Living and working abroad

Reverse culture shock – yes, it is a thing, and here are some tips to help you cope with it!

I’m sure you are quite familiar with the term culture shock, and you probably experienced it at some point in your expat life already. The term reverse culture shock, however isn’t such a well-known term, but that doesn’t mean people don’t experience it often.

reverse culture shock
123rf.com/Sergey Skripnikov

Moving back to your home country after years of living abroad can be challenging. Here are the main stages of reverse culture shock, which everyone experiencing it seems to go through. Expats and families returning home, this one is for you!

Euphoria

Euphoria is the first phase of reverse culture shock. It occurs immediately after returning home from quite a lot time spent abroad. Returning expats seem to feel a really intense euphoria when they move back home. One on hand, it can seem a very big relief, finally getting back home, and on the other hand it’s a different set of new possibilities as compared to the first move, away from home. Everything is fine, returning expat is more than happy to be home, and feels that nothing ever could go wrong.

Isolation, disconnectedness

The feeling of isolation or disconnectedness comes right after the euphoric phase. When the joy of moving back home starts to subside, then returning expats usually face the fact that a lot has changed since they left their country. This is something that intellectually everyone knows: the place you come home to will be different compared to the one you left. The people you came home to have changed, you have changed, and the place itself has changed during your time away.

Most expats recall feeling isolated and alone after a while when they move back home. They are faced with the fact that everyone has a well-established life and routine of their own, and they tend to feel left out and alone. The feeling of isolation and loneliness is something that most often comes up when returning expats share their experience of reverse culture shock. The feeling that they had left an entire life behind in their former country, and have to start all over again, from scratch. This means getting a job, building a new routine and building new relationships as well.

And the reason this can be particularly painful is that all of it is happening in their home country, maybe even hometown. This makes it very different from the experience of moving to a new, strange place. Precisely because when returning home, expats are in search of the familiar, the known, and the feeling of being home and secure. This is the point when most returning expats feel most down, and this marks the lowest point of the so-called U-curve.

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The U-Curve 

To understand the phases of reverse culture shock, imagine the letter “U”. The point where you start writing it marks the first high, the euphoria mentioned above. Then as it starts to subside, and the returning expat faces the realities of moving back, they are going towards the low of the “u”. The lowest point is the feeling of being an outsider, disconnectedness and isolation. But the good news is that the letter “u” has another high end! And as time passes, people start moving towards it.

This is the process of integrating the “two separate lives”, the years spent abroad and the moving back. It is when on the other hand the gap between these two lives starts to close, and on the other hand a new routine starts forming in one’s life. One starts to find their place back home, maybe get a new job and build new relationships, and life slowly becomes “normal” again.

Reverse culture shock is something to pay attention to if you are planning to move back home. And as with everything else, it is of great help to know that for sure you are not alone experiencing it! It is a natural reaction, and you can make it easier for yourself by accepting it, and of course by giving yourself time to get through it.

Eszter Szűcs-Imre

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At a glance

  • There are main stages of reverse culture shock, which everyone experiencing it seems to go through.
  • At first, returning expats seem to feel a really intense euphoria when they move back home.
  • After this comes aphase of isolation and disconnectedness. Life at home has changed.
  • As time passes, people start the process of integrating the years spent abroad and the moving back.