Understanding Reverse Culture Shock
Reverse culture shock is a common reaction to returning home from time abroad. It is an emotional and psychological stage of re-adjustment, similar to your initial adjustment to living abroad. Symptoms can range from feeling like no one understands you or how you’ve changed to feeling panicked that you will lose part of your identity if you don’t have an outlet to pursue new interests that were sparked abroad. Your reactions to re-entry may vary, but common signs are:
- Wanting to be alone
- “Reverse homesickness”
This process will be similar to the culture shock you may have experienced when you first went abroad, only in reverse. Just as it took time to adjust to a different culture when you arrived there, it may take some time to re-adjust to home. The coping skills and strategies that were successful in helping you to adjust to your host culture will be just as helpful coming home:
- Get involved
- Identify a support group of other study abroad students
- Suspend judgment until you understand a situation
- Always keep a sense of humor
If you experience reverse culture shock, you're not alone! Check out the following resources:
- The University of Iowa provides some very helpful tips for helping to feel at home again.
- Read The Art of Coming Home by Craig Storti, a Peace Corps volunteer, and Strangers at Home: Essays on the Effects of Living Overseas and Coming “Home” to a Strange Land, by Carolyn D. Smith.
There are a number of psychological, social and cultural challenges involved in re-adjusting. Here are some of the challenges commonly faced by those experiencing reverse culture shock:
After all the newness and stimulation of your time abroad, returning to family, friends and old routines (however nice and comforting) can seem somewhat dull. It’s natural to miss the excitement and challenges of living in a foreign country, but it’s also up to you to find ways to overcome negative feelings. Try to incorporate your new perspective into your old home — find cultural outlets that you hadn’t tried out before or take a day to be a tourist in your home town.
2. NO ONE WANTS TO HEAR
Friends might not be as interested in hearing about your travels and adventures as you will be in sharing them. You may find that others who have been abroad are more able to relate to the type of experiences you’ve had, so they may be more excited to listen to your stories.
3. YOU CAN’T EXPLAIN
Even when given a chance to explain all the sights you saw and feelings you had while abroad, it may be a bit frustrating to relay them clearly. It is very difficult to convey this kind of experience to people who do not have similar frames of reference or travel backgrounds, no matter how sympathetic they are as listeners. Your stories from foreign countries and different cultures can leave your friends or family without a frame of reference, which makes the story pretty abstract and therefore not as interesting as it was for you. Try including in your stories an element of life they would be familiar with, such as food, school, shopping, etc.
4. “REVERSE HOMESICKNESS”
Just as you probably missed home for a time after leaving the United States, you likely will experience some “reverse” homesickness for the people, places and things you grew accustomed to while abroad. To an extent, you can reduce this by writing letters, telephoning and generally keeping in contact with people you met. But feelings of loss are an integral part of international travels and must be anticipated and accepted as a natural result of time abroad.
5. RELATIONSHIPS HAVE CHANGED
It is inevitable that when you return you will notice that some relationships with friends and family have changed. Just as you have altered some of your ideas and attitudes while abroad, the people at home are likely to have experienced some changes. These changes may be positive or negative, but expecting that no change will have occurred is unrealistic. The best preparation is flexibility, openness, minimal preconceptions and tempered optimism.
6. PEOPLE SEE THE “WRONG” CHANGES
Sometimes people may concentrate on small alterations in your behavior or ideas and seem threatened or upset by them. Others may ascribe any “bad” traits to the influence of your time abroad. These incidents may be motivated by jealousy, fear or feelings or superiority or inferiority. To avoid or minimize them, try to monitor yourself and be aware of the reactions of those around you, especially in the first few weeks after your return. This phase normally passes quickly if you do nothing to confirm their stereotypes.
7. PEOPLE MISUNDERSTAND
A few people will misinterpret your words or actions in such a way that communication is difficult. For example, what you may have come to think of as humor (particularly sarcasm, banter, etc.) and ways to show affection or establish conversation may not be seen as wit but aggression or showing off. Be aware of how you may look to others and how your behavior is likely to be interpreted. Also remember that continual references to your time abroad may come across to others as arrogant or even rejection of your home culture.
8. FEELINGS OF ALIENATION/CRITICAL EYES
Sometimes the reality of being back “home” is not as natural or enjoyable as the place you had constructed in your head. When real daily life is less enjoyable or more demanding than you remembered, it is natural to feel some alienation, see faults in the society you never noticed before, or even become critical of everyone and everything for a time. This is no different than when you first left home. Mental comparisons are fine, but keep them to yourself until you regain your more balanced cultural perspective.
9. INABILITY TO APPLY NEW KNOWLEDGE AND SKILLS
Many returnees are frustrated by the lack of opportunity to apply newly gained social,
linguistic and practical coping skills that appear to be unnecessary or irrelevant. Ways to avoid ongoing annoyance include adjusting to reality as necessary, changing what is possible, being creative, being patient and, above all, using the cross-cultural adjustment skills you acquired abroad to assist your own re-entry. Rest assured: The cross-cultural understanding you gained is an enormously valuable tool in our society, and opportunities for you to put it to use will certainly arise.
10. LOSS/COMPARTMENTALIZATION OF EXPERIENCE
Being home coupled with the pressures of job, family and friends often make returnees worried that somehow they will “lose” the experience, becoming compartmentalized like souvenirs or photo albums kept in a box and only occasionally taken out and looked at. You do not have to let that happen. Maintain your contacts. Talk to people who have experiences similar to yours. Practice your skills. Remember and honor your hard work and the fun you had while abroad.