Reverse Culture Shock

While the phenomenon of culture shock is increasingly well known (and relatively well prepared for in the foreign affairs community), reverse culture shock is not as recognized and understood. This is due in part to the fact that people are returning home. So why should “returning home” result in culture shock?

It may be helpful to think of Reverse Culture Shock in terms of the culture shock one experiences when moving overseas. Many of the same events and circumstances that create stress when adapting to a foreign culture also create stress in the return trip.

As with culture shock, many aspects of reverse culture shock are subjective, therefore each person will have a unique experience in re-adapting to his or her home culture. Research does, however, indicate some common patterns existing among most sojourners’ reentry experiences. While reading about these common patterns, remember to keep an open mind about reverse culture shock and the various ways it may affect you and your individual family members.

Culture shock: A refresher Course

We are familiar with things where we live. We know the streets and which sides of them to drive on. We know what type of food we like to eat.  We also generally follow routines. Many of our daily actions are done without even thinking about them. We know the people we live and work with. We know the patterns of how we communicate with others. We know the cracks in the ceiling and the creaks in the floor. We may not pay conscious attention to all of these little details, but we are accustomed to them.

These customs, routines and communications are cues that we depend on to direct our behavior. Over time, these cues have become second nature and predictable to us. In a sense, our culture actually helps define who we are.

As we immerse ourselves into a new culture, we become familiar with new practices. We learn the smells, the sounds, and the feel of our new location. We learn to interact with new people. All of this is incorporated into our new identity. Eventually, we become accustomed to our new way of life, not realizing that these little changes or customs define what we now find familiar. New routines become our norm. We create new identities through these routines and practices, immersing ourselves into the customs of our new “host” country.

Our concept of “home” is built on these ideas of familiarity, routine, communication and identity. Home is more than the physical place in which we live. Home is associated with all of the people, actions, feelings, emotions and cues that make us feel “at home.”

The Culture Shock U-Curve

Some scholars have noted that culture shock follows a U-curve pattern. Upon arrival in a foreign country, people tend to experience a “honeymoon” period where the new culture is exciting, fresh and fun. Soon after however, as differences surface and mount, sojourners fall into the pit of culture shock. Gradually, as one adapts to the new culture and accepts differences, they regain their emotional and psychological stability.

For some, this experience is over in a matter of weeks; for others it may take months. Nonetheless, researchers maintain that if you have spent a significant amount of time in a foreign country, chances are that you have experienced some of the stresses common to culture shock.

Reverse Culture Shock

As with cross-cultural adaptation stress, change of routine and a lack of familiarity contribute significantly to reverse culture shock. As you’ve settled into your foreign location (sometimes staying outside the United States for as many as three tours / 8 or 9 years), you’ve spent less time in your home culture. Upon return, not only is home different from what you are now used to, but it may be different from what it was when you left, and different from what you expect it to be like.

Key Variables That Affect Re-Entry Stress include:

  1. Voluntary versus involuntary reentry: involuntary is worse
  2. Expected versus unexpected reentry: unexpected is harder
  3. Age: reentry may be easier for older people who have been through more life transitions.
  4. Previous reentry experience: the first time is worse.
  5. Length of the overseas stay: the longer the sojourn, the greater the chance for adaptation; hence the harder it may be to leave and come home.
  6. Degree of interaction with the overseas culture: the more involved you become in the local culture the harder it may be to leave it behind.
  7. The reentry environment: the more familiar and supportive the easier the reentry.
  8. Amount of interaction with the home culture during the overseas sojourn: the more familiar the returnee is with changes in the home culture the easier the reentry.
  9. Degree of difference between the overseas and the home culture: the greater the difference, the harder the reentry.

Change and Adaptation

In contemplating your return, consider these three main points:

  • Home has changed.
  • You have changed.
  • You have adapted to another culture and now you must readapt.

Home Has Changed

Often repatriates expect their home to be just the same as it was when they left. While you were outside the country, events and new developments, however, have changed the fabric of your old community.  These natural changes can be shocking and disorienting upon return.  You may be surprised by how much your hometown has grown (or shrunk). They’re building a new strip mall here and tearing down your old elementary school there. It may seem both crowded and empty at the same time. There may be new members of your extended family – babies born to siblings – whom you have never met. Your relationships with people may have changed too, and your friends lives may have evolved. Friends may have changed their social group.  Relationships that were once strong may no longer be the same. Additionally, you may not be going home to the same hometown location. Wherever you come home to, expect to see and feel changes.

You Have Changed

From our review of culture shock, we know that “home” is much more than just the “house” you live in. Home involves feelings, relationships, routines, and predictable patterns of interaction. Home is also significantly related to a person’s identity – home is where you are most yourself.  As you evolve as an individual abroad and adopt the culture practices of your foreign post, your perception of home changes.  Living overseas can be a life-changing experience and may affect your attitudes, feelings and relationships with the home you left many years ago.

