If you’ve ever moved to a new city, attended school away from home, or switched to a different company, you’ve probably encountered some degree of “culture shock”. In unfamiliar situations, it’s natural to feel disoriented as you work to familiarize yourself with a different set of norms and expectations.
However, there’s a less-discussed counter phenomenon to the typical culture shock experience, which affects people returning to their hometowns or established lifestyles after spending time in a drastically-different environment. Known as “reverse culture shock”, “re-entry shock”, or “own culture shock,” this script-flipping circumstance can feel just as jarring, and because it’s less common than culture shock, it’s harder to find advice for working through it.
That’s why we’re delivering a full breakdown of reverse culture shock - what it is, when it happens, and how to get through it.
History of culture shock and reverse culture shock
Culture shock and reverse culture shock aren’t new concepts by any means. Venturing to another area of the world or transitioning into a new professional sphere has always and will always come accompanied by growing pains. Culture shock is so ubiquitous that it’s become a common trope in modern films, appearing in everything from “Dances With Wolves” to “Lost In Translation” to “Outsourced.”
The experience of returning from overseas military service provides most early accounts of reverse culture shock; troops coming back from the World Wars in Europe reported difficulties re-adjusting to their “normal” lives at home, as did soldiers returning from Korea and Vietnam. The challenges of re-assimilation aren’t unique to the military; The US Department of State recently published a paper on reverse culture shock geared toward government employees working abroad, and industries ranging from tech to international law to media and entertainment regularly relocate employees overseas on a temporary basis, requiring those individuals to cope with reverse culture shock upon their returns to the United States.
When does reverse culture shock typically happen?
As we previously mentioned, reverse culture shock frequently occurs when people return from professional obligations overseas, whether they be military in nature, the result of corporate restructuring, or just a part of your job description (if your career necessitates regular travel and temporary relocations, as frequently happens in international law, business, media, and diplomacy).
To a lesser extent (due to comparatively-short tenures), reverse culture shock can coincide with a student’s return from a semester abroad or the end of a Peace Corps volunteer’s time overseas.
How long does it last?
As with any other form of recovery or reassimilation, a strict timeline can’t be imposed on anyone’s experience of reverse culture shock. However, American University compiled a guide for students studying abroad to inform them about reverse culture shock, and in this document, they explained the “4 stages” of this phenomenon:
Disengagement - Before leaving the country where you’re temporarily working/studying, you start to think about what it will be like to return, and you begin to contend with the negative parts of leaving your new country, like parting company with friends you’ve made. Some choose to handle this impending departure by mentally and emotionally separating from their last experiences in the new country, rushing their remaining time to “get it over with” as soon as possible.
Initial Euphoria - For many people, returning home after being away for a while inspires a joyful reaction. This happy phase can last for a while, but American University also notes that “[initial euphoria] often ends with the realization that people are not as interested in your experiences abroad as you had hoped.”
Irritability and Hostility- After you’ve been back home for a while, you may find yourself annoyed by behaviors and individuals who never troubled you before. This irritation can build as you become more and more aware of all you missed while you were away, and as you start to become nostalgic about aspects of your time overseas. The dissonance between your present existence at home, the events that transpired at home while you were gone, and the knowledge that things in your temporary home country are continuing without you may result in frustration with yourself and with others.
Readjustment and Adaptation- This last phase is usually the most gradual, and it culminates with your re-assimilation into the culture of your home city/community/company. Of course, the experiences you gathered abroad will always be with you and will influence you in innumerable ways going forward, but you’ll slowly adjust to the once-familiar rhythms of your home and may view them with a new fondness and appreciation after your time away.
How do you overcome reverse culture shock?
Everyone dealing with reverse culture shock must find his or her own way to deal with the effects- there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. However, a few helpful tips can ease your transition and give you a positive perspective on the time you spent away and help you figure out how to harness the lessons you learned and use them in your day-to-day life back home.
Don’t put pressure on yourself to re-acclimate in a strict time frame. Give yourself permission to take the time you need to adjust, and try to avoid an internal “defeat” narrative if it doesn’t happen as quickly as you might like.
Find people to talk to about your challenges with reverse culture shock. If you sense that your friends or family members are reluctant to serve as sounding boards for these topics, visit a therapist or counselor who specializes in readjustment.
If possible, seek out others who have lived abroad and share your experiences and concerns with people who can directly relate and can pass along first-hand advice for how best to cope with the transition.
If your “normal” routine feels tired and unengaging now that you’ve returned from abroad, feel free to mix things up! Take a class, try a new fitness regimen, start a hobby, or join a club. The goal here is to open yourself up to new and exciting experiences at home, so you don’t feel a constant compulsion to negatively compare your home routine to your life abroad.
Thanks to technology and social media, it’s never been easier to keep in touch with friends and former colleagues living abroad. If you find yourself missing your overseas pals, don’t hesitate to reach out! Send a funny email, post on your temporary work wife’s Facebook wall, or schedule a Skype date.
A common issue with reverse culture shock involves feeling hyper-critical of your home culture. It’s an understandable reaction, but if you take a moment to evaluate those thoughts and to figure out what’s prompting them, you’ll be able to take them in stride and re-adjust in a more thorough and fulfilling way. Try making a pros and cons list of your home country and your temporary country to help you keep everything in perspective.