Culture Shock

Suggestions and Strategies to help you cope with Culture Shock

Listen and observe

Since there are new rules, norms, and cues that may be unfamiliar, you need to listen and observe non-verbal communication carefully, trying to put it into proper context.

Learn the language by using it

Language shapes our perception of reality; it is shaped by underlying cultural values and is both verbal: idioms, grammar, words and nonverbal: physical space between speakers, gestures, touching etc.

It is not just how a person speaks that tells us how they feel and react. All verbal messages are accompanied by many different kinds of nonverbal signals. Body movements carry as much and often more meaning and information than the words being spoken.

Ask questions and be honest

You cannot assume that you always know what is going on, or that you always understand a particular communication. Most Americans will be very helpful if you need an explanation of something. You may need to re-phrase a question, check the meaning of something, or repeat what you have said in order to be clearly understood.

Try not to misjudge

You will see many things that are different from your own culture. Don't label anything as "good" or "bad" in comparison to your own culture; most customs, habits, and ideas are simply different from the ones you're familiar with. You may also misunderstand some things; don't make judgments until you have complete information.

Try to empathize

Try to put yourself in the other person's place, and look at the situation from his or her perspective. Culture influences how different people interpret the same situation.

Be open and curious

Try new things, and discover how and why certain things are done. The more you explore, the more you'll learn. Don't be afraid to laugh at yourself

It is likely that you will make mistakes as you explore a new culture. Laughing at your mistakes will encourage others to respond to you in a friendly manner and help you learn from them.

Don't be afraid to laugh at yourself

It is likely that you will make mistakes as you explore a new culture. Laughing at your mistakes will encourage others to respond to you in a friendly manner and help you learn from them.

Try to accept frustration

Learning to function in a new culture is not easy, and it is natural to feel anxious and frustrated at times. Realize that these feelings are a normal part of the experience.

Get involved

The more you put into the experience, the more you'll learn from it. Make an effort to meet people, form friendships, get involved in activities, and learn about the people and their culture.


Casual conversation between Americans can sometimes be confusing. "How are you?" does not necessarily mean the person wants to know how you are feeling. Rather, the person may simply be saying, "Good morning," or "Hello." In response, you may simply smile, nod and say "Fine, thank you. How are you?"

"See you later," "Drop by sometime," or "Let's get together sometime" are often meant as a friendly good-bye, rather than an actual invitation. When in doubt, do not be too shy to clarify whether it's an invitation or not.

Social Space

Some cultures tend to have a much closer conversational and "personal space" distance than does the US culture. Americans generally will keep their distance; they avoid bodily contact with others.

Informality among Americans

The emphasis on individual identity, responsibility, and tolerance produces a considerable degree of informality in dress, relationships between people, and methods of communication. A great deal of flexibility to express oneself is permitted as long as it does not infringe on the rights and comforts of others.

Use of Names

First names are more readily used in the United States than in other countries. It is all right to use the first name of someone of approximately your same age and status or someone younger.

A woman or man older than yourself, including a professor is often addressed as Dr., Ms, Mrs., Miss, or Mr. with the last name, until the individual requests that you use his or her first name. Ms. ("miz") is used for both single and married women.

Americans are informal and some of your professors and some staff and administrators may invite you to address them by their first name, if you feel awkward doing that, please don't feel uncomfortable in stating that fact; no one will be insulted!


Invitations are usually informal and most often verbal, but specify time and place. It is important that you keep the appointment and be punctual.

If you receive a written invitation that says "RSVP" you should respond by letter, email or phone, telling your host whether or not you plan to attend.

Handshaking & Hugging

Men usually shake hands at the time of their first meeting. Men and women also often shake hands; women often don't shake hands with each other.

Good friends often hug each other at meeting and parting times; this is mostly a feminine custom.

Walking on the Correct Side of the Street

For safety reasons, when walking on a street without a sidewalk pedestrians are expected to walk facing traffic, on the left side of the street.

Concept of Time

North Americans are usually time-conscious, and being on time is very important. When an appointment is made, you are expected to arrive within 5 minutes of the appointed time. Life in the U.S. may seem hectic because of this.

Being Asked Questions

Americans generally are not well versed in geography, some of the questions you will be asked may appear ridiculous, uninformed, and elementary, but try to be patient in answering them. Many Carleton College students are sincerely interested but will probably have very little understanding of your life and your culture.


Friendship between U.S. and international students may be confusing since definitions and expectations of friendships differ from one culture to another.

In the U.S. friendships may seem to develop more quickly and seem more casual than in many other cultures. International students are sometimes struck by how warm and friendly people seem from the start. Yet, soon they observe that while Americans seem warm at a first meeting, they later may seem remote.

"Superficial" is the word sometimes used by international visitors to describe Americans' relationships.

It is important to remember that these are generalizations and that there are many exceptions to them.

(Adapted from American Ways, by Gary Althen, Intercultural, 1988)

Romantic and Non-Romantic Relationships

At Carleton College, relationships between students are complex so they are difficult to describe in a few paragraphs.

Much of social life centers on campus life and events. Though it is common for men and women to do things together in non-dating relationships, it can sometimes be difficult to determine what constitutes a dating relationship.

Terminology and extent of physical contact varies greatly. "Going Out" can mean with or without a romantic intent; "involved" or "seeing someone" signifies romantic involvement.

In this culture, the greatest amount of public touching occurs between men and women. It is not uncommon to see students, who do not have an intimate relationship, hugging or holding hands.

In the U.S. and at Carleton College, people's attitudes toward sexual relationships are quite open. The decision whether or not to establish a sexual relationship rests with the individuals involved. Students often feel free to talk about sex-related subjects and engage in sexual relationships.

At Carleton, students who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender are generally accepted and respected on campus. The Gender and Sexuality Center several years ago to supports LGBT students and works on gender issues in general.

No one can safely make assumptions about relationships and dating. Everyone should observe carefully, and ask questions of their mentors, Resident Advisors, other students, and the staff of the Office of Intercultural & International Life.

Be respectful of differences, don't jump to conclusions and don't be judgmental!

You may find the "What's up with Culture?" website helpful, too.