Despite only being a little over a week into the PLUS 3 Global Projects program, I have learned an incredible amount about not only South American culture and lifestyle, but also about the intricacies and difficulties of cross cultural communication.
Early on in our session, we were able learn about the culture map from Ms. Hillary Koller. The culture map is a method of visualizing the various ways in which communication is differs between different cultures. The most relevant example to my group has been high context versus low context communication. Countries like the United States are marked as extremely low context communicators. This type of communication means that we prefer to immediately start our work and clearly and concisely ask for what we need. However, South American countries like Brazil tend to be more high context, meaning they tend to store more meaning behind what they say. As an American working on a cross cultural team with students from the United States, Colombia, and Brazil, I have been making an effort to read “between the lines” more often so that all of my team members feel heard and understood. I can also tell that my South American team members have been making an effort to be explicitly direct, which I greatly appreciate! Of course, I had to remember that the client we are working with for this project, Marcia Sena and her company Senior Concierge, is from Brazil. Understanding the culture map allowed me to better tailor my questions during our meeting with her to ensure that my ideas and meanings were coming through.
A crucial part of cross cultural communication is the method of communication. Because my team has 3 students in the United States, one student in Colombia, and one student in Brazil, we decided to use WhatsApp for our communication. I had not extensively used WhatsApp before this project, so there was a small learning curve that I had to overcome. In the beginning of our project, we struggled with response times, as our time zones made communicating outside of the sessions slightly complicated. Another complicating factor was the fact that the Pitt students, including myself, are currently on summer break while the South American students are still taking classes. This resulted in the South American students having a much narrower window of availability. I am grateful to say, however, that they have been extremely accommodating and, at the moment, we have found a good balance of meeting times that seem to work for everyone. In regards to high and low context communication within our WhatsApp group, I had to make a conscious adjustment based on my better understanding of the culture map. Personally, I am not a huge fan of zoom meetings. At Pitt, I would keep all communication to texting and simply do the work on my own time, only using zoom meetings when absolutely necessary. However, when working on a team with 3 different time zones, it is simply unrealistic to operate entirely via WhatsApp. At the beginning of the program, I was typing a lot of ideas and roles into our WhatsApp chat, which ended up becoming confusing and caused some misunderstandings about who was taking on what roles. However, after we began scheduling meeting times, we were able to better assign roles and worked much more efficiently.
Another important aspect of the culture map that I have seen in my own cross cultural team is the idea of task versus relationship-based trust. Growing up in the United States, I was given trust after proving I could effectively complete my tasks and work efficiently as a member of my teams. This, of course, worked both ways. I still find it difficult to trust someone if I’m not sure they can properly complete the task at hand. However, South American countries tend to operate on relationship-based trust. This type of trust means that they will prefer to get to know each other as people as a way to establish trust. During my time working with my team so far, I have come to better appreciate this different way of building trust. When we first started meeting outside of the main sessions, I would jump immediately into what I thought we should be doing and how we could best serve our client. While this may have given us some directions, I think I inadvertently created a feeling of being rushed and not having time. However, when we took a breath and took some time to get to know each other, crack some jokes, and just talk about our lives, we all became more comfortable with each other and were able to work much more effectively. The “Tell Your Story” activity proved to be a transformative moment for our team, as we took an entire meeting’s worth of time to simply talk about our lives and learn about each other’s cultures.
In addition to our differences in communication styles, I learned that I needed to pick up my understanding of the societal structure of Brazil if I wanted to be an effective consultant. Thankfully, the wonderful team at Campus b scheduled extremely interesting discussions about healthcare realities in Brazil. We learned a high volume of information over essentially 2 days. Prior to this project, I had no clue that Brazil had nationalized healthcare! Professor Nagai did a fantastic job explaining the underlying factors behind the extreme wealth disparity in Brazil, specifically the unit tax on goods. This information allowed me to better understand some of the harsh realities of living in Brazil. Additionally our lecture on healthcare and healthcare efficacy in Brazil was incredibly useful in understanding how the nationalized system does and does not serve various parts of the Brazilian population. We learned that, while Brazil does actually have quite a robust national system, Brazilians of middle and upper class income all have private insurance, as a way of reducing wait times and quality of care. Additionally we learned that Brazil’s nationalized healthcare is managed individually by municipality, resulting in steep changes in quality of care depending on where you are in Brazil.
This past week and a half has been incredibly enlightening. I have learned so many lessons just through casual communication with group members. The planned sessions about Brazilian healthcare and lifestyle further added to my cultural immersion and allowed me to better understand the life of my teammates. Professionally, I’ve learned the importance of face to face communications, even if it is virtually. I’ve also learned how to adjust my communication to meet my international teammates in the middle in order to form closer relationships and build trust. Being in such a diverse group has taught me how to identify and utilize each person’s best skills and talents so that our team can work at maximum efficiency. Personally, my casual conversations with new people, especially my teammates from South America has allowed me to expand my global perspective. Learning about the daily lives, the political states, and the various interests of my teammates has opened a new world of interests to me! Overall, I feel energized and excited for the following weeks. This weeks have taught me how to better navigate cross cultural communication and project management, and I’m looking forward to putting these new skills to use as Plus 3 continues!