Cross Cultural Insights from an Intern in Sevilla, Spain

Caroline Postelle is an American college student who spent eight months (January 2017 – August 2017) as an intern in Sevilla, Spain. Caroline is a student at the University of Memphis and was placed in an internship program in Sevilla for the Spring semester. After greatly enjoying the city of Sevilla and the work that she was doing in her internship, she opted to spend the rest of the summer in her internship position. Caroline interned at Senderismo Sevilla Viajes, which is a travel agency located in Sevilla, Spain. The agency provides “adventure tours” for Spaniards and international visitors throughout the south of Spain. Senderismo tasked Caroline with providing English translations to their website to increase the number of international customers that participate in their tours. They also asked for her help in establishing a social media presence. Lastly, Senderismo also wanted Caroline to contribute a strategic plan for how to get more study abroad or Erasmus students to participate in their weekend-long excursions. Caroline was excited about these projects. She was majoring in Advertising at the time and had experience running social media accounts for a small restaurant group in Nashville, Tennessee. Although Caroline did not have any previous experience travel abroad, she was excited to learn about a new culture and to have the opportunity to practice her Spanish skills. While Caroline admits that she was initially nervous about her internship abroad, it ended up being the most valuable experience in her college career.

Caroline chose to participate in an internship abroad because she was eager to learn about the cultural differences in the workplace. She had learned about Hofstede’s dimensions in her International Advertising class and was curious how they shaped working culture abroad. Caroline’s parents lived abroad prior to starting a family but returned back to the states as soon as her mother became pregnant with her brother. Caroline always enjoyed hearing stories about her parents’ time abroad and one day hoped to have a similar experience. Prior to departure, Caroline participated in a series of pre-departure orientations geared to facilitating her transition into Spanish culture. She even had several sessions geared towards preparing her for the Spanish working culture and the differences that she may encounter. Although she did learn about some basic differences between American and Spanish working culture, she knew that nothing could truly prepare her. She knew that there would still be a learning curve in adjusting to the new culture and the new people around her. When asked if she had any expectations for Spain or Spanish culture, she said that she did not. She truly did not have any idea what to expect but knew that she was in store for an adventure.

Caroline admits that she had culture shock when she first arrived in Sevilla. Although she had been studying Spanish for seven years, she had never been fully immersed in a language other than English. She struggled to navigate the airport and find a taxi to take her to her Airbnb for the night. Upon arrival, Caroline was exhausted and “wanted to sleep for days.” However, she knew that she had to report to her internship orientation bright and early the following day. The next morning, when Caroline finally met her new supervisor, she was immediately anxious. Although Caroline was expecting to work in a Spanish-speaking workplace, she did not realize that her supervisor would speak absolutely no English. While Caroline was “somewhat confident” in her Spanish abilities, this made her nervous that she wouldn’t be able to complete the tasks asked of her with precision. Caroline’s concerns were put to rest when her supervisor laid out her plan for the semester. She had three main tasks: translate Senderismo’s website to English, establish their social media presence, and strategize on how to get more study-abroad students participating in their weekend excursions. Caroline was confident that she could do these tasks, even with the language barrier.

Caroline spent fifteen hours in the office each week and began to notice some difference between her Spanish coworkers and the colleagues that she had previously had in America. First of all, Caroline noticed that her supervisor was very direct when speaking to her. Although she had had seven years of Spanish classes and felt quite confident in her communication skills, her supervisor told her that she “should really learn how to speak Spanish.” Caroline found this kind of ironic, as her supervisor spoke no other language than Spanish. Caroline also noticed that her supervisor had no hesitation in telling her when he did not like portions of the work that she prepared.

One of the business practices that surprised Caroline was the frequent “taking of breaks” among everyone in the office. In addition to the “Spanish siesta,” which was a four-hour-long event in the Senderismo office, all of her colleagues took a one-hour-long break in both the morning and the afternoon. To compensate for this absence, all of the employees worked until 8:00 PM. Caroline was shocked at the number of breaks all of the employees, including the CEO of the company, took throughout the day. At all of her work experiences in America, breaks were frowned upon and productivity was the main priority for the business leaders. Caroline also found it noticed how many of the employees would use their breaks to go get a coffee and chat with their supervisors. Caroline thought it was interesting that supervisors and their subordinates interacted on such an informal basis. Caroline especially found it confusing that although they had a luxury espresso machine in their office, they would leave the office to get a coffee at a café or small restaurant instead. She came to understand that these breaks were not about just a quick caffeine-fix, but rather about taking a moment to enjoy life and connect with the people working around one-another.

After just a month of living and working in Sevilla, she learned that Spanish culture was much more focused around a “work-to-live” mentality, rather than the “live-to-work” mentality that many Americans have adopted. This was something that many of her coworkers acknowledged, as well. Many of them who had visited the United States noticed that many of the people that they had met centered their lives around work. This ideology is reflected not only in the daily working schedules of Spaniards, but also in their holiday schedules. In Sevilla, there are two large week-long celebrations (Féria and la Semana Santa) where many businesses get the entire week off of work. Most American companies do not even grant their employees a full week off for Christmas, thus, two full weeks off would be unheard of in the United States. While at times Caroline really enjoyed the lower-stress associated with the “work-to-live” mentality, she also recognized that there was a lot of wasted time and reduced productivity as a result of this mindset.

After acknowledging the cultural differences, Caroline worked to adapt and adjust to the new environment. There were several things that helped Caroline adjust to the new culture. She began trying to network and connect with other expatriates (both from America and other European countries) to learn about their experiences making the transition from working in their home country to working in Spain. She met with expatriates of various ages from Scotland, France, Germany, and Sweden, and noticed that many of them had the same first impressions of Spanish working culture that she did. She liked knowing that she was not alone in these thoughts and that she was “not crazy to think that some of the Spanish working practices were a little strange.” Additionally, Caroline also began to feel more comfortable in Spain the more that she practiced and improved her Spanish. Soon enough, her supervisor was no longer able to make comments about her language abilities.

In summary, Caroline Postelle had the fantastic opportunity to be an intern at Senderismo Sevilla Viajes, a small travel agency. Although initially anxious about her experience, she had a great time and event elected to stay three months longer than initially anticipated. Caroline identified many cultural differences between Spain and America by interacting with her colleagues on a day-to-day basis. By networking with fellow expatriates who were working or studying in Spain, Caroline learned that she was not the only one who identified these differences. Through her experiences and interactions, Caroline gained a solid understanding of culture and how it impacts the daily lives of people across the world.

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