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Reverse culture shock: What, when, and how to cope

9th July 2014, Comments17 comments

Reverse culture shock: What, when, and how to cope
Moving home isn't always easy – many who repatriate feel different and utterly out of touch. This article explains what happens when culture shock is reversed, what to expect, and how to cope with its effects.

Just like expatriation, repatriation has its psychological phases that are unexpected and daunting. Most notably, encountering reverse culture shock when returning home is a surprising situation that's overlooked by both expats returning and their businesses calling to come home.

Like culture shock, reverse culture shock has a number of stages; imagine this to be a U-shape curve. At first, you may be excited to return home – seeing friends and family members, wearing the rest of your wardrobe, and eating at your favourite restaurants.

This initial euphoria eventually wears off, and that's when you find yourself feeling out of place in your own culture. This is the experience of reverse culture shock; it's the bottom of the curve and often the roughest part.

The good news is, although it may take time, you will begin a gradual adjustment back towards feeling comfortable with where and whom you are.

How reverse culture shock happens

“Reverse culture shock is experienced when returning to a place that one expects to be home but actually is no longer, is far more subtle, and therefore, more difficult to manage than outbound shock precisely because it is unexpected and unanticipated,” says Dean Foster, founder and president of DFA Intercultural Global Solutions, a firm that specialises in intercultural training and coaching worldwide.  

Foster explains that expats learn over their time in a host country “...to behave and think like the locals, to greater or lesser degrees, while on international assignment.” 

“By the time most traditional international assignments come to an end several years may have passed, providing the international assignee a significant amount of time to learn new patterns of behavior and thought necessary to fit into their host country.”  

Foster points out that expats returning home are “shocked into the realisation that they have in fact changed substantially, usually when they encounter their home culture upon repatriating. Both they and their home culture have changed, and this is often the first time that expats have had the opportunity to experience any of these changes.”

What is reverse culture shock?

As strange as it sounds, expats become less and less familiar with their home stomping grounds. Returning brings a blanket of fog on perception, like an audience member walking around in a setting that’s familiar but still unreal.

Robin Pascoe, author of Homeward Bound, writes: “Re-entry shock is when you feel like you are wearing contact lenses in the wrong eyes. Everything looks almost right.”

Simply put, being an expat is such a lengthy and deep international experience it brings about great professional and personal changes. Old norms and values from your home country are viewed from a fresh perspective, and expats and their families see things in a new light; something like Dorothy going from black and white to Technicolor.

In addition, expats can begin to feel frustrated or confused when their close friends and family are anything but curious and intrigued about their experience. After all, the expat was gone to a foreign land for years, with sights, sounds and smells exotic and new.

Expats returning home can expect their top re-entry challenges being:

  • Boredom
  • No one wants to listen
  • You can’t explain
  • Reverse homesickness
  • Relationships have changed
  • People see 'wrong' changes
  • People misunderstand you
  • Feelings of alienation
  • Inability to apply new knowledge and skills
  • Loss/compartmentalisation of experience

(According to Dr. Bruce La Brack from the School of International Studies at University of the Pacific.)

How to deal with reverse shock

Share your experience with others
Although you might feel like no one wants to listen, there will be close ones who will support you with open ears and honest interest.

Start a blog, contact friends you made as an expat, or write articles – find new ways to incorporate your urge to share stories with an audience who will listen intently.

Maintain your style and stay international
Things might be different, people (including yourself) might have changed, but this doesn’t mean a 'repat' should give up character and interest learned from abroad just to fit in. Maintain your lifestyle, from the food you ate abroad to the nature of your evolving personality.

“Remember that being flexible and expecting the unexpected helped you get through the difficult times abroad. The same attitude can help you back home,” says the Office of International Studies at Northeastern University.

“Reverse culture shock is a transition, and an important learning experience. Use this time to rebuild relationships, interests, and your new worldly self.”

