Most people are prepared to experience some effects of "culture shock" when they embark on an assignment abroad. However, not many are prepared to experience similar effects when they return to their home country. What is a "reverse culture shock"? Does it really exist, what are the signs, do we need to prepare for it and how?
Over the years, as a professional coach for people on the move, I've learned a lot about expatriates; people on international assignments that everyone in the office looks at with a certain dose of envy as their life is just taking off in some more or less exciting country. For those who stay behind, an international assignment is associated with travel, visiting new, sometimes exotic places, meeting interesting people, earning comfortable income, allowances, and all other benefits that those who stay at home don't get.
Whether an expatriate or an independent migrant, after a number of years in a host country, we slowly slip into memories of friends and family who move on with their own lives, adjusting the best they can. When it comes to our work colleagues and professional networks, we pretty much fall off their radar.
I relocated to Australia in 1988 as an independent migrant. The question of repatriation never crossed my mind. Until 12 years later, when I came to Croatia (home country) on an extended holiday. From such a big time distance, walking the streets of once familiar country and seeing friends I haven't seen for a long time, it suddenly hit me What would it be like if I ever decided to come back? How would it be for me entering the once familiar workforce, social scene, and other aspects of life? Would it be possible to take off where I left it, or would it mean another new start?
With a difference of job prospect, repatriation as a possibility is somewhat similar for those sent by a company on an international assignment, and those who embarked of their own choice. Sooner or later the same questions will pop up in their minds: Would I be able to return? What am I returning to? Would there be a job for me? Would I be able to utilise my new skills? How will people react? What social networks are still there?
Through my work I get a lot of opportunities to talk to the newcomers. Interestingly, for most of them return and repatriation are not high on the agenda. Consequently, not many are aware of the phenomena called reverse-culture-shock, and its effects.
What is Reverse Culture Shock?
During our life abroad two major changes occur:
- We change as a result of living in another country;
- Life and people at home change and move on.
The problem is enlarged because of our tendency to idealise our view of home and expectation that things are the same as when we left them. Somehow life as we left it gets frozen in our memory, turning our home into a foreign place when we re-enter it, and we say in dismay What happened here? I don't recognise this place and people any more?
Comments I also hear from many repatriates are Nobody seemed to care about my life abroad. I had so much stories to tell, yet no one showed any interest, or had time to hear about them. Maybe they were jealous?
Just as Culture Shock comes in stages, so does Reverse Culture Shock.
Confusion -- it starts while still in a host location, and is manifested by feelings of sadness for leaving, as well as euphoria for returning. We start slowly detaching from life and people we got to know over the years, feeling sad for leaving the new friendships and places that over the time became familiar. Sometimes these friendships can be quite strong and intense, as they meant so much to us in an environment where not much was familiar. Knowing that we may never see these people again could also evoke feelings of grief.
The excitement for returning home is similar to the "honey moon" phase of culture shock. We start feeling happiness in anticipation of seeing our family and friends. Sometimes we might feel excitement for a returned opportunity to make certain things right, if we left unfinished business behind.
Disorientation -- as with any transition, there is a period when you don't quite have a clear sense of who you are and what to do. This phase starts shortly after arrival. We don't quite feel anchored in our "new" old environment. Trying to feel our way around people and things, day-to-day living, what still works in an old way and what doesn't work any more. Realisation that our overseas experience changed not only how we do things, but more importantly our perceptions and assumptions, and a sense of "self".
Seeing our family and friends will evoke strong feelings of excitement. However, their excitement may not be as intense and as long lasting as ours. Contrary to our expectations, most people may start showing signs of disinterest in listening to our stories and experiences. They are ready to move on to some other topics, while we still want to share our host-country adventures.
(Re)-adjustment -- this phase is gradual, and it would be wrong to put a time limit on it. For some people it may be short, and their home may not feel as "foreign", and for some the initial highs might be followed by some lows, even depression.
It is not uncommon to feel disappointment, alienation, frustration, maybe even anger. These emotions will manifest themselves in how we go about our daily life and relationships, and we might find ourself criticising once familiar grounds. Feeling unusually tired, stressed, irritated, and even withdrawal from social gatherings are some signs to look out for and take care of.
It is not uncommon that people start thinking of returning to the host location, and some do return. I certainly have come across a number of people who said "I can't live here any more. It's almost as if the country I lived for 5-7 years is more familiar than the one I was born and grew up in."
However, for most, every day things start to seem more normal, and they re-establish their "new" old routines, as a result of new attitudes, beliefs, habits and values.
One thing is for sure -- we are not the same person and our home is not what it used to be when we left.
How to prepare for returning home?
The most important thing is to understand and be prepared that returning home will not be a smooth transition into the life we once had.
Certainly, (re)-adjustment will be different from person to person, and it is likely that those who adjusted well to living abroad experience stronger reverse culture shock than those who haven't adjusted so well.
It would be good to think about returning home as a possibility even at the start of our going abroad. For expatriates it is a very real possibility, and for those permanent ones returning does enter consciousness at various points in life, and if we give it some thought at the beginning, we build a foundation for later re-visiting these thoughts with more awareness.
Setting realistic expectations is a good start. As we were advised to set realistic expectations when moving abroad, it is ever so important to set realistic expectations returning home. People and things will be different, and we won't know how until we experience them.
Reminding ourselves of those intercultural competencies that we relied on when moving abroad will help:
- Mindfulness of your own thoughts and behaviours
- Acceptance of change
- Curiosity in learning what and how things changed
- Open mind (don't judge and criticise)
- Goal setting to keep focused on the growth path
- Planning ahead what to do, whom to meet, where to go
- Care of self and others
Our international experience has changed us in more ways than one, professionally and personally. We have become somewhat different person. The new attitudes, beliefs and habits that have developed will shape our perceptions and how we see things and people. Integrating the positive aspects of our international experience with those of our life at home will enable us to retain the good things and continue our growth, this time on the home soil.
Principal of her own advisory Challenging Directions, Dina Zavrski-Makaric is an executive coach, mentor and consultant, in the areas of global leadership and intercultural transitions. She works with people from many countries including Australia, the UK, the US, Europe and Asia, helping people transform challenges into opportunities, bridge cultural gaps and maximise outcomes. Committed to the global community of people on the move Dina is a host of monthly events for newcomers in Sydney.