I was recently in Lisbon, Portugal. While there I was able to enjoy the sights, the food, listen to Fado music and relax. It was exciting to be away from home and for the chance to experience something new and different. We had a great time and would love to go back. During the week I was reminded of how traveling in a foreign country is similar to what it’s like to take on a new position and sometimes be the only Latina. Assumptions are made about you
Because of how I look, people thought I might be Southeast Asian, biracial or something else. I was asked this more than once. Even after they heard me speak English I was asked where my family was from. It finally became easier for me to say that I was Mexican. You stand out because you are new to the role. Until staff, partners, others get to know you they won’t know what to expect. They may even make assumptions based on only what they have read or heard from others. You have to prove you are the right person through your credentials, ideas or experience.
You are seen as the subject matter expert on all things Latino/a
In a few instances we were the only Americans present. We became the go to folks on all things American. We did the same things to others when speaking to individuals from Greece, Britain, Bolivia, etc. How often have you been the only Latina in the room and suddenly become expert on all things Latino/Latina? More than once I have had someone turn to me and ask what do Latinos think about X. When I was younger I used to get very frustrated with this type of question. With time and experience I realized that it was an opportunity to educate or impact a particular topic. The trip reminded me that in some instances it is genuine curiosity that has others asking these questions.
Not everyone will welcome you
We were lucky in that many people spoke English, I could understand quite a bit of the written language, and that folks were patient with us as we made our way through the week. However, not everyone was welcoming or tolerant of us. I went into a neighborhood bakery in an area that was not as frequented by tourists. When I spoke in English the person behind the counter rolled their eyes and begrudgingly assisted me. It also happened with a waiter or two. I was reminded of how often we go into a position and think that we have great ideas or a fresh perspective or that we will be welcomed with open arms. Yet, staff is sometimes resistant to our presence or change and may not be open to new things.
A map isn’t always enough
Even with a map I could not always find my way around. I had to stop quite a bit to get oriented, to observe the scenery and to account for much of the construction that was happening in the city. I sometimes had to modify my schedule or the route I ended up taking because of unexpected delays. It’s important to recognize that although you have your ideas and process for moving forward in the position, you have to consider external factors and be flexible about how you will achieve your outcome or get to your desired destination.
To make the transition more successful, consider the following:
Do your homework. I prepared a little bit for the trip. I learned a few words of Portuguese (a few being the key word). I researched activities, sights to visit and foods to try. I tried to learn about the local culture so that I would not make any major faux pas. Make it a point to gather information before you walk into the position. Who’s on the team, what are their strengths, what have been some challenges? Ask about team dynamics and about the informal leaders of the group.
Be comfortable being vulnerable. I found myself being more vulnerable than usual. I had to be comfortable asking for help at the metro, the store, etc. and admitting that I did not speak the language. How many times have you gone into a new role or organization and although you think you know the field or business, you have to ask for guidance on the culture, norms, and the way things are done? It’s not easy and you have to be open to saying I don’t know. None of us like to look foolish or as if we haven’t done our homework. After trying to figure things out on my own and not being successful I realized that I could enjoy things more if I was okay admitting what I did not know. In some instances it also contributed to some folks being a little more patient with me. As a Latina we sometimes don’t want to ask for help because we think we have to prove something. Who are you really hurting by not reaching out for assistance?
Identify allies. By the end of the week we had identified the friendlier and more patient concierge and front desk staff. We asked for guidance on how to get to our destination and for clarification on our plans. Find individuals that can serve as mentors, champions and coaches to help you be more successful in your position.
Build relationships. People will respect you more if you respect them. Get to know the people around you. Be curious, ask questions, and ask for their opinions. Learn who are the influencers on the team or department and reach out. Just as we don’t like others making assumptions about us, don’t make them about others.
Start slow to go fast. Learn the culture, values, and norms of the organization and people. It is important to recognize this and to take time to become educated on how things run, what’s been the experience of the group and how you can incorporate the ideas of people that have been there longer than you. Don’t assume that you have all of the answers. Not everyone will feel the same way; so don’t be in such a rush to start making change or to introduce something new.
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