Managing Reverse Culture Shock

 Returning home can be a beautiful experience, but it also may be difficult if it feels like you no longer fit into the gap you had left before.

Returning home can be a beautiful experience, but it also may be difficult if it feels like you no longer fit into the gap you had left before.

Dear Janet,

Last week we introduced the concept of reverse culture shock (the phenomenon in which people who return to their home country after a significant amount of time living elsewhere find it difficult to accept and re-adapt to their own culture) which you can read more about here. However, we hate to introduce a problem or challenge you may face without providing some support and tips so today we’d like to focus on some strategies for managing your reverse culture shock.

Being aware of reverse culture shock and expecting to deal with this challenge is actually half the battle! Those who have the most stressful experiences upon their return are those who don't recognize what is happening to them or those who resist the possibility that they could be going through culture shock at home. Thus, I applaud you for reading this in the first place—you’re already on the right track!

 

For those of your reading this BEFORE you return home:

-Allow yourself a sense of closure in your ‘home’ abroad: Making an effort to visit all your favorite places, see all of the important people you want to say goodbye to, buy keepsakes, etc. can actually help a lot. While some people avoid this kind of closure, assuming it will make it sadder to leave, most find that this actually helps them return with a clearer mind and more openness to the next stage of adaptation back home. As with all things, find the strategies that fits your personality best—some people want a big going-away party to celebrate with all of their friends; others want a quiet weekend to themselves.

Pro-Tip: Collecting tangible reminds of your ‘home’ abroad can be especially helpful, whether this means buying a something like a cafetera to make Spanish-style coffee at home or revisiting a few favorite places to snap photos, sketch, or journal. I personally find that food can be a great option as it can serve as a comforting reminder for you while also being something that you can use to help share your experience with others.

Just don’t be too hard on yourself if it doesn’t go over as big back home as you expect—I once brought back Costa Rican coffee and went on and on about how delicious it was before making it for my entire family on Christmas. Turns out I needed to hone my skills a bit more because it didn’t come out anything like what I drank abroad.

 For me, there's nothing like capturing one more shot of the Alhambra (especially after a contemplative wander on my own).

For me, there's nothing like capturing one more shot of the Alhambra (especially after a contemplative wander on my own).

-Set up healthy communication channels in advance: As you likely know by now, having an international experience means constantly trying to balance two worlds and be as present as possible with friends and family where you live and where you don’t. Although you may have reached your own, personal healthy balance while abroad, keep in mind that the tables are about to be turned and relationships will inevitably change upon returning to your home country. Prepare yourself and your friends in your ‘home’ abroad by talking about how you hope to stay in contact with them (being honest about what kind of contact they can expect from you and the fact that the first month back may likely be different from what you can anticipate).

Pro-Tip: Although I was not personally this proactive myself, it could be useful to make a plan for your first skype or phone call with close friends before you even leave. I find that many people “don’t want to bother” each other and often both sides are wishing they could catch-up with the other but not taking the step themselves to suggest arranging it.

 

For those of your reading this AFTER you return home:

-Cultivate healthy communication channels back home: Although you may want to go on and on about your time abroad, check yourself to determine if the level of attention you’re demanding for this topic is healthy for your relationships. Unfortunately, you may find that people may not be as interested in your experience abroad as you would like and this can make you feel a bit unappreciated or misunderstood. I go into some tips that have helped me with this in our returning home article. Don't forget that you're not the only person who has experienced change over the time period you were abroad. Ensure you show interest in the lives of loved ones to foster a two-way dialogue and better communication.

Pro-Tip: It may not be possible for your friends and family back home to meet all of your communication needs. Keep in touch with friends abroad, find other outlets to share your passion (perhaps start a blog or find ways to connect with foreigners in your own country), and seek out support groups and/or professional help if necessary.

 It may take time, but you CAN find a way to love home, without losing what you loved abroad.

It may take time, but you CAN find a way to love home, without losing what you loved abroad.

-Recognize the benefits of your development while abroad: While we're talking about all of the difficulties you may face upon returning, don't forget that your time abroad and all of the new cultural competences that you've hopefully started to develop are advantageous to this and future challenges! Although you may be going through some of the same struggles you faced abroad, remember that this time you've got a better understanding of cultural differences and that your new perspective on things can help you to understand and adjust. Recognizing your strengthened capacities can help you keep things in perspective.

Pro-Tip: Although it may seem strange, when you come up against situations or conversations back home that make you feel uncomfortable, I challenge you to step back for a moment and remember that this experience may be purely cultural and your resistance may be a direct effect of you realizing it used to be normal for you, but isn’t anymore. Try to evaluate why you feel uncomfortable and, when applicable, talk to loved ones about what’s going on with you.

For example, after studying abroad in Spain I became used to turning off lights whenever I was not in the room which, I hadn’t really realized until I returned home, was really different than the environment in which I grew up in. Back in the States, my family (and most people I know) go around the house turning on lights when it gets dark and just don’t turn any of them off until they go to bed. Since this is something about the Spanish culture that I truly resonate with, I (eventually) took the time to explain to my parents why I liked the Spanish habit, rather than going through the house and angrily shutting everything off (which I may have done for a little while).

 

As noted in my last personal example, managing your reverse culture shock is a process and you’ll have your ups and downs. There may be some parts that feel impossible to get over and norms of your home country you now refuse to accept. That’s okay. As with typical culture shock, frustration and resistance are part of the process, but if you hope to reach a point of acceptance and re-adaptation be sure to remind yourself that these negative feelings do not have to be permanent.

It might be useful for you to identify which aspects of your 'home' abroad have become the most important to you and to find new ways to incorporate this in your home environment. Healthy re-adjustment to your home doesn't mean that you need to reject everything you came to embrace while abroad. Instead, you can find ways to fuse the two cultures in order to promote comfortability at home without feeling like you are missing your 'other home.' I believe that striking a healthy balance between the two (ideally while cluing in your family and loved ones on why you’re doing this) is the recipe for successfully working through any challenge reverse culture shock throws your way.

 

Have you tried any of the above strategies or do you have some of your own to share? Please don’t hesitate to share your experiences in the comments below!


Sincerely,
Spain