I think today was the first really 'difficult' day. 10 days into our adventure and the trip is starting to seem less like an exciting vacation and more like a challenging test of character. This really is no package holiday. And the project is certainly not an exercise in 'painting by numbers' because we have to work out what picture to paint in Cabiao, based on what the community want and need.
We have an end goal. A final destination.
But we are without a map.
Team meetings are where we come together to plot out our 'route' towards a successful community based disaster risk reduction management plan. And they are where we work out diversions, short-cuts and even U-turns for the duration of the 'journey'.
But the team is experiencing what I am going to label as 'cultural clashes': we have contrasting ideas about how to work as a team and differ on how we express our ideas. My main observations:
The UK volunteers:
-Are spontaneous-happy to shout out the first thing that comes into their head.
-Are confident- in speaking up and sharing their opinions.
-Ask too many questions (and quite often stupid questions!)
-Need to learn how to listen !!!!
-Repeat each other's ideas (all the time!)
-Are loud and often dominant in the group work.
-Are very individualistic in their approach to teamwork, owning their personal views.
-Think before they speak.
-Never interrupt or speak over another person.
-Love structure- disliking a loose and 'spontaneous' approach.
-Are quiet and tend time take a back seat in large groups large discussions.
-Don't like to disagree or contradict - and so sometimes won't voice their opinions.
-Are VERY good at listening.
-Process information properly - so that they don't repeat a point already made (or ask stupid questions! e.g. questions they could answer themselves).
-Prioritise the group over the individual.
After a few days of team bonding/training it became painfully obvious how dominating, loud and individualistic the UK volunteers were. To put it bluntly, we love the sound of our own voices and feel it is important to share how we personally feel about a subject- even if this means repeating another person's idea. In filippino culture, an idea belongs to the group and not the individual. For example, if Bob voices a point that is the same as Bill's, then Bob has spoken on behalf of Bill. Consequently, Bill does not need to repeat or attach himself to the point (e.g. by saying "I agree too blah blah blah!") In my opinion this is a very time efficient and cooperative way of working as a team.
And as soon as I started to recognise the flaws with my side of the team I could not stop praising the way the Filipinos conduct themselves in a group. The more we worked together, the more I judged myself (and the other UK volunteers) on our limited listening skills, lack of patience and inability to stop and think.
Feeling rather like the Dalai Lama, I started to practice thinking instead of speaking.
But then silence fell upon the group....
Okay this isn't just referring to my 'reduced vocals.' As all of the UK volunteers decided to make a conscious effort to not dominate discussion, in order to give the Filipino volunteers some 'space' to voice their opinions.
This didn't quite go to plan.
Whilst the UK volunteers need to shut up half the time, the Filipino volunteers need to speak up. The session resolved into chaos because of course, there are only so many awkward silences a UK person can handle. And once again, we dominated the discussion. Even when we voted on an idea, the Filipino volunteers tended to go along with the majority in favour of voicing their own opinion (the 'saying yes but meaning no' dilemma!)
Frustrated by our lack of team progress I discussed the problem with my counterpart Sophia and we came up with a system that aims to support both learning styles. Through a dialogue of hand signals the group will be able to show if they "agree", "disagree" or "don't understand" without actually saying a word. It is a system that doesn't favour the loudest voices but instead allows for equal voices. (I actually got the idea from the 'Occupy Wall Street' movement, who used a similar system to control large group discussions.) We also decided that 'thinking time' before a discussion would combat the UK volunteers' quick-fire answers and would allow the Filipino's time to process the information and formulate a response. (N.B. Just thought I'd note that while my counterpart Sophia is excellent at English - we've even discussed the economic crisis - not all of the volunteers are as confident. Subsequently, when sessions go too fast and turn into a stream of spontaneous comments, they find it tricky to keep up. So this will also allow them time to translate.) Another major factor of the plan is structure, because in Sophia's words Filipino's are very "linear" and like to plan ahead to avoid surprise.
However when it came to delivering the 'master plan' to the team, Sophia got shy and left it up to me. (Don't worry we've had a "chicca" - a chat - and sorted everything out now! :)) At the time I felt slightly disappointed, frustrated and confused because despite giving Sophia the chance to share her ideas, I ended up having to be both the Filipino voice and the UK voice. Which slightly undermined the plan itself, seeing as it was created cross-culturally, to support a cross-cultural team and yet the English girl was- once again- presenting all the points. It didn't seem quite right me saying "the Filipinos like to learn this way...." It needed to come from the horse's mouth.
I'm lucky to already have a strong friendship with Sophia, which meant that we could talk it through at the end of the day. She expressed that a common fear of Filipinos is being embarrassed in the work place (e.g. by having your ideas rejected) and explained that their tendency to agree is because of a desire to belong to the community and not stand out as an individual.
"We prefer to be backstage instead of walking the cat walk"- Sophia.
Together we concluded that neither culture is perfect: both are flawed in someway. But in order to work as a cohesive team we need to meet in the middle, both accommodating but also embracing the practices of the other. So I've told Sophia she needs to take more risks and should not to be afraid to voice her opinions. In return, Sophia is teaching me the art of listening, observance and contemplation.
Oh and by the way, the group liked our hand signal system. So we now conduct team meetings in complete silence.
I joke of course. Because despite making progress, the team has still got a LONG way to go. And even more to learn.
But we've taken the first step up the mountain...