After months of coursework, preparation, and uncertainty, the in-country experience is finally here! We leave for the in-country part of the project in Bolivia on Saturday, and I could not be more excited. Just a few months ago, we were not even sure that the trip would proceed because of political instability within Bolivia and the city of Cochabamba. Fortunately, however, this unrest has temporarily subsided, the Department of State lowered the travel advisory, and now we are days away from our departure to South America. Of course, there has been a little concern over the past few weeks that the Coronavirus would spread to South America and threaten to cancel our plans, but we are lucky that that is not the case!
As this is my second trip abroad with PittBusiness, there is a familiar sense of anticipation that I had last spring as I counted down the days before my GBI program. Yet, I expect to meet a different set of unique challenges through this GSL program. London and the USA are similar in many ways; they are both western, industrialized nations. Bolivia is in the southern hemisphere with a different way of living, but this is something that I am excited to experience.
Any type of experiential learning abroad comes with a unique set of cultural challenges, as conducting business in an international environment does not always come naturally and without struggles. We have gone over many of these cultural differences in class, however, so I feel very prepared as the trip approaches this weekend.
First, as previous students have told me, one of the biggest challenges will be the sense of time. In the United States, we follow a very rigid and linear sense of time; this is also known as monochronic time. However, in many parts of South America, time is seen as more flexible; this is also known as polychronic time. Hillary, one of the staff members in the PittBusiness International Programs office, went over this important difference with us during one of our recent class discussions. Because of this culture difference relating to time, it is important to keep in mind that Bolivian’s are not necessarily being rude if they are late for a scheduled event such as a meeting. However, as outsiders, we are generally expected to be on-time for all events that we have scheduled during our time in Bolivia. While this may cause us to endure some waiting, it is to be expected, yet it may take some getting used to!
Another culture difference that Hillary talked with us about is different types of communication. There are two types of communication styles: high context and low context. High context cultures often rely on nonverbal understanding and a single background of experiences as a reference point. Part of this assumed reference point is contingent on everyone having went through similar situations in the past; Bryan, the course facilitator, also contributed in explaining this concept. Because of the lack of explicit details and assuming a single reference point, communication between two high context cultures has the highest likelihood of a miscommunication. Low context cultures communicate in ways that are explicit, direct, and precise. This type of communication does not necessarily rely on a past reference point, as the communication contains all elements of what is trying to be said. There is no “guesswork” or inferencing involved.
While high context and low context communication cultures are the two extremes, there is a continuum that many cultures lie somewhere in between. The United States is one of the most extreme examples of a low context culture. From our oral communication to our written contracts, we in the USA like to detail every item to ensure comprehension. It also means that in the USA we are more vocal and direct when we do not like something. While this often is beneficial in avoiding misunderstandings, it is important to remember this when traveling abroad as almost all cultures are a higher context than the USA. Bolivia is much more of a high context culture; communication may not be direct. As a result, it is important to check for understanding and agreement on a frequent basis. Bolivians may not outwardly say that they do not like something; because of this, it is important to ask what they think. Just because they are nodding when we are speaking does not necessarily constitute an agreement with what we are saying. To counter this, the question, “What do you think?”, will prove to be extremely beneficial during our time in South America. It will give others a chance to give their honest input and disagree, even if they initially seemed to be agreeing.
A few other things to keep in mind when we are communication in Bolivia is to always maintain eye contact and nod. Arielle (our PittBusiness staff member that is accompanying us to Bolivia), Alex (GSL: Bolivia alumnus and course TA), and Melissa (our Amizade staff member) all emphasized the importance of this! If you are not maintaining direct eye contact when speaking/listening, it is considered rude, for it seems you are disengaged and not actively listening. Another thing to be aware of is the use of the word “American”. Often, we use it to refer to ourselves (from the United States). However, we are all Americans, for South America is part of the Americas. This may challenge; in fact, I have instinctively begun to type it while writing this blog before catching myself. However, it is important to remember during our time abroad to try our best to avoid referring to ourselves as “Americans” – it could be offensive!
Finally, like many other South American countries, Bolivia is generally a collectivist culture. This means that they focus on family as the center of their way of life. Families often live under one roof, businesses are often family owned, and workdays are structured to allow for family time. Additionally, as a part of this, business relationships are often built around personal ones. There will be no business relationship or discussion of finances if first we do not establish that personal connection. This is especially important to keep in mind when visiting CEOLI. They, most likely, will want us to spend time visiting their classrooms and meeting their students before or between discussions about the organization. This will allow us to learn more about CEOLI and establish a more personal connection.
In contract, the United States is much more individualistic. We often focus on ourselves and work relationships before our personal relationships. Additionally, we tend to keep our personal and work life separate. Families separate as children grow, and many aspects of our culture put work over family. We also often want to get straight to the business discussions, and we are okay knowing little (if anything) about the person we are negotiating with. This is important to remember and respect as we travel abroad, for we need to establish the personal connection before expecting to have deep business discussions.
In addition to anticipating these cultural challenges when conducting business in Bolivia, I am also very excited for the learning opportunities that I will encounter in country. Different aspects of interacting with the client in a consulting project, as Meade has touched on during her lectures, is something that I am looking forward to. We are finally able to show our Scope of Work to the client, and we can gather the information necessary to achieve our deliverables (while of course, keeping out scope creep). I am also looking forward to learning about the Bolivian culture. I know a lot about western Europe and North America, but South America is an area that I do not know as much about. That is one of the best things about traveling, however, and I am excited to experience this very different way of life.
Further, I am also excited to develop my transferable skills throughout my time in country. While there is a lot to be learned from working on the project in Sennott Square, there is even more to be learned through the experiential portion. I believe that both my adaptability and prioritization skills will further be developed by the in-country portion, for there will be areas of our itinerary that may be shifted throughout the week to make room for other items. I also believe that my critical thinking will be developed further through this experience, and this belief is supported by a study that we read in class that found service learning improves various competencies, including critical thinking. All of these skills are highly looked for by employers, and this trip will make me a competitive candidate as I move closer to entering the workforce.
Whether its my own personal learning goals or the cultural norms that I expect to find initially challenging, I am very excited to take what I have learned in the classroom these last two months and take it to the world. Saturday afternoon we will beginning our journey to Miami, and then it is onward to Bolivia with an overnight flight. Many things have been quite uncertain up until this point, but what is certain is this: I cannot wait.
When I return, I will have loads of stories to share with you!