Charlie Thompson majored in Business and minored in Spanish at Oregon State University, and participated in the IE3 Global Internship program in Summer 2008 at Asociación Ajb’ atz’ Enlace Quiché in Guatemala. Charlie is currently serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Dominican Republic.
“Tu eres Ingeniero en Sistemas,” I am told by Dominicans when I explain what I do in the Peace Corps, “you’re a Systems Engineer.” It is one of several unearned titles — along with Professor and Technician — that I’ve been given since arriving in the Dominican Republic more than year and half ago. I learned long ago that there is no use in trying to contradict such a proclamation. I may as well assert that not all Americans are white or that New York is not a synonym for the United States.
The problem with correcting these misconceptions is that people just don’t care. If you’re talking about the United States and call it New York, that’s close enough. Even after I correct them, most people still don’t make a distinction. When I learned about this phenomenon in my organizational science classes at OSU, they referred to a cultural dimension known as “uncertainty avoidance”. In cultures with low uncertainty avoidance, like the Dominican culture, people aren’t very concerned with specifics. In most cases, a general idea will do.
During my time as an intern with IE3 in Guatemala, I experienced the opposite end of the scale of uncertainty avoidance. Guatemala, with its centuries of tradition dating to pre-Columbian times, has developed an elaborate system of cultural identities by which society is ordered. The country has 26 native ethic groups, each with its own language and traditional style of dress. The result is a population accustomed to recognizing and interpreting nuanced differences between people.
Despite this and other pronounced differences, I’ve found that my experience in Guatemala prepared me quite well for the work I do here in the DR. As with my internship site in Guatemala, my current host organization was also founded by Americans but employs almost exclusively host country nationals. My relationship with my supervisor, while it requires a different style of communication, quite resembles the one I had in Guatemala. You never know when the skills you learn might come in handy down the road.