sometimes even very costly ones. After making mistakes, however, we have two options on how to spend our energy. We can either look to the past and waste our energy on feeling down about it, or rather constructively look to the future and put it to good, progressive use. So I am constantly looking for ways in which I can improve myself, and I need to be aware of my surroundings to do this. This is where introspection and inner-reflection comes into play. Over the course of this trip, one of the biggest things that I learned about myself was that all of the hard work I have out into myself over the years in order to make myself a more loose, easy-going person, is finally starting to pay off. I actually was doing a great job of adjusting during this trip to Trini-Time, and I was very proud of it. To be able to tangibly and feasibly see results for work you’ve been slaving over for a while is very rewarding.
On top of this, I learned that this is not the only international service experience I want to immerse myself in. I had such an amazing time on this trip, that I have already begun looking at summer programs where students teach English to children in underdeveloped areas around the world. My friend did the program in Panama, and said it was the best time of his life. I’m very glad that I now know the global real is right for me, because there are so many opportunities to pair that with my love of service and helping others.