In less than a week I will be boarding my flight to Cochabamba, Bolivia where I can finally meet the people in CEOLI and explore the city that I have been learning so much about this semester! After reading about the culture there, understanding the purpose of service learning, and the business dynamics of Bolivia, I am ecstatic to finally experience that in person. Even though I am very excited for the trip, I am aware that I will still face challenges there with my team as we work with the client and navigate our way around Bolivia. Some of the challenges we will face is adjusting to the cultural context, the difference in how we view time, and overcoming the language barrier. I already have the head knowledge from everything that I have learned in class on managing expectations and culture shocks but knowing something versus putting it into practice is different. In lieu of these challenges, I will handle them by working with my team in being adaptable, awareness of myself and the environment, and keeping an open mind to establish a good relationship with CEOLI as we work jointly to push the 10-year plan forward.
The first challenge I believe we will face is the difference in cultural context. United States has low cultural context, meaning we communicate in a direct manner and explicitly state what we say. In contrast, Bolivia has a higher context culture, which means that their communication ways are more implicit and reading between the lines. This is also why they rely more on forming personal relationships first to get to know each other and establish a sense of trust before conducting business. The contrast in cultural context can lead to different first impressions. Higher context cultures may find low context cultures to be too straightforward and rude, while low context cultures might feel frustrated and find high context culture to be slow.
When working with our clients in CEOLI, I want to avoid appearing blunt and rude. I expect to feel initial frustrations as I learn to work with what it is like in a high context society and adjust to how they think. In a high context culture, you interpret what other people are saying by thinking about the context in which they are speaking in, any phrases common in their culture, and any nonverbal cues during interactions. Application can be during meetings with CEOLI, it is important to relay our ideas across clearly and get as much information as we can from our clients so we can adjust our work to fit their needs in the best possible way. I do not want to push them to be uncomfortable especially with the language barrier and also misinterpret their information. I also do not want to give the impression that I know what is best for them. I want to show that I am eager in finding out what their ideas are and how I can help them to accomplish what they need.
I think it will be difficult to adjust so quickly to a higher context culture and establish a long relationship especially since we are only there for a week, but I think there are ways I can try to adapt to the difference. Having interned abroad before in China, I have a general sense of what it is like to work in a high context society since China’s communication relies heavily on subtext and relationships. I think it is important to understand that even though I am only there for a short time, my work and relationship building is towards our long term, 10-year partnership with CEOLI. When I first meet them, first impressions matter and I should smile and really convey my enthusiasm forward that way. I plan to start of the conversation on easy and relatable topics so that it not only builds our relationship more but help me find out how to adjust to the conversations so that in the actual business meetings it can go more smoothly. Considering that our team is the only group going to Bolivia this spring, this speaks volumes to the current situation that CEOLI is in. Actions speaks louder than words, and I think it is important to not only be engaged but be willing to help out in any way CEOLI needs during my time there.
Another challenge that we will face is how different our two cultures value time. Time in the US is very tight, we are used to a strict schedule with the saying that “if you’re on time, you’re late.” In other cultures, specifically Bolivia, there is not a heavy emphasis on the value of time. Deadlines and schedules are not treated as strictly as the United States. In class, we learned that it is common for people to come to meetings over 30 minutes late or do something completely unrelated to business during the formal meeting times when we are there. This is something I am not used to and can be frustrating as someone from the United States doing business in Bolivia. However, it is important to check your expectations and be aware of the host country’s culture and their expectations as well. Since we are in a different country, it is important to not forcible shape the environment to be focused around us, but rather to respect and adapt to their culture and way of doing things. This all goes towards the relationship building, which the high context cultures values highly.
Even though our clients may handle the times more loosely than we do, that doesn’t mean we can go and follow suit by showing up to meetings late. It is important that I show up to our meetings on time, as it will show our eagerness in working with them, respect for their time, and preparedness for the purpose at hand. I think that on times where we do go off topic, it is important to keep in mind that while it might not directly seem relevant to the business we are conducting, it is still vital to our project as we are actually building our relationship with our clients to establish a sense of trust. It also gives us a chance to get to know each other even better. I’m sure that we are not the only ones feeling this disparity in cultures and that our clients can also sense this difference. Therefore, it is actually very important we have more relationship building questions as it gives the client a chance to know how we think as well. I think that even though this will be a challenge when in-country, I will go in with an open mind, eagerness to contribute, and being flexible and adaptable.
