MEDA Blog - Stories from the Field

Patience is a virtue that I am working on…

Maybe I can place some of the blame on my investment banking roots, but I know that even apart from that training, patience is a virtue that I have in short supply for most things (somehow this b2ap3_thumbnail_Jenn-3.jpgimpatience does not extend to my ability to wait for hours to stream TV on our slow internet connection...go figure :)). During my MEDA orientation we discussed a lot about culture shock and adapting to being in a new environment. Although I was definitely concerned about living in Africa for the first time ever, I was confident that my previous experiences abroad would help me along in this process. This is of course not to say that I don't have my moments when I am missing my loved ones and my life in New York/Washington DC, especially being away while friends and family are dealing with turmoil in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. I also am now equipped with some wonderful strategies to cope with homesickness and culture shock that I learned during the MEDA orientation, which certainly adds to my confidence. Nevertheless, what I am writing about today is the thing I was/am most concerned about (even back in that conference room in Waterloo) during this experience - the adjustment required when working in a different culture.
 
Though I have had some experience in this area (working on project finance deals in Mexico, traveling to Russia to do financial and organizational capacity assessments for the SEEP Network; working remotely to gather indicator information from partners in Africa and Latin America, or doing online webinar trainings for microfinance associations) I have always found it the most challenging of development work. Whether it is coordinating different work styles, working with different time lines, terminology, wait times or simply put, work hours, it takes a while to figure out how things run or what is appropriate work behavior in the country you are working in. About me - I am definitely used to a "time is money" mentality, meaning that I am used to running around in crisis mode, all the while trying to maximize my efficiency... mean, I worked at a firm where the CEO wrote a book on how paperclips were wasteful.Since arriving here in Zambia I am very much of aware of the clash of work cultures I am experiencing. Some of things I have noticed: #1) it is not uncommon to have to ask someone to do something several times before they will actually do it. I don't think this is actually considered rude, though, which is nice. It does make crossing things off on your to do list a little difficult, though :). #2) Face time is also not a requirement here...therefore it is also not uncommon for people to make their own work hours, as long as they get their work done (although deadlines don't appear to be that formal either). #3) Healthy fear of the boss doesn't exist here - people don't seem to be intimidated or alter their behavior based on their manager's presence. #4) There is a more laid back sense to things getting done...you almost never see anybody rushing around to get something done. In fact, I think they find me quite strange since I do that already quite frequently here. Simply put, if something doesn't get done today, there is always time for it tomorrow. And finally #5) people don't appear to get flustered, frustrated or worked up when something is done incorrectly. They simply just say oh well and move on from there. I often get stressed out when I am the one finding the errors in things since I am the newest person here and probably the least qualified at this point to do so. However, people here would just say "good thing we have you" and move on, which just may be the most healthy approach to life there is instead of stressing out about it :)
 
Other work differences I have noticed - generally, customer service in Zambia is very different than in the U.S. Here, you often enter a business and can wait around for a long time, watching people make coffee, staple things, or sit at their desk doing nothing, before they will ask you if you need assistance. For instance, the other day I walked into the bank to get a check cut and ended up standing in the lobby for about 20 minutes since the people at the desks in the front of the bank would not engage me. I finally had to approach a teller to ask if there was anyone who could help me with a bank check. When they told me the branch manager had gone and no one else could help me, and was told that the Bank Manager wasn't there and nobody knew where she was, so I needed to go to a different branch. Compared to many banks in the U.S. where the second you walk in, there is either a sign up sheet or a person to greet you and ask you if you need help. It could just be that many of these services are still luxuries and so it is not like the businesses are competing for customer attention. I think customer service is understood as tending to a customer's needs, but it certainly does not mean approaching someone in a lobby to ask if they need help when they walk into an office.In fact, the mentality is much more like you should be thanking the person for their help, which definitely may take some getting used to.[1]
 
For me going forward I think I will try to take a step back and maintain a sense of perspective, especially when I realize any of these things are happening. Come to think of it, the work culture clash from the U.S. to Zambia is probably not unlike the work culture clash between the U.S. and Italy, France or Spain. People aren't living for their work, but working so they can live. Suffice it to say that apart from the material knowledge related to mobile banking, I am looking forward to growing my patience in the months to come!
 
Do you have a good way of dealing with cultural work differences that you want to share?
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