You Have Adapted to a New Culture, and Now You Have to Re-Adapt

In a way, any place that you adapt to becomes “home.” Being a member of the foreign affairs community adds significance to the phrase “Home Is Where the Heart Is.” As you adjusted to your host country, you brought home with you. As Americans, most of us share a common language, celebrate holidays like Thanksgiving, and know our National Anthem.  And these things most likely don’t change. As you assimmilated  into a new culture, you might have incorporated new traditions — those learned overseas — into your daily life. You became familiar with the routines and customs of your new culture, you immersed yourself in this culture, and in doing so, “back home” became more distant.

As you return home, you will have to relearn routines and patterns that you have forgotten. The more comfortable you were abroad in your foreign home, the harder the transition back.  Your family might have expectations — frequent visits to your parents or in-laws or help in caring for a family member.  Your friends might expect you to join in their already established book club or community service project.  Your commute to work might be more time consuming.  You may need to spend more time in the car for shopping, picking up kids at school or playdates, or running errands.  These are not necessarily bad things; you simply have to adjust to a new routine.

Challenges of Reverse Culture Shock

In addition to the change and adaptation issues, there are several challenges that sojourners face on reentry:

  • General Challenges
  • American-Culture Challenges
  • Myths/Misconceptions About America
  • Changes in Attitudes/Values

General Challenges

  • People at home aren’t as interested in hearing about your foreign experience as you are in telling them about it .
  • You aren’t as interested in hearing about what has happened at home as they are in telling you about it.
  • You miss being abroad.
  • You miss the celebrity status of being an “American” overseas — at home, you don’t stand out as much.
  • You miss the “royal” treatment, lifestyle and social status you may have enjoyed abroad.
  • You miss the tight-knit foreign affairs community you were a part of.

Challenges of American Culture

Many repatriates also observe a few characteristics of mainstream American culture:

  • Materialism/Abundance/Waste – Compared to many citizens of the world, Americans have expendable income. While this statement might not be true for al Americans, the majority tend to spend money on items that appear “material” to other cultures.  Coming into this American environment from a culture that is less affluent may be a shock.  Enter any well-stocked U.S. supermarket and the hundreds of food choices can boggle the mind if you have just arrived from a country with limited supplies and/or selection of goods.
  • High-speed pace of life – America (for the most part) is a fast-paced place. People seem to always be in a hurry. While this “fast-paced existence” may be true in many cities around the world, if you come home from a “laid-back” culture to the land of fast food, 24/7 connectivity, and non-stop activities, it takes some time to get used to.
  • Values/Attitudes – The values and attitudes of some of your family and friends may surprise you, especially if you have adopted new ways of thinking about the world from your experience living abroad.

Myths & Misconceptions About the United States

Many people have misconceptions concerning life in the United States. Some of these myths include:

  • Everything works better back home.
  • People are more efficient.
  • Everything is clean.
  • Things are basically the same as when I left.
  • Personal relationships can be resumed easily.
  • I can cope easily in my own culture.

New Attitudes & Values of Sojourners

Americans often develop new attitudes, values and perceptions as a result of their travels. These can often cause stress on reentry.

  • I see America through a sharper lens, both its strengths and weaknesses. I no longer take this country for granted and I really resent unbalanced criticism by Americans who haven’t experienced the rest of the world.
  • I see the validity of at least one other culture. That makes me realize that the American way is not always “right” or “best.” I am impatient with people who criticize other countries and blindly accept everything American causing them to never question anything.
  • I have an unclear concept of home now.
  • I place more value on relationships than other Americans seem to. People here are too busy for one another.
  • Everyone in America is always so stressed and frantic. They never relax. I feel like I can’t relate to others.

Effects of Reverse Culture Shock

How do all of the stresses of reverse culture shock manifest themselves in the repatriate? Often the same way they do in initial culture shock. Aside from the obvious frustrations, returnees may experience a number of mental/emotional side-effects, such as criticality, marginality, overexertion/exhaustion, and resistance/withdrawal/self-doubt/depression.

