Dealing with reverse culture shock
Returning home after having worked and lived abroad for a few months or years can be more challenging, than you’d expect. During your time abroad you’ve changed and your old home has changed, and now the ‘new you’ needs to adjust to your ‘new’ old home. This is basically what reverse culture shock means: readjusting to life in your home country while both you and life at home changed. The biggest challenge of reverse culture shock is the fact that you’ve changed only a little bit, but enough to feel irritable, frustrated, and misunderstood over relatively small changes back home.
Other common feelings associated with reverse culture shock are happiness and excitement, confusion, disorientation, disappointment, anger, and isolation/loneliness.
On this page we discuss how to deal with reverse culture shock and why returning home can be so difficult for expats.
Do you recognize reverse culture shock symptoms and would you like to learn how to deal with them? At Barends Psychology Practice counseling for expats is offered. Schedule a first, free of charge, appointment straight away: contact us. (Depending on your health insurance, treatment may be reimbursed).
In April 2016, a Telegraph.co.uk interview with Niels Barends, counselor at Barends Psychology Practice, was published about the impact culture shock can have on expats. Click here to read the whole interview.
Why can returning home be so challenging for expats?
Returning home can be very challenging, because there are so many variables that can affect your return. Some of these variables are directly related to you, such as the way you deal with (sudden) changes, whereas others have little to do with you, such as the contrast between your home country and the foreign country you’ve lived in. This means that it’s very difficult to predict how a reentry will be like for someone. However, it’s good to be as prepared as possible, so here are a few common variables that can affect your return:
- The amount of time spend away from home: the more time you’ve spend abroad the bigger the chance that you’ve gotten used to the foreign culture and adopted some of it yourself. The more ideas, norms and values you’ve adopted during your time abroad, the more difficult it will be to get used to the ideas, norms, and values of your home.
- The number of times you’ve lived abroad and returned home again: the first time you reenter your home country is the most difficult one, because it’s the first time you lived abroad and the first time you go home again. Most expats don’t realize that they’ve changed themselves and that relationships back home have changed too. They don’t know what to expect, if they expect any difficulty at all. With each reentry it becomes easier to adjust, because you know what to expect.
- Whether or not you return home voluntary and/or expected: this has everything to do with being mentally prepared to returning home. Expats who don’t want to leave the foreign country may experience more difficulty readjusting, because they miss their guest country/culture, and because they don’t want to accept a return.
- The contrast between your native country and the country you lived in as an expat: when the foreign country you’ve lived in and your home country are completely different in regard to culture and norms and values, reentering your home country may be more difficult. Common problems expats face when reentering are differences in lifestyle (stressed vs. relaxed), culture (for instance Asian vs. Western or American vs. Brazilian), standard of living (usually expats earn more money compared to their salary back home), but also changes in environment (rural vs. urban or tropical savanna vs. humid continental). Getting used to such changes can take a long time, especially if you lived abroad for a long time.
- The amount of interaction you’ve had with your friends and relatives while you were living abroad: expats who have been in touch with their friends and relatives back home, may find it easier to get used to life back home, because they are aware of the changes, the political situation, and because their relationships with others are well maintained.
- The amount of interaction with locals abroad: expats who have been in touch with a lot of locals during their time abroad, may have adapted more to the foreign culture compared to expats who only spend time with other expats. Returning home may be more difficult for expats who spend more time with locals, because there is a higher chance that they experience more distance between themselves and their native culture.
- Whether or not you are someone who easily adjusts to different circumstances: people who have difficulty dealing with changes, may find it more difficult to readjust to life back home, compared to those who have no difficulty with changes. For them changes are more likely accompanied with anxiety and insecurity, which makes accepting changes more difficult.
- Major life changing events: It may happen that the private situation of an expat changes while living abroad. Perhaps a marriage or divorce took place, perhaps the expat became a father or mother. Also other changes, such as losing their job or getting a promotion, may affect a return dramatically. Experiencing major life changing events can be accompanied by stress, depression and anxiety. These can negatively affect a return home.
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In sum: whether or not returning home is challenging depends on many variables, such as the amount of time spend abroad, whether or not someone returns home voluntarily/expected, and how well someone deals with changes. Even though it’s difficult for most expats to prepare for these variables, there is a lot you can do to prepare yourself to reduce the impact of reverse culture shock.
How can expats change during their time abroad?
