Posts Tagged ‘culture’

If you had asked me 4 years ago if I ever planned on visiting Latin America, I would have responded with an emphatic no. Maybe it was all of the nature shows called “World’s Most Terrifying Insects” putting 8 of the top 10 somewhere in Latin America, or the stories (read: TV and Movie plot lines) about rampant kidnappings in South America, the whole thing was unappealing.

“Don’t mind me, I’m just crawling casually into your nightmares”

If you had asked me 2 and a half years ago if I would ever go here, after a dejected sigh that can only come from months of underemployment and job seeking, I would’ve said: “I don’t know…..for work I guess.”

So then when I was actually asked to go here for work almost 2 years ago, it was with subdued reluctance that I decided (conditionally) to come down here.

“So what convinced you to come down here? Was it the money?….yeah it was the money wasn’t it.”

Typically, I am reluctant but willing to do a lot of new stuff. I am fully aware that for the most part, I always enjoy new things. Despite that knowledge, I almost invariably need that extra push to try something. This “push” sometimes can be as small as a simple question asking me to try or do something, to more complex incentives.

The myriad of different experiences I have had in the last two years has taught me that one’s openness to new and/or uncomfortable situations doesn’t only reflect what activities they engage in, but defines who they are and in some ways, what they are capable of.

Turns out I am really good at riding apathetic cows

There is no right or wrong way to experience life, and as always, either extreme is usually not the best choice. Someone who lives a simple life who never experiences anything new is missing out just as much as someone who never stops chasing the world is missing the beauty of slowing down to focus on a few things.

Everyone has their own balance. That said, most people tend to be heavy on the safe side of the spectrum, and could do with a little branching out.

There are people I have met that view my life as a toe-in-the-water version of international travel. Conversely, I have met others who revere the very same experiences in a manner that would make you think I was bushwhacking jungles on Pandora. It is all a matter of perspective.

Pictured: Voracious terrastrial testudine with a reinforced plastron dining on a helpless meal

As you know by now, Nicaragua is crazy. Living here has been the coolest, weirdest and most rewarding time in my whole life. There is no single piece of advice I can give to someone that I will stress harder than to go learn another language. I don’t mean learn Spanish or German in a classroom. I am talking about living in a country, surrounded only by people who speak that language. Use a class to prepare, but then just leave it at that. Language is so much more than just a translation of words and sounds; it is a complete projection of who you are, what you are thinking and is framed within the cultural context of where you come from.

When you become fluent not only in the language but the culture of another place, it feels as if you have earned a second life. You can talk and genuinely be yourself yet sound and look absolutely nothing like you do in your original language and culture.

“ehhh ‘oo iz dis Sam joo spek of? Me llamo SannFrancisco Cantorrrr….soy de Nicaragua”

As I come up on two years here, I like to think of the experience to be similar to me trying Sopa de Juevos de Toro (Bull testicle soup). It took me a while to really give it a try. After I did I realized how delicious it is. And even after all this time there are still some lumpy parts with odd texture that you never fully get used to.

What the heck is this?…..

Working in Nicaragua is…..interesting. It is nothing like working in the US. Everything from employer/employee relations to work attitudes, it is simply a different animal. The biggest difference stems from the public education system. If you think the “memorize this and regurgitate on the test” style of teaching can be bad in the states, I can assure you it exists on a whole different level here. In the US people criticize teaching styles that don’t involve enough critical thinking. Here all education involves exactly zero critical thinking. In most places, it is literally “copy these words, repeat them on the test when asked this exact question.” You could pass classes here without even knowing Spanish just by memorizing the letters and their order. One of the Peace Corps volunteers is always explaining to me how impossibly frustrating it is to teach classes here simply because any departure from this system is met with immediate failure.

Cheating: Not necessary in Nicaragua.

 

This unfortunately translates into a good chunk of the local population that doesn’t think critically, and by extension, employees who don’t think critically.

My bosses explained a lot of these concepts to me when I first started working down here. The boss/employee dynamic here does not, by way of the education system, yield a well managed worker who can solve problems independently as you can find in other places. Instead you have a system wherein the employee carries out any and all demands by the supervisor without any introspection as to the practicality, purpose, logic or function of the task given. This is because the system is built on a hierarchy of responsibility. In many jobs here in Nicaragua, the employee is absolved of any responsibility for any action, regardless of the stupidity, provided the action was EXACTLY what the supervisor told them to do.

 

“He said turn the crane East. He didn’t specify on which axis.”

