What is Reverse Culture Shock?

Returning home

When going on an international assignment, culture-shock in a new country is a very common, even expected, part of the process. Many employers are aware of this and make provisions for their employees, such as ‘look-see’ trips prior to assignments, and cultural training to help combat feeling out of place in their new home. But what about when the assignment is over? Coming home may be thought of as an easy process, however in reality this is often not the case.

This phenomenon, known as reverse culture shock, is experienced by many assignees who find returning home just as difficult, if not more so, than leaving in the first place. After the initial high of returning to your family, friends and ‘old’ life, various negative emotions can rise to the surface.

Out of the loop

A long-term assignment can last for many years; suddenly you come home to a place that should be familiar, yet so much has changed. You may have missed milestones such as marriages, births, even losses, meaning you feel out of the loop. Past colleagues may have moved on, and returning to an environment full of strange faces, with various office cliques, can leave you feeling isolated.

Even seemingly inconsequential things, such as changes in road layout or your favourite local corner shop being closed-down can be alienating. Upon returning home, many expats start to view their culture of origin through different eyes, noticing ‘negatives’ that they did not see before, or feeling that their old life is boring in comparison to their exciting adventure in a foreign land.

Homeward visits

Although reverse culture shock can be somewhat traumatic, there are steps to take and processes to follow that can make the transition easier. In terms of work, employers can help reduce work-related repatriation stresses by arranging a brief visit to the office before the final move to reconnect with old colleagues and meet those who have come on board whilst you have been away. A meeting with your bosses and HR to discuss what your new role will look like can also help with feeling prepared for the return to your old office.

Taking action

Returning expats can take action outside of work to help combat reverse culture shock. Something as simple as visiting a favourite restaurant for the last time or throwing a goodbye party with friends and colleagues can make saying bon voyage easier, and create happy memories of the departure, rather than just sadness and uncertainty. Staying in touch with friends made in the ‘host’ country is also a good idea. It is also important to bring parts of your life as an expat home with you.

Maybe you took to cooking the local cuisine, picked up a new hobby or language, or purchased a piece of art or furniture that particularly reminds you of your experience abroad? Many returning expats feel that they are not the same person as they were when they left, so why give up these new interests once they return home? Also, if the assignee developed successful coping strategies when they first relocated, then these may be useful upon return.

Manage expectations

One of the simplest ways to help mitigate the feeling of reverse culture shock is simply to expect it, and to manage expectations before coming home. Anticipate that things will be different and that there will need to be an adjustment period and be realistic. If an assignee can adjust well in a completely different culture, then they will almost certainly adjust to returning to their culture of origin.

Do you have a positive or negative experience of repatriation? What strategies did you use, or how would you have done things differently?

Written by Sophie Watkins – Recruitment Consultant & Special Projects at Alchemy Global Talent Solutions.