During their time abroad expatriates (expats) experience a lot of different things, from cultural to bureaucratic changes and from different norms and values to a different lifestyle and food. Most expats learned to deal with these changes as they went through the five stages of culture shock. During their time abroad they’ve learned to adapt to new habits, norms and values, and they gained new perspectives on life and the way people live and think back home.
By distancing yourself from your culture and by being surrounded by a new culture you may start to reevaluate your own culture. You may replace some of your old habits, norms and values by new ones that better suit you. Think of having your main meal during lunchtime instead of during dinner. When you return home you may not want to change this new habit, which can be problematic when you’re having dinner or lunch with friends.
Other examples may involve your changed view on politics, economic problems or certain cultural events back home. Such changed views on sensitive topics may not be well received by family members or friends.
A more drastic change in your personal life could also have its effect on reentry. Examples are: becoming a parent while you were abroad, getting married or divorced. Such changes may have consequences for your relationship with your relatives and friends back home, such as when you become a parent, or when you lose friends because you got divorced.
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Reverse culture shock is problematic, because back home the people around you aren’t familiar with all your new insights, habits, norms and values. They may come across odd and you may receive some criticism. As a result you may feel misunderstood, lonely, isolated, and frustrated. This makes it more difficult to deal with reverse culture shock.
How can the expat’s home country change during their time abroad?
The longer an expat is away from home, the more things could happen in the meantime. Some changes may not affect dealing with reverse culture shock much, whereas others may significantly affect the home coming process. Examples of changes are elections, new laws or policies, natural disasters or an economic crisis. They can make it easier or more difficult for you to settle after your time abroad.
However, changes among relatives and friends may have a bigger impact on the way you deal with reverse culture shock. It’s possible that most of your friends became parents during your time abroad, whereas you’re still a bachelor. Suddenly, your friends’s lives drastically changed. Other possible changes may involve death, marriage, accidents or fights.
All of these changes may require you to deal with them while you’re also trying to deal with reverse culture shock. This can slow down your readjustment process or can make you long for a new adventure abroad again.
How can expats prepare themselves for reentry?
Leaving behind the expat life, expat friends, the foreign culture, and perhaps even the wonderful climate, can make expats sad. On the other hand, for many expats it’s also exciting to go home, to have familiar food and products in the stores, to see family and friends. Unfortunately, the excitement goes away after just a few weeks, whereas the sadness can last much longer. Especially for those expats who weren’t ready for a return home.
These listed tips may help you reduce most reverse culture shock symptoms:
- Visit all the places you want to see before departure. Make sure you plan them in advance to make sure you have enough time.
- Say goodbye to all of your friends. Organize a ‘goodbye’ party to make sure you see everyone before you leave.
- Exchange your new contact information with friends so they can reach you when you are home.
- Buy souvenirs of the foreign country to remind you when you are home again.
- Be aware of the fact that these are your last days. Many people aren’t aware of how special a simple moment can be. Take some time and be aware of your morning routine, the walk to the office, your weekend routine, and so on.
Reach out to (old) friends/relatives and family:
- Let your friends and family know you’re going back home soon.
- Schedule appointments with friends and family for a coffee or dinner in the first weeks after reentering.
- Buy your family and relatives a little souvenir. This prepares you mentally for your return as well.
- Try not to compare life abroad with life at home, because you’ll compare the worst things at home with the best things abroad. In general, comparisons won’t make you feel good about yourself.
- Your relationship with friends and family may have changed. Sometimes simply because you haven’t been in touch much, sometimes because of marriage, divorce or the birth of a child.
- You’ve changed yourself and so have your expectations and ideas. Try to lower your expectations and be very open minded about everything back home.
Find things to do:
- Find local sports clubs, professional organizations, religious and spiritual groups, and international and cultural groups.
- Try to meet up with native expats who experienced reverse culture shock themselves. They may be the only ones who understand what you’re going through, which things are very different back home.
- If you have children, make sure they can meet with their friends. Make sure to find a sports club for them and so on.
- People around you have different perspectives on life, culture, norms and values. They haven’t experienced the things you have, so don’t expect them to change. Instead, try to accept the fact that there are differences between you and other people. Try to accept that life abroad is different compared to life back home. You can fight those differences, but it’s a war you’ll never win. By accepting these differences it’s easier to put them aside and to focus on the positive things in life. Try to put things in perspective.