A funny example of this is when my 3 bosses were in camp and needed a hotel room in the capital for the night. One of my bosses made an obvious joke to an administrator about how they will all stay in the same room and share one twin bed. Another boss, knowing the consequences of such a joke, made it abundantly clear to her that it was a joke, and that they needed 3 separate rooms. However, because the boss who made the joke has authority over her while the other boss who clarified the situation does not, when they got to the hotel, they of course had only one room, with one bed.

 

“……..I may have jokingly mentioned it was my anniversary……my bad guys.”

This behavior makes for an exhausting work environment where you will make an excruciatingly specific plan to buy something, build something etc only to not verbalize one seemingly obvious detail and have it left out yielding the whole operation useless.

Printers without ink, with the wrong ink, different cables, more $300 surge protector/power regulators than outlets, duplicate electronics bought by different people, absurd car trips for unnecessary items, sending away a critically important field truck for a week to fix the A/C etc. ad infintum. It is all simply an attitude you have to adjust to. If you were working somewhere else, your level of detail in explaining tasks and requests would be condescending and met with animosity. Here you are simply being prudent and giving the necessary amount of instructions.

 

“Ok…but you didn’t say DON’T block the road with the tree…that’s all I’m sayin’…..”

 

At this point I feel obliged to point out how important it is to understand the different cultural context. It has nothing to do with intelligence or stupidity, it is simply a cultural difference. In Japan in some business circles it is considered rude not to get hammered with your boss as it is a sign of how comfortable you are with your coworkers. Staying sober says you don’t trust either yourself or them when you are drunk. Obviously in the US getting obliterated at a work function is highly frowned upon and will usually get you fired. Different cultures, different rules. The Nicaraguan work culture is simply centered around covering your ass. At any moment you need to be able to point upwards and demonstrate clearly: “He told me to do this, I did it. It’s his fault that the request was stupid.”

This hierarchy of culpability manifests itself in several ways. The most common of which is when you are trying to find something and asking for help. Because the office is an area of shared space, everyone has access to a lot of shared items. These shared items are simultaneously everyone’s responsibility and no one’s. Therefore every single time you ask for help finding something you are met with a very emphatic, clear, absolute no. The assuredness of their “I don’t know where it is” is almost unbelievable sometimes. It’s almost as if they are claiming they didn’t know it ever existed, much less who used it last.

“What is this “Stääplorr” you speak of? I have heard whispers of such a device but ne’er in the 22 winters that have passed whilst I live and breath have I laid eyes on this contraption.”

This of course is because the item is a shared item, and if they help look for it, or admit to using it last, it can be construed as their fault that it was misplaced.

 

The differences in management style notwithstanding, the real concern is who you hire. Between the socialist revolution and land distribution, the annual free handouts from Daniel Ortega, and the neverending stream of foreign aid through NGO’s, many rural Nicaraguans are extremely conditioned to getting something for nothing. Again, all these influences are simply historical events that have affected the way a lot of them view aid. You have local populations who have either never had a job in their entire life, or the only job that they did have was working for a rich landowner who may have stiffed them of their pay, or had them work for practically nothing. This is then complicated by the fact that the only connection to foreigners that these communities have is through missionaries and NGO’s. While kind-hearted, many of these charitable works end up doing more harm than good, as the assistance they provide is often temporary, but the mentality they instill is permanent. Some communities will acquiesce to a simple concept of gringo-dependence, and will forever wait in frustration for more and more foreign aid.

 

Knowing this, it is not so difficult to understand why a merit-based employment system is such a foreign concept. Work ends up being rationalized as a right instead of an earned privilege, thereby upsetting the most basic tenet of the employer/employee relationship. This leads to tremendous problems when you try and fire someone, as they don’t recognize your right to terminate their employment. It is similar to working for a company and you are the supervisor of the CEO’s son or daughter. You can’t simply fire them like anyone else, the situation is far more delicate and has a different set of rules. Every person you hire has to be considered in two ways, both how they will perform under your employ, and also how they will conduct themselves after you fire them (if you fire them of course.) You have to develop a very keen sense of all the different intents of the people you hire, and whether or not they will try and sabotage your efforts if they don’t feel they are getting what they “deserve.”

 

“Fired?!!? For what?”

 

After long enough, your mindset simply settles in to accepting all these cultural differences and you will behave accordingly without even thinking. Like working in any foreign culture, your attitudes and sensitivities have to adapt to the environment, in that respect, Nicaragua is no different.

 

“No. I don’t care how cool you look in those sunglasses…you can’t drive the truck.”