In my first job in Latin America, volunteering for a small NGO in Honduras, I felt completely lost.
I got offended when people were late for meetings, frustrated when my plans didn’t become reality and uneasy when I needed to show up to an unexpected event. It took a couple of years for me to minimize those feelings and realize that stomping my gringo feet at the culture I didn’t understand wasn’t going to do any good.
It was me who needed to adapt.
Fast forward five years, I still work in Latin America and no longer feel frustrated.
Here’s a list of skills that allowed me this shift.
Turn lateness into productivity.
I have always been (and still am) a punctual person. In the US and much of Europe, lateness stands for disrespecting other people’s time and I used to hate when people arrived late and made me “waste my time”. In Latin America, I had to re-evaluate my attitude, because, well, in my experience pretty much everybody is late for pretty much everything. I learned that lateness is not a sign of disregard for others. It’s not a sign of anything, really; it’s just a side effect of living in the present moment instead of chasing after the next. And a significant difference with the West is that people in Latin America technically never waste the “waiting time.” Instead of sitting and tapping their fingers on a desk or looking at the watch anxiously, people who wait go on and continue their work, read papers, hold meetings with other people or at least have friendly chats with whoever is next to them. And so, I too, stopped being mad, frustrated and annoyed and started using the “waiting time” productively.
Put people before projects.
When I started a new job back in Europe, I knew that my role and responsibilities would be clear to myself and everyone else at work before I even came in. I could expect my colleagues to immediately put me on the same page in terms of current projects, procedures, important contacts and so on, when all they knew about me was my name.
In Latin America though, things work quite differently. Projects simply don’t come before people and human relationships. I’ve learned that in order to get people to recognize me and include me in collaborative work, I need to gain their trust in me as a person. And so I spend the first couple of weeks inquiring about work-related matters, but also asking about my colleagues’ private life and sharing mine. If I am invited to my new coworker’s baby’s 1st birthday party, I go and bring a gift. I visit their family’s finca out of town on the weekend and I help their nephews with English homework. After a couple of weeks, the effort pays off as I feel a part of the team.
Act with urgency.
Getting anything done in Latin America more often than not requires more time than it would back at home. If I’m on a deadline and need information from colleagues or business partner, instead of scheduling meetings over email, I pick up the phone and call them right away.
“I have to talk to you about an important project, do you have a few minutes now or can I stop by your office this afternoon?”
Agendas are made on the spot and people tend to respond better to direct contact, than long, bullet-pointed emails and requests for meetings weeks in advance. Often a response to such an emails is simply, “Please give me a call about that closer to the date.”
Have a day-to-day contingency plan.
In Latin America, roads get blocked, transportation breaks down, electricity goes out, and urgent matters pop out like candy out of a piñata. My answer to that is having a plan B for anything I need to get done. If I have a meeting with my colleague or boss in my agenda, I have another plan available in case the meeting gets (significantly) delayed or doesn’t come to effect at all for whatever reason. I download or print documents to review while I’m waiting. If my plan is to catch up on my email in the morning, I also think of something else to do (visiting and interviewing partners, studying those dreaded project proposal guidelines for a new grant opportunity), in case the internet goes off for hours or electricity for the whole day.
Don’t take things personally.
In the first couple of years of working in Honduras and Peru, it frustrated me when people didn’t answer my phone calls. I thought they didn’t want to speak to me, were avoiding me or what I wanted wasn’t important to them. Every time though, (well, almost), I later learned that they did have valid reasons for doing it. They were out of country or stuck in another meeting, hospitalized or had left their phone at home. In some cases, they didn’t know the answers to my questions and were trying to reach somebody else, who might have been out of country, hospitalized or stuck in a meeting.
I stopped pestering people with my phone calls, but call once or twice in reasonable spaces of time, and leave a message explaining what I need from them. Then, I patiently wait for their response. Then people don’t feel pressured and embarrassed about not answering 16 calls and can actually return my call when they’re free and ready to talk. I don’t obsess thinking that others are purposefully ignoring me, which helps me preserve a healthy relationship.
Jump head first into the unexpected.
I could make the best of plans B, but the reality is that I can never entirely foresee what my day will bring. People call me up with urgent matters. Unplanned things to do pop up and they need to happen fast. Transport fails. It rains and people don’t show up.
Unexpected events used to throw me off-balance, and I was surprised to see how calm my Latin American colleagues were about them. After 5 years of leading countless last-minute meetings, improvising presentations and coming up with on-the-spot solutions to technology mishaps, I too eventually mastered the art of “going with the flow.” Whatever happens, things always seem to work out in the end.