  • Criticality – At the depths of reverse culture shock, you may notice yourself making a lot of critical judgments about home. Your renewed unfamiliarity with the home culture and your unfamiliarity with the routines can lead to unpleasant and frustrating experiences. Furthermore, this frustration can be displaced, often onto others. It becomes easy to be impatient with others and hard to be objective — even when the problems are actually insignificant. You may remember all of the wonderful things about your foreign post, and compare them against the least pleasant aspects of being home. Understand that it is normal to critically assess and compare your experience abroad with your experience at home.
  • Marginality – Your overseas experience has significantly impacted your identity. As you immersed yourself in a new culture, you broadened your perspective and opened your mind to new ideas. Once you return home, you realize that tensions exist between your new identity and mainstream society. You no longer feel like you fit in.  Many families and individuals in the foreign affairs community make a life for themselves when “back home,” are able to function in and adapt to multiple settings, but do not feel completely comfortable.
  • Overexertion/Exhaustion – Because many of the routines, patterns and customs of U.S. culture are new to you, you must consciously pay attention to performing basic functions. Add to that the stress of the logistical tasks of your return, and you may begin to feel overwhelmed by this experience. Exhaustion is a commonly reported effect of reverse culture shock.
  • Resistance/Withdrawal/Self-Doubt/Depression – As you become discontented with your home culture, a common reaction is to resist adapting to it. Many returnees withdraw or escape, dwelling on fantastical thoughts of the foreign culture and avoiding contact with people from the home culture. With all of the frustrations and disillusionment of “home,” it can be easy to question and doubt yourself. Not surprisingly, then, reverse culture shock is often accompanied by a dose of depression.

The Reverse Culture Shock W-Curve

Upon arrival in the “home” culture, the returnee experiences a “honeymoon” period where all that is grand about home seems to shine through. Visits with old friends and family are refreshing, and you may notice some exciting changes. The honeymoon period doesn’t last long, though, as cultural differences and the stresses of reentry continue to mount. For people not expecting reentry stress, the challenges can be even more severe, plunging repatriates into the pit of reverse culture shock. As returnees cope with the cultural differences of their home culture and manage the logistical tasks, they climb up the slope of re-adaptation and again regain their psychological stability. As with initial culture shock, the duration of this phenomenon varies from person to person, but the phenomenon itself is prevalent among returning members of the foreign affairs community.

Special Considerations: Spouses and Kids

Through their extraordinary experiences together, the expatriate family can learn to depend upon each other and work together as a team. In the experience of reentry, family members can help each other to deal with the various challenges each will face. Anyone who adapts to a foreign culture and then re-adapts to his or her own culture is liable to experience culture shock and reverse culture shock.  And each person’s experience will be unique. Special consideration should be paid to the reentry issues faced by spouses and children of employees working abroad.

  • Spouses/Partners
  • Young Children
  • Teens

Spouses/Partners

The psychological/cultural aspect of reentry for spouses/partners is essentially the same as that of the employees themselves.  However, the main consideration is simply to EXPECT MORE. Depending on the situation, spouses/partners who work in the home or in the local community should expect more reentry stress than their counterparts.  Those who generally spend more time interacting with the local culture open themselves up for a more difficult transition home. Additionally, as previously discussed, the member of the family largely responsible for managing more of the practical aspect of the family’s reentry will likely incur a greater amount of stress.

Other members of the family should recognize the additional stresses of these family members, and should be understanding, supportive and helpful.

Young Children

Expatriate parents may or may not be familiar with both the benefits and downsides of raising a family abroad. While the frequent transitions are not always easy, overall the experience can result in a positive upbringing. Children raised in these environments are “third culture kids” who eventually see themselves as global citizens. Moving from place to place is obviously difficult for all children, but less difficult for young children than for teenage children. School-aged children may also face different challenges than pre-school-aged children.

The challenges young children face are similar to the challenges adults face – just tailored to their situation. Familiarity and routine are important during a move with big changes.  For little children, moving to a new house in a new town, being without some of their favorite toys during the transition, and leaving behind people that they may have become close to (such as a nanny) can be especially hard to handle. School-aged children face similar trials, but with additional school-related challenges, such as saying goodbye to friends, and learning to “fit in” at a new school and in a new neighborhood. Regressive behavior and illness may reflect children’s stress.

Teenagers

Teens may have the most difficult time of any in the experience of reentry. For anyone, “fitting in” is a psychologically and emotionally challenging task, and at a time where the feeling of belonging is crucial, having to tear away and begin again can be a daunting prospect.  Being accepted by others for teens also involves several different aspects, including contemporary fashion, communication (teen-talk), popular music and culture, and peer groups or cliques. These aspects can greatly range from culture to culture. Fitting in is also challenging for the repatriating teen because his or her life-context seems so much broader than the stateside counterpart; they may have a difficult time finding others worth fitting in with, and their stateside peers may actually feel intimidated by them because of their foreign experience. It is important to remember that while parents may feel like they are returning to their home, often times children do not have the same ties to their parent’s country.

The effects of reverse culture shock for teens are similar to that of adults, just on a larger scale. Criticality, marginality, exhaustion, resistance, withdrawal, self-doubt and depression – added to the other normal stresses of teenage life – create a difficult situation for teenagers.

 

Source: U.S. Department of State: 2009-2017.state.gov

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