Keeping an international perspective is a special skill not to take for granted or put away. Read international magazines and foreign newspapers, or access news from your host country via websites and forums.

Ask for training
From an occupational point of view, to help expats have a successful repatriation Foster recommends training courses not just for the employee but the entire family that is returning.

“It needs to involve the HR [human resources] department at least six months prior to the return, so that the company can ensure a position for the repats that value their new skills. Repatriation training helps the entire family adjust to the fact that they have all changed significantly while on international assignment,” says Foster.

“Training will assess and value those changes, and see the ways their home country has changed while they were abroad.”

In the end, the transition requires patience and even more of an open mind than before. Careful preparation will ease the bumps experienced on the ride home for the entire family. Brace yourself for the shock and enjoy the unique thrills of seeing your home from this different and, in a sense 'far out', perspective.

 

Audrey Sykes / Expatica

Some excerpts in this article were taken from Expatica article Managing the shock of re-entry, Northeastern University's Office of International Study Programs website, and Dean Foster's Repatriation 101: Demystifying Reverse Culture Shock.

 
 

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17 comments on this article Add a comment

  • 27th October 2011, 14:45:16 Marie posted:
    For me a return to my birthplace made me aware of how l had become used to much more stimulating and challenging social and natural environments.
  • 28th October 2011, 10:11:11 jen posted:
    "Reverse Culture Shock??" This is hilarious. OMG, the shops are all open and I can buy things that aren't marked up 600%. They're all speaking my native language, too. How will I ever cope with it all?

    I'm just kidding, I suppose if you're moving back to a place that is exceedingly boring it would be a shock, otherwise,... no.
  • 2nd November 2011, 14:47:06 Samantha posted:
    I'm dealing with this now - left NL in August and I'm back in California. The weather's better, I'll admit, but I do miss my friends. And yes, jen, shopping is cheaper - but I had to buy a car last week because I don't have access to any viable public transit, and that means I'll spend more on gas/car payments/insurance/maintenance. So it definitely cuts both ways.
  • 2nd November 2011, 22:01:42 Zoe posted:
    Finding this article was really eye opening, I have just moved back to the UK after being away for 4 years, and had no idea why I was feeling strange and isolated, at least now I understand other repats have felt the same, I'm in the bottom of the U at the moment :-(, wondering after 6 weeks if I should move back abroad, but I will stick it out a bit longer...
  • 9th August 2013, 14:35:17 Jessica posted:
    I think I'm starting to climb the side of the U but it's hard. I feel invisible for one thing, I'm putting on loads of weight eating the food here and I find I look for international students to talk to! Life is far less fun but I'm trying to act like a tourist in my country. I go on trips, take photos and try to appreciate where I live. The advice in the article about eating the same food was very good. Also, I'm trying to write travel articles. On the plus side, there are far more eligile men back home!
  • 9th August 2013, 14:37:42 Jessica posted:
    or even eligible... That's actually hard to write. Let's go for....attractive and interested in me, for a change! The last few years overseas have been a bit quiet in that department.
  • 4th November 2013, 00:11:58 Doro posted:
    I thought it was just me! Phew! I guess we have to find a way through this. Any tips?
  • 17th April 2014, 05:48:24 Rachel posted:
    What the hell Jen? Reverse culture shock is a very very real thing, just because you haven't experienced it yourself doesn't mean it doesn't exist. I've lived in a small town in Canada my whole life and spent a year in France and when I came back it was not home it was just terrifying. I didn't realize how much I had changed to fit the French culture until I was scared and alone in the Canadian culture. Very very strange feeling and it really is hard.
  • 12th May 2014, 18:34:07 Jorge posted:
    Very good article, I didn't even know it was normal to feel this way. Few years ago I came back from the US to Mexico without realizing how changed I had returned. However, my family did and they were so pissed off about it, that i had to isolate myself and stop sharing experiences with them. At the end I had to move out from my parents home to a shared apartment. Living together became impossible because of these changes. It's great to know now what really happened at home and to read that many people have gone through similar stuff.
  • 19th May 2014, 18:46:09 Yvonne posted:
    [Note from the moderator: You may wish to join our community for local opinions: http://community.expatica.com or try our Ask the Expert service: http://expatica.com/ask_the_expert] I'm moving back to Europe after 8 years in Japan and I'm pretty scared. I have no doubt it's going to be hard to readjust after such a long time. It would be great to know how long the reverse culture shock lasts (on average).
  • 9th July 2014, 14:27:39 Brian posted:
    I've been home, well I say home but its more like back, for 2 years now and I've had the lost feeling ever since I came back. Didnt think it was anything bar life had moved on without me being here but so much of what I've felt and experienced is mentioned in this article.

