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10 Lessons from Uruguay

Why abandon a comfortable life, all you know, and the people who love you to live and work in a country that most people have never heard of… is a question I have been asked more than once over the past year. Admittedly, at times, I have wondered myself. But as someone who works in international business development and lives in the modern global society of the United States, I feel an obligation to engage in knowledge and cultural exchange; a desire to make an impact on a larger, more national scale; and as a lifelong learner, I always look for opportunities to grow.

My main objective was to increase educational access for rural communities through a program designed to address the legislative responsibilities of Uruguay Plurilingüe 2030 in partnership between the Uruguayan Office of Language Policy, the United States Embassy in Montevideo, and the U.S. Department of State. This country [Uruguay], that is about 56 times smaller than the United States, packs a powerful punch. Here are 10 lessons learned from Uruguay.

(1) Be internationally minded: Before even leaving the airport, USA advertisements and products are everywhere. Some try to sell the North American ideal – lifestyle, culture, music, etc. While others create a unique blend of North and South– acknowledging the rich Uruguayan culture while importing the distinctive elements of the USA brand. Brands that blend seem to have more impact and last longer.

(2) Make No Assumptions: It is natural to compare a new environment to one’s home environment. At first glance, Uruguay may seem like a blast from the past. But under closer examination there are progressive modern elements amongst the traditional. The people that flourish seem to be able to play in and even at times manipulate the tension between the old and new.

(3) Recycle! Uruguayans take recycling to a whole new level. Everything from an old slaughterhouse that is now a university to thrift store shopping and antiquing being commonplace. Finding a small appliance repair person is challenging in USA, but in Uruguay it is a life skill. If you broke it, someone here can fix it (or repurpose it). I have sewn and fixed things that I would have thoughtlessly thrown out under different circumstances.

(4) Be Kind: This is a lesson from small towns everywhere, but especially from a country that feels like a small town. In Uruguay, people know that they are likely to see each other again. Kindness is like a shared social responsibility. Acknowledging the individual and small talk is important before discussing any topic and it seems like the result is more meaningful engagements and longer lasting relationships.

(5) Take Your Time: In the famous lyrics of Justin Bieber, despacito (slowly). Time moves differently in Uruguay. It takes time to implement national policy, to order food, to do just about anything. Be patient. There is no need to rush, because it is not slow just to be slow. Decisions often take consensus which takes time. Traditions are highly valued so change takes time. Relationships with friends and family are important so time should be enjoyed.

(6) Play the Long Game: Since plans are typically developed organically in Uruguay, strategic planners have to think a little differently. Having a plan and introducing elements of the plan over time for everyone to discuss tends to be more palatable. Acknowledging progress towards an objective becomes important to maintain a feeling of accomplishment. Remember not to discount last minute plans. The things I have seen accomplished at the very last minute here, are astounding.

(7) Focus on the Essentials: Living out of a suitcase and carry-on for months on end, makes one reconsider the necessities. Durable, versatile, and multiple use items tend to be a better value than having a variety of things. Marie Kondo’s words, “does it bring you joy” take on greater meaning. Agendas are not very popular in Uruguay, so it is important to come into meetings knowing the essential needs.

(8) Depend on Others: Playing the board game Settlers of Catan made this lesson glaringly obvious. In order to do well at the game, one has to trade and make deals. Uruguay is a collective culture where people support one another. Not much is asked for in return, but genuine appreciation and to pay it forward. The independently-minded may feel vulnerable in needing help, but strong independence can be taken as an unwillingness to be apart of a team.

(9) Know Your Limits: This is good advice in all situations, but even more so in cross-cultural interactions. I have always been health-conscious, but never realized how much I need nutritional food, regular exercise, and consistent personal safety. Know and vocalize limitations while acknowledging that others may not understand them and that is okay. Everyone’s needs are different and you have to take care of yourself first, before you can help anyone else.

(10) Just Ask: I found that the most valuable source of information was not in any policy, contract, or website, but in the minds of others. People are rich sources of experiences and knowledge. In Uruguay many events are not advertised, but word of mouth is how you learn about all sorts of things. Why is the store on the corner closed and when will it be opened again? Google does not know the shop owner just had a baby and will reopen next week.

If you have not traveled aboard for a while, take a trip. If you travel regularly, but it is branded hotels and room service, venture out of your comfort zone a little. If you’re passing through South America, consider making a stop in Uruguay.

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