So, my trip to Bogotá is now done and dusted, and I must admit that it wasn’t as traumatising and difficult as I thought it would be. My original fears of having to use my Spanish in a professional environment and using it in a technical way did materialise and I struggled a tiny bit in a couple of occasions, but overall I survived.
There are two main aspects to my trip to Bogotá that I want to talk about: Business and Pleasure. Today I will talk about the business side.
I was very pleasantly surprised about the level of professionalism that I saw. It’s not that I was expecting anything less (well, maybe I was), but Bogotá is a city with so much contrast that you can’t help but marvel at how seriously business is conducted there.
We visited several offices of several people (lighting designer, integrator, light fitting manufacturer, etc) and everywhere there was a sense of seriousness and of “we know what we are doing”. Colombians don’t muck about when they are doing business. BUT, they will always maintain a very relaxed atmosphere and conversations may quickly change to a more lighthearted topic temporarily.
Something else that impressed me was the tidiness of all the offices we visited. If you came to my office in England, something that would strike you straight away is how untidy it looks. As my boss would say, it is a functional office: everybody has big desks with space for big A1 or A0 drawings and this space is definitely used. There are drawings and papers and other materials laying around and it gives the impression of a cluttered and unkempt office (exactly what it is).
The other side of the coin of this, however, was the building site that we visited. There is no sense of Health and Safety and I was stunned to see so many irregularities (so many of them that in England that building site would have been shut by the H&S authorities in less than one minute). I talked to my Colombian host about it and his answer was so unbelievable that I am still struggling to believe it: He said that labour is so cheap that if someone gets hurt it’s easier to just replace them rather than waste time to make them safe in the first place (!!!).
No safety barrier for a whole in the wall
This proves something else that I found interesting. Colombia has got a very defined hierarchy system. Social strata is something so common that nobody questions it. I noticed it during the first five minutes of the first meeting that we had. Jorge, our host, called his assistant and she replied “Si, señor” (yes, sir). This happened many times in that first day, that made me start paying more attention to those little details. And I was in for a shock. People will call you “doctor” when they don’t know your title. So if you look like a professional person but the person who is addressing you doesn’t know your title then they will call you “doctor” or “doctora”. In the professional field, people will address each other by their job titles (in formal situations). So if you’re an engineer, people will call you “Ingeniero Pérez”, for example. If you’re a lawyer, you will be called “Abogada Crespo”, etc.
Also, the great majority of people will speak a decent amount of English. In the professional environment this is quite a given, and we only came across one person who didn’t speak it, but did understand it. Obviously, I still had to translate backwards and forwards, especially when my boss used dark analogies (he loves analogies), or Spanish people were trying to translate literally from Spanish and the meaning got a bit lost (particularly with sayings and proverbs).
That Colombia has had (and still has) a problem with security in the streets is a well known fact. But nothing can prepare you to the sight of armed security personnel everywhere. And I mean EVERYWHERE. Every office has their own security guard, and most roads in the business districts and centres have got police and dogs (the dogs are for bombs as well as drugs). It is a shock, but it did make me feel more secure, and I take it that’s the whole purpose of it (as well as catching criminals!).
All in all, it has been a good experience – work-wise, and who knows if we will have to go back some time soon!