    Thanks, help a lot to know I'm not the only person that feels this sort of detachment from what is meant to be my home surroundings,
  • 9th July 2014, 14:31:52 carrico posted:
    This article forgot just one bit of advice: Plan your next trip abroad.
  • 10th July 2014, 08:44:47 MossMan posted:
    For me the biggest point seems to be missing from the article...

    The fact that you now see how small-minded "your" people actually are!

    You notice all the casual racism... the mistrust of foreign opinion, food, workers... that every country thinks it's the best in the world (this goes for every country I've lived in to some extent), the myopic views on immigration (also ignoring their own emigration)...

    I very quickly realised I was anti-nationalism after leaving home and feel more of a global citizen than belonging to any one country. In each country you encounter all the little bits of bigotry - even down to harmless, but boringly repetitive, jokes based on clichés and stereotypes of the culture where you're from or where you've come back from. But it irks a bit more when it comes from your own people.

    So it doesn't feel like your home country - you feel "better" than these people since you've experienced more, but you don't want to come over as a snob. I'm certainly glad I have moved around and think it's definitely something that would benefit everybody (except the hardcore group who remain isolated in colonial ghettoes or turn against all the foreignness when abroad).

    Living abroad changes you and your perception of home... but it's a good thing.
  • 10th July 2014, 12:42:29 carrico posted:
    mossman: einverstanden. Don't worry, be happy.
  • 13th July 2014, 13:15:56 Anne Harper posted:
    A lot depends on the reasons why you left your mother country. I love England but not what it has become.I need peace and calm and have found it here in Brittany. I guess my age has a lot to do with it! When we return to the UK to visit family everything is 'familiar' but not desirable at our time of life. The litter everywhere, the noise of city life are examples of what we DON'T miss. I wish my family could come here but they would probably be bored and would not be able to work.
    France has its problems of course but the commune system works very well where we live and we have been embraced warmly--it helps that we are fluent French speakers. Just my thoughts.
  • 31st August 2014, 19:19:37 Harsh Rodrigo posted:
    Having returned to my home country, Sri Lanka, after 4 years and 2 months in the UK I'm experiencing a chronic case of reverse culture shock. The saddest part is it is only 7 months down the line I opened up to friend via fb who immediately diagnosed the situation and introduced me to this common phenomena of withdrawal and exclusion us returners often feel. Until I actively searched for it no one ever told me of reverse culture shock which was completely alien to me. No one in my immediately support circle, i.e. parents, relatives, friends acknowledge it even now. Having studied Human Rights, Political Studies and Multi-Culturalism, particularly focusing on second generation immigrants, I cannot believe how oblivious I was to this issue until it really affected me. 10 months down the line things haven't got even the slightest better and I feel my personality, mentality and attitude all changing for the worse. I do not feel any sense of inclusion with my society, nation or the culture, whilst my main focus remains to leave home and move abroad in the earliest. Now I'm determined to continue my PHD using this scenario as the key case study and touch on implementing effective support systems, better adapted immigration policies and challenge tradition concept of nationalism.
  • 26th September 2014, 12:36:25 Sarah posted:
    Rachel, I don't think Jen is going to read your comment or even see it after 3 years :)
 

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