The third major challenge I anticipate is the most obvious one, language barrier. The predominant language spoken in Bolivia is Spanish. While there are some members of my team who have taken Spanish before, the Spanish that is spoken there and the Spanish that we are used to is still very different in the lingos they use and how fast the people there speak it. There are a limited number of people in CEOLI who does speak English, but often they either have heavy accents or don’t speak any at all. To help with this language barrier, Amizade provided us with translators who will be present majority of the time. However, as with any translations, some of the meaning will be lost in translation. I personally have not had any experience with a translator. But I imagine that having a third person having to mediate between two parties will be difficult to coordinate as the flow of the conversation won’t be as smooth. Only one person can speak at a time, and sentences will have to be broken down for the translator to communicate. I will have to pay even closer attention to what is being discussed and not lose track.
To combat this challenge, it is important for us to restate or rephrase ourselves to get the message across. In order to prevent our messages from getting lost in translation, it is important we can communicate it across in more ways than one. Since verbal communication is impaired, I will have to rely a lot on nonverbal communications such as smiling all the time, nodding in affirmation during conversations, maintaining eye contact and having an open body language. Bolivians tend to have a smaller circle of personal space than we do, so it is important to understand to be aware of that, since what we think as too close is actually normal for them. By not closing ourselves off, this nonverbal cue can make us more welcoming and friendly.
I’m sure that there are more challenges that will appear in country that I didn’t account for before going there, but each challenge is a great learning opportunity as we find ways to overcome them. This is an incredible opportunity to meet and learn about people who are so different than I am, yet we are working towards a mutual goal of working towards the betterment of CEOLI. From my time in Bolivia, some key takeaways I expect to have is greater intercultural competence, project management skills, and adaptability.
One of the biggest takeaways I expect I will grow in is intercultural competence. Intercultural competence is made up of two key components: cultural intelligence and intercultural sensitivity. Cultural intelligence is made up of four components: drive, knowledge, strategy, and action. The drive will come from finally putting pen to paper and getting to work with CEOLI and visiting staffs and facilities in person. This will drive our motivation even more as we are able to visualize how our project fits in context to what CEOLI and Bolivia is currently like and encourage us to tailor our project more to what CEOLI wants. The knowledge will come from our secondary research of the Bolivian market, articles we’ve read in class, the Culture Smartbook and even the first-hand accounts of previous participants of the program. Knowledge will also come from applying what we learned in class to what we will be experiencing in person in Bolivia. The third component, strategy, will come from how our team works together in interpreting what we learned in meetings and our time there. We will formulate a plan on how to proceed with the project with the new information that we have gathered. The last component, action, will come from how we react to experiencing everything in Bolivia firsthand and behave appropriately to the cultural challenges.
Project Management Skills
Another big takeaway I hope to learn is more project management team skills. In class we read about the Top Project Team Challenges and listed out the strengths and weakness that contribute to a high performing team. Everyone in my group comes from different backgrounds and we each play to our strength by dividing tasks for the project between us all. Majority of them have had previous experiences with each other through common clubs such as Phi Beta Lamba and the CPLE Program. However, being in an entirely different country will push us to work together in think creatively on overcoming challenges that we wouldn’t be exposed to in the United States. As we continue to work together in country and after our experience in Bolivia, it is important for us to work together to support each other, establish good communication, and prevent scope creeps as we experience Bolivia in person and might think of new ideas.
One of the key terms mentioned throughout this semester is the skill to adapt. When working in consulting, it is important to be adaptable to changes and is a valuable transferrable skill as well. When in Bolivia, we have to be ready to adapt to the culture shock. Even though we have prepared ahead of time by getting to learn the culture more through sections of the CultureSmart Book such as communications and history as well as accounts from people who have been to Bolivia before, our professor has said many times that things are just different when you are actually there. There is no way to account for every possible situation in Bolivia. Our ability to pivot will be vital in working with CEOLI as we want to continuously build a relationship with them. I have never been to a country where I completely do not know the language before, but it is important that I don’t let that scare me from interacting with the people there. I am thankful that this class provides an opportunity for me to step out of my comfort zone.
I am excited to finally be able to meet CEOLI and get to explore Cochabamba! Even though I know there will be challenges along the way, I know that it will push me and my teammates to grow and become a more well-rounded person. I look forward to applying what I’ve learned in class to the real world. I am proud to be able to contribute to the growth of CEOLI and support its cause and impact to its local community. Cochabamba, here we come!