It is hard to believe that our trip to Puerto Rico is less than a week! We have been working with Caras con Causa for close to a month and a half at this point as we develop a strategic marketing initiative for their environmental field lab. Next week we will be working directly with our client to contextualize our project by experiencing the urban coastal wetland first hand. Through this global service-learning project, I am looking forward to developing skills that will help me become a better servant-leader.
Our progress on the project has gone relatively smoothly to this point, but our time in country will have its own set of challenges. I expect to experience challenges surrounding time and punctuality, the way that business is conducted, and the difference in communication styles.
In Puerto Rico, it is customary to arrive late to events. People can arrive up to forty-five minutes late to events, before it is considered rude. That differs from mainland America where punctuality is seen as a sign of respect. There is a general saying that being five minutes early is on-time, and being on time is late. When we are in Puerto Rico and have meetings set up with Caras con Causa, we will have to remember this difference. If Caras shows up late to a scheduled meeting, I should not take it personal, as it is a custom of Puerto Rico culture. According to The Culture Map created by Erin Meyer, Puerto Rico falls closer to the flexible-time range while America operates on linear-time. This explains the difference in punctuality and the acceptability of lateness to meetings in Puerto Rico. Since we will be the visitors, we have to be willing to accommodate our host’s customs. Believing that the mainland American approach to punctuality is the only one would be a major misstep and cause unneeded friction in our relationship with Caras con Causa. The relationship between the University of Pittsburgh and Caras con Causa is of the utmost importance, so we have to practice patience while in Puerto Rico. Personally, this will be a challenge for me because I take punctuality seriously. I tend to get a bit impatient and like to get to business right away. However, like I said before, I will have to practice patience to ensure that the relationship with Caras con Causa remains positive. I do believe that I will be able to manage this well though, as I tend to get stressed when I am the one who is running late; in this case we will be punctual, as well as Caras con Causa in terms of local customs.
While I should be prepared to wait for meetings with Caras con Causa, I also need to remember that it is customary to start business meetings with non-business matters. This includes talking about family and personal relationships. It is important to follow this approach because Puerto Rican culture is relationship-based according to The Culture Map. Therefore, creating personal connections with Caras con Causa will be important for the project’s success as it helps build common ground and trust that allows business to be conducted. In mainland America, this is completely opposite. When business is conducted, the topic focuses solely on business because it is a task-based culture. It is not appropriate to ask about family, and it may be seen as prying for information. For example, when talking to recruiters, the most personal information that I give is basic, mentioning name, year, and major. Even though the recruiter says, “tell me a little bit about yourself,” there is no mention of family or personal interests. This adjustment may be a challenge because American business practices have been etched into my behavior. It is almost instinct to act differently in a professional setting, so I will have to be cognizant of my automatic behavior and tone it down to a more personable level. It is important to practice local customs so we ensure that the relationship with Caras con Causa remains in good standing.
The challenge I expect to be most difficult is in communication styles. America is considered to be low-context where Puerto Rico is high-context. Low-context communication is direct, explicit, and precise. On the other hand, high-context communication is implicit and nuanced. In high-context culture body language and tone are just as important as the verbal communication. Since we are coming from a low-context culture, it is important that we practice active listening while experiencing Puerto Rico’s high-context style. Ways in which we can do this is by paying attention, clarifying, and summarizing what was said. This is also known as checking for understanding. We already began practicing this by sending a follow-up email with everything that was covered in our video-conference with Mariela and Beln. We must do this so we do not miss any information that is shared with us. We have limited time on-site and with Caras con Causa, so not understanding the information fully could be costly for our project’s success.
Understanding the context of cultural issues is important when we arrive in Puerto Rico. One of the main points of tension is the debate around statehood. There is a mix of opinions on the island, and the destruction from recent natural disasters along with the crippling debt has only complicated the matter. Therefore, it is important that we avoid making remarks in favor or against statehood, to ensure that we maintain neutrality. It is not an issue that affects me on a daily basis, nor am I well educated on it, so it would be ignorant of me to take a stance on the issue. Instead, we should listen to what the Puerto Rican citizens have to say, and learn from their experiences. Not only will this help build a quality relationship with Caras con Causa and the local community, but it will help us to contextualize and understand the possible problems that are facing our client, Caras con Causa. A strong relationship and a sound understanding of our client and their difficulties will help us create recommendations that are useful, yet feasible given current circumstances.
One area I hope to improve through this experience is my ability to be flexible. I am a very organized and structured person. I have a Google calendar with all my classes and events, I study at the same times everyday, and stick to a daily schedule. While in Puerto Rico, this is sure to be tested. Our schedule varies day to day while we are there, so I will need to be able to adapt each and every day. We will go from working in the Mangroves to meeting with Caras con Causa to performing community service (not to be confused with our global service-learning). Another opportunity to improve my flexibility is when we have to “pivot”, as professor Schultz likes to say. Pivoting is when we run into an unexpected situation or uncover an unexpected piece of information and have to quickly change course. The critical piece of pivoting is responding quickly, since our time is limited. A common scenario where this may occur is if Caras con Causa misses a meeting because they have to deal with an issue surrounding their charter school. As a group we will have to fill the void of time in a way that will allow us to move the project forward. I am sure there will be points where this lack of structure stresses me, but being in uncomfortable situations will allow me to grow. I cannot expect to be completely comfortable just going with the flow, but I can expect to learn ways in which I become better at it.
Since Puerto Rico is a relationship-based culture, I will have to put an emphasis on creating relationships when we arrive and develop them throughout the week. In doing so, I will be able to improve my communication and personability skills. In CBA and professional settings, it is uncommon to be able to talk to professors or recruiters on a personal level. However, working with Caras con Causa and their local community will allow me to practice this skill. Since verbal communication is a soft skill, the best way to improve it is by practicing. This will help us avoid a lack of stakeholder engagement. According to “Top Project Team Challenges” this occurs when a client or team member becomes disinterested due to a lack of open communication. This could derail our project, so establishing these relationships early on and continuing to communicate while we are there and after will help us to avoid this.
Traveling to Puerto Rico and working with Caras con Causa is a truly unique experience. It will bring challenges we expected and challenges that are unforeseen. However, it is important to remember all the opportunities traveling to Puerto Rico affords us with progressing the project and having the ability to grow as a servant-leader. I feel as prepared as I ever will be to experience Puerto Rican culture. At this point, I am just counting down the days!