Getting By With a Little Help from a Stranger

WeraVonWulfen_PhotoMy name is Wera von Wulfen and this is my first semester here at International House. I am a graduate exchange student from Germany, studying Psychology. These first weeks at I-House, including our wonderful new resident retreat, have already shown me the importance of good communication and leadership skills. Now, I hope to expand my knowledge regarding leadership and cross-cultural communication by participating in the Intercultural Leadership Initiative (ILI) here at I-House. In order to share with you a little bit about what happens during our ILI workshops, I want to tell you about one interesting observation I had in our first session.

After a round of introductions during our first meeting on Wednesday, we delved right into our first exercise. Three of us volunteered to leave the room, without knowing what the following exercise would entail. When each of us came back individually, the rest of the group had formed a new community, portraying a new culture altogether. Our mission was to “fit into that new culture” by performing a specific action. The action, of course, was for us to figure out.

What struck me was how uncomfortable it can make you feel, approaching a new group that did not understand your language and trying everything possible to just fit in. I could tell pretty quickly that this new culture communicated by clapping somehow. So I tried that. Every time someone clapped, I tried to catch onto their rhythm and tried synchronizing with them. I tried to adapt. But simply taking on their clapping, sadly, did not lead me anywhere. Not being able to understand the meaning behind their method of communication, I desperately started to look for other hints and other signals that would show me what I had to do to fit in. After more clapping and even more awkwardness, I realized that the person I was sitting next to was deliberately looking over my shoulder, signaling to a table with snacks on it on the other side of the room. It was then that I understood that I would have to bring the group food in order to become part of their culture.

Our first ILI session has shown me the importance of simply listening. Before applying your usual methods of communication and before asking questions, listen and be aware of your surroundings. You might be surprised to see that someone in the group is already reaching out, trying to give you a signal and wants to help. You will want to be receptive to that signal. This simple exercise has been very effective at demonstrating what problems we can encounter when entering a new culture and what barriers have to be broken down in order to become a part of it. Moreover, my experiences at the first ILI session have invigorated the importance of confronting each new situation with an unwavering open mind. I am already looking forward to what experiences our next ILI session will hold!

About weravonwulfen

Hi everyone! My name is Wera von Wulfen and I am a graduate exchange student from Germany. Here at UC Berkeley, I am taking graduate courses and doing research in Psychology. I went to preschool and kindergarten in New Jersey, lived in Singapore for two years during high school, but spent the majority of my life in Germany. I am thrilled to be living at International House and am looking forward to learning from and getting to know my peers, and challenging my own beliefs and preconceived notions on a daily basis!
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