Understanding Bolivia’s cultural norms and developing a global perspective.

During Professor Johnson’s lecture on communication and trust, I learned that communication is one of the most important elements in ensuring your work matches your client’s expectations. As shown through Professor Johnson’s communication exercise, where I had to fold a piece of paper according to her instructions, surprisingly, everyone ended up with different results even though the instructions given were the same. As students with different backgrounds, it goes to show that we interpret messages differently. The same idea applies when conducting business internationally. In class, I learned that there is a high-context and low-context continuum that summarizes how countries around the world communicate differently. High-context countries such as Japan and Brazil tend to prefer indirect verbal interaction and are generally more proficient in reading nonverbal cues. On the other hand, low-context countries such as Germany and the US tend to prefer direct verbal interaction and communicate in highly structured, detailed messages with literal meanings. In relation to the host country in which I will be conducting research and business, I will be working with Bolivia, which tends to be higher context than the US. Keeping in mind the difference in which people in Bolivia and the US communicate will be critical to my team’s work with CEOLI going forward.

As the fifth-largest country in South America, Bolivia boasts a diverse mix of different indigenous cultures. Bolivia has more than 36 different indigenous cultures, each with its customs and traditions. However, without learning all 36 cultures, there are also common cultural norms that I should be aware of should I travel to Bolivia post-pandemic. Meeting and greeting people in Bolivia is quite similar to how we meet and greet in the US – a good handshake and eye contact will always be appreciated. Gift-giving is also something to be mindful of when conducting business in Bolivia. If a Bolivian offers you a gift, it would be wise to accept the gift with a smile and a kind “gracias.” Bolivians consider rejection as rude and offensive. When you decide to give someone flowers, it is important to avoid yellow or purple as they have negative connotations.

In Bolivia, relationship building is important and there are a couple of cultural norms that need awareness. In business meetings, be careful not to be too direct in communicating thoughts and ideas, especially when conveying negative messages. If not done correctly, it can cause a loss of face or dignity on your end. In business meetings, it would also be beneficial to have an interpreter since information will most likely be conveyed in Spanish. During my time working with CEOLI, I am fortunate that two Spanish speakers can help translate during our client meetings. The interpreters helped convey our messages more effectively with our clients and it certainly made our clients feel more inclined to work with us as there is no language barrier. Another key point to remember is that Bolivians see business meetings as discussions and time to exchange ideas, rather than for decision-making. Punctuality is not expected in most scenarios so it is normal to be 20 or 30 minutes late to meetings. Again, the more important idea is that business meetings are for discussing ideas. Don’t be surprised if meetings continue over time until the discussion is completed.

Considering the diverse mix of cultural norms that Bolivia has, I think the most challenging aspect of conducting business will be communication. Given that the pandemic is still ongoing and virtual meetings are the go-to option for our clients, effective communication skills have become even more essential in how we work and build relationships with CEOLI. My team and I will need to take into account the high context communication style in Bolivia and cater our messages and reports toward best meeting their expectations. Understanding that Bolivians take pride in their food, dance, and art culture is also essential for my team because it will serve us well as a point of emphasis when we brainstorm creative ideas for the CEOLI art show. To prove my point, during our meeting with Bolivia’s site director prior to our midterm client meeting, we had an engaging and fun dance workshop and presentation where my team and I got to learn the importance of dance and music in Bolivian culture. The experience gave me a deep impression of what Bolivians value in their culture and the possible expectations they may have for the art show.

Although it is still too early to say all the things that I have learned about global business, one big takeaway from the first few months of working with CEOLI is communication is key to having success in conducting business in a global context. With communication, I am primarily talking about having that awareness to discover what is the best way to communicate with your international clients (e.g. high-context vs low-context) and taking the time out to provide yourself with context whether that be through research or questions for your clients (e.g. discovery process, information gathering). One key benefit of effective communication is it provides my team with clarity. Without clarity, issues such as lack of focus and motivation arise. If coupled with the current virtual workspace environment, lack of clarity can be a major roadblock to having success in this international consulting project. I remember earlier on during our project work, clarity was a concern as we are still navigating ways to get to know our team members better and ways to connect with our clients. As my team brainstormed ways to improve clarity for the scope of work for our project, we consulted our faculty and instructors with questions. After a period of asking questions and managing expectations, my team decided to split into two smaller teams, one that specializes in grant-writing and the other in developing the art show. It was a huge step for our team because it helped us become more focused on our specific tasks. We were able to better cater our expertise and make our highest level of contribution toward a specific area of focus. Breaking our workload into bits and pieces has helped improve our communication and motivation. Every small step that we took as a team built momentum and confidence and it was evident during our midterm client meeting. I am glad that we took away such an important lesson. Another big takeaway from working with CEOLI is learning the role of social media in conducting business in a global context. For instance, as a means to spread awareness of CEOLI’s efforts to advance kids with disabilities, having access to social media sites such as Facebook and Instagram greatly improved the range of people who can learn about CEOLI’s mission and vision. To have global competency as a global business, marketing efforts through social media will be critical to attracting consumers and awareness around the world for what your organization does. In the case of CEOLI, their Facebook presence has helped serve as a platform for families in need with resources that can make an impact on their future. Overall, it goes to show the power of social media and how it can make a huge impact on the operations of global business. Without it, global businesses would find it hard to attract investors, funds, grants, and customers for their products.

With my experience working with CEOLI, I am confident that my perspective of global business is changing. As a business student majoring in global management, the exposure that I am getting from taking part in this international consulting project is priceless. I think this project is a great example of what experiential learning is. I think learning through doing is the most effective way to make use of my potential and competencies as a business student. Being able to take part in this project can also expose me to my real strengths and weaknesses when working in teams or interacting with clients. So far, the time spent with my team has been great. It’s been a humbling experience and I got to learn a lot from my peers and the working professionals assisting this project. I am thankful that I can learn ways to be a better teammate and work with people of diverse backgrounds. As part of being a global business is having the ability to be agile and effectively communicate with international clients, this project highlights the importance of having that global competency and cultural awareness alongside those soft skills. Tying back to Professor Johnson’s exercise with folding a piece of paper, as such with working with a global business or conducting business in a global context, finding ways where your team and the client can come to terms with (whether that be clarifying expectations or presenting your deliverables) is essential. It is critical that we communicate effectively and be flexible to adjust to changes because how we respond to different expectations between your team and the client will set precedence for how the project will progress moving forward in the future whether that be for the better or the worse.