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Reverse Culture Shock: A phenomenon and a side effect of globalization

Working on an assignment in another country is usually difficult psychologically due to the cultural shock people most people experience when moving abroad. It can take time for certain individuals and their families to adjust to their new host country; for some, adapting to a new environment can take only a few months, but for others, it’s not easy even in 5 years. Most people’s perspective of the world changes in some way or another to make it easier to settle and live in unfamiliar surroundings when overseas. And it seems like when they are back to their home counties it will all return to ‘normal’ and their life will be the same again. But it doesn’t always happen that way.

A vast majority of people who came back home from a long-term assignment admit that it isn’t easy to readjust to their culture of origin, a strange feeling to experience considering they are technically home. This is what psychologists call a ‘Reverse Culture Shock’.

 

What is Reverse Culture Shock?

 

It’s a term to describe the emotional and psychological difficulty experienced by some people when returning to their home country after a long time spent overseas.

Talking from a business perspective, globalization has resulted in many multinational companies expanding their global footprint, requiring employees to be relocated across the globe on lengthy work assignments. As the number of expatriates within the global workforce grows substantially, HR business leaders are seeing a rapidly increasing trend of Reverse Culture Shock within their organizations.

 

The magnitude of Reverse Culture Shock

 

Several key factors can influence the degree of Reverse Culture Shock for repatriating employees and their families. The two primary influencers are:

 

  1. Time spent overseas
  2. The degree of difference in cultures between host and home countries

 

In context, if Person A from the UK goes on a short-term work assignment to Paris, France for three months, their Reverse Culture Shock will be significantly less than Person B, who is from Ukraine and spent two years in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Let’s consider the fact that long-term ex-pats often don’t realize just how much the time in their host country has changed their perspective on standards of living and/or quality of life, or even day to day behaviors until they physically return to their home country.

One may have a decrease in quality of accommodation; for example, the same money could get you a luxury modern apartment with amazing views and a great location in Hanoi, but merely a studio apartment on the outskirts in London or Paris. Simultaneously, budget accommodation in Brussels may feel like a mansion after budget accommodation in Jakarta. Alternatively, the friendliness, behavior, and positive attitude of Asian shop owners, restaurant managers, and colleagues can be radically opposite to the same experience with French or English nationals. A good example of differences in behavior is the returnees who find themselves trying to negotiate prices in a market in Germany after living in Morocco. Other recently repatriated employees may not notice the noise and pollution of an American city after living in Mumbai.

While it can take some time to adapt to new cultures, readjusting back to your ‘home’ culture can be even tougher.

 

What are the symptoms?

 

Confusing emotions upon returning home might be experienced, such as feeling distant from your friends and family. Although you probably kept in touch with them while being abroad, they may not fully appreciate, understand, or be willing to hear about your super interesting (from your perspective) life abroad. Their disinterest may contribute to a sense of disconnection or even isolation.

According to University Studies Abroad Consortium, these feelings can appear in different ways:

– Change in values and priorities

– Different attitudes

– Frustration

– Boredom

– Feelings of isolation or depression

– Restlessness

– Reverse Homesickness (when you miss people or things from abroad)

– Negativity towards your native culture

 

There are several other, more complicated side effects, that simply can’t be described in one word. Imagine an American on a long-term work assignment in Indonesia. Due to the language barrier in this country, he was forced to speak very simple English throughout his time there, such as elementary level sentence structures and very basic vocabulary to make sure people around can understand. When coming back to his usual setting in the US he will communicate in a more simplified manner than when he left, which could lead to the presumption that he lacks knowledge of the more complex and technical language.

 

This is a very interesting symptom of Reverse Culture Shock, but it’s a short-term one, that can be ‘cured’ with several robust and intellectual conversations and some avid reading.

 

Another important and less remediable change that you might feel upon returning from a long term absence is social disconnection. You used to have lots of friends before and it seems like they are still there, but, wait: one has just got married, another one bought a house and has two children, another is dedicated to a new religion, etc. It may seem the changes back home sound interesting but then you realize that things are not the same as it was before. Some friends might not agree with your traveling lifestyle or even make you feel guilty for being away for their special events. This all adds up to the feeling of isolation and depression.

 

Real example

 

Clearmove’s VP of Business Development, John Miller, lived away from the UK for 28 years, mainly in the Asia-Pacific region. He describes his return to the ‘Mother Country’ in 2015 and his personal experience of Reverse Culture Shock.

 

“I returned to a very different country to the one I left in1989. Whilst my life overseas was in constant evolution, time seemed to have stood still in the small Kent village I called home. Trying to relate my overseas experiences to family and friends often resulted in a glazed-over expression from listeners who could not comprehend my living in Hong Kong and Shanghai nor my travels around the world. At the same time, I felt a distinct unwillingness to listen to local news, gossip or events which seemed trivial and repetitive compared to life in the Far East.”– John Miller

 

John admits that he has sharpened awareness of his own and Britain’s place in the world coupled with a heightened sensitivity to often ignorant and sometimes even racist behavior from a small section of British society with limited experience and knowledge of the world in general. Not unusual for a repatriate but definitely uncomfortable.

On a more positive side, returning from overseas does come with greater awareness and respect for other cultures, he says:

I see the values of many cultures whether they be Indian, American, Chinese, or Arabic. That makes me realize that ‘our’ way is not always “right” or “best.”

 

How to lessen the effects of Reverse Culture Shock

 

This topic is complex and lengthy, so to assist us to better inform you we contacted a professional psychologist Gabriela Encina, who specializes in working with expatriates and repatriates (those abroad and those coming home respectively). She recommends the following:

 

–  Integrate what you’ve learned abroad

Try to combine habits, meals, traditions you acquire during your time abroad into your daily routine. It will allow you to mold your identity by mixing the new and the already known.

 

–  Accept changes, both yours and from others

It is crucial that you incorporate the idea that everyone has evolved.  Regardless of the amount of time you were abroad, the sooner you accept (not that you like it or celebrate it, but that you accept) that changes have occurred, the more comfortable and less painful your adaptation will be.

 

  Concentrate on the present, on your here and now

Especially in the most challenging moments, you will feel tempted to return with your thoughts to that beautiful time being an ex-pat. Bear in mind two things:

 

  1. Memories are partial and subjective, and we tend to forget the bad things.
  2. Your life, your reality, your being, are in the present. That is what matters most and what you have to pay attention to feel good and strong for the challenges that lie ahead.

 

–  Be confident that it is a momentary state, it will pass

Think of all the times you had to overcome obstacles, and you have succeeded. Trust yourself, give your mind and body time to adjust, and be patient. You will be fine!

 

–  Talk to people who have been through something similar

In social media, more and more people share their experiences of repatriation.  Contact them, follow their blogs, and even ask them explicitly for their opinions, advice, tips.

 

–  Contact a professional

You don’t have to go through this alone. There are increasingly more mental health professionals who are specialized in dealing with expatriation and repatriation and other transitional related issues.

Contacting a professional is a good way to get the support you need and to understand you’re not the only one.


Reverse Culture Shock is a challenge that affects everyone differently and is treated over time as one readjusts. Considering help is a great way to lessen the effects, but also if returning home from abroad, perhaps apply your knowledge of the wider world and your more critical view of your homeland as a tool to improve it for everyone. While assignees readjust to their home country, Clearmove can help take care of everything else.

 

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