Leadership Insights: Preparing for Culture Shock 

Preparing for Culture Shock 

As you prepare to live at I-House your mind may be buzzing with endless questions about what to expect. Maybe you are feeling anxious as you think about what life will be like, from classes, professors, visas and roommates, to food, friends, dating, and the inevitable moments of missing home. There are many ways to prepare for a big move. Perhaps you are crafting a detailed list of what to pack. While you may have thought about packing an extra box of your favorite snack from home, what are you planning to pack to prepare emotionally and psychologically for your time in the U.S. and at I-House?  

Emotional and psychological preparedness means getting ready to experience the challenging feelings that come along with entering a different culture. Most people have heard of culture shock, the experience of disorientation and misunderstanding that comes with encountering a different culture. As humans, we have a part of our brain that is wired to detect things that are different and unfamiliar as a threat. That means that when we experience difference, including unfamiliar cultural practices, it sends our brain into a state of self-protection and can trigger our “fight-flight-freeze” response. Emotionally, this means we will likely experience difficult feelings including frustration, confusion, anger, and embarrassment when encountering cultural difference.  

Many culture shock experiences arise from day-to-day interactions with people whose behavior is unfamiliar to us, but culture shock can also happen when we face systems or policies that are different from our norm. I-House residents have shared that the following norms and policies at I-House and in the U.S. have given them a shock:   

Drinking: Many I-House residents are surprised by the drinking laws and practices in the US. The legal drinking age of 21 is strictly enforced. Bars, restaurants, grocery and liquor stores can face harsh penalties for selling or serving alcohol to minors, and they generally ask for legal identification of any person who appears to look younger than 30 years old. This is often shocking in particular for I-House residents from countries with more relaxed norms around alcohol. Also, alcohol content levels may be higher in the U.S., and people are often surprised to ind themselves more intoxicated from  a beer or glass of wine than what they are used to back home.

Smoking: I-House and the entire UC Berkeley campus are smoke and tobacco free. California was the first state in the U.S. to ban the use of tobacco and smoking in public places. This reflects a value in California for public health and wellness. I-House residents coming from places where smoking in public is the norm may find it challenging to adjust to Cal’s smoke-free policies.  

Dating and Sex: Dating in the U.S. can be confusing and ambiguous even for U.S. Americans, so there are sure to be some shocks and challenges for international students trying to navigate the waters of romantic relationships. In an environment like I-House where people eat, sleep, study, and socialize together, close relationships are easily formed. Previous I-House residents have expressed that sometimes this leads to confusion when one person interprets a close relationship as romantic, while the other person just sees it as a friendship, especially because non-romantic, non-sexual friendships between men and women are common in the U.S.  

Another culture clash dating scenario is when someone (let’s call them Alex) expresses to another (let’s call them Sam) that they are not romantically interested. Sam interprets Alex’s behavior as a challenge to be overcome, and continues to pursue Alex. This leads to Alex feeling that Sam is not respecting their boundaries and may even feel like a form of harassment. Sexual harassment is taken very seriously in the U.S. Behaviors that may be acceptable in other countries are considered highly inappropriate in the U.S., including sexual jokes, comments, gestures, unwelcome touch, and subtle or blatant pressure for sexual activity. Important practices when it comes to dating and sex in the US are: 

  • Communicate clearly and respectfully. If you are unsure if a person is romantically interested in you, have an honest conversation with them to understand their interests and intentions. If you tend to be a more indirect communicator, you may need to be direct in order to ensure mutual understanding.  
  • Understand consent and only engage in consensual sexual activities. UC Berkeley policy explains, “Consent to sexual activity requires of both persons an affirmative, conscious, and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity. It is the responsibility of each person to ensure they have the affirmative consent of the other to engage in the sexual activity. Lack of protest, lack of resistance, or silence, do not alone constitute consent.” In other words, sexual consent requires a clear and unambiguous “yes” from both parties. 

Everyone has their own unique challenges crossing cultures, but these are a few realities that commonly confuse, frustrate, or surprise I-House residents.

The emotional roller coaster of encountering cultural differences is inevitable, but these experiences can become the essential ingredients for learning and growth. One of the privileges of living at I-House is that it’s not only a chance to make friends from over the world, it is an opportunity to better understand yourself, understand others from different cultural backgrounds, and to gain skills for living and working successfully in a diverse world.  

At I-House’s Center for Intercultural Leadership (CIL), we have a name for this of combination of self-awareness, other-awareness, and skills to bridge cultural differences — Intercultural Leadership. Whether it’s a policy or a person’s behavior that you find challenging, in the face of culture shock there are some intercultural leadership strategies that can help for a successful transition:  

  • Be curious: Observe, ask questions and take time to listen to understand the cultural logic and values behind practices and policies.  
  • Practice appreciation: Find something that you like or are grateful for about the new culture. This will help calm your difficult emotions.  
  • Withhold or examine judgement: Notice when you are criticizing, judging, or making assumptions based on your cultural perspective and values. Take on a “learning posture” by asking “what is there to be learned from this situation?” 

Further information about consent: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oQbei5JGiT8