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Date of publishing: 2016.09.22     Published by Attila M.

Reverse culture shock

Culture shock reloaded

Culture shock reloaded

Welcome to the realm of reverse culture shock that appears on your front door shortly after you have finished studying abroad. You never imagined that your home country would clench its cultural fist and hit you right in the face with no sign of mercy. Only a few international students have heard about reverse culture shock and prepared accordingly for the cultural, mental and emotional difficulties upon their re-entry.

In order to fully enjoy the benefits of studying abroad you need not only to be aware of culture shock and adjustment to your host country, but also you have to get ready for the reverse culture shock and readjustment period after you got home from your study abroad program.

The culture shock you experience in a foreign country resembles to the re-entry shock in your home country. In practice the adaptation process is stressful in both cases, however latter seems worse for two reasons. For one, reverse culture shock hits you totally unexpected, as you thought studying abroad was the hardest part. Second, you feel super frustrated by the very fact that you have to readjust to your own culture and the idea that you 'lost' your cultural identity is frightening.

Reverse culture shock stages

Culture shock abroad

You studied abroad for a semester, an academic year or you earned a graduate degree abroad. Living and studying abroad for the first time you loved it, but at the same time you experienced mild to severe culture shock, bit by bit you successfully adjusted to the cultural differences in a foreign country. More or less you conformed your behavior and restringed your braincords to undersand locals and international students. Things were going fine for you, you were done with the hard part, you thought. But your personality has changed.

Swift and sweet shift home

Upon returning home from your study abroad program you saw your country from a different perspective and you had some unexplicable feelings inside. Your home country has changed. In the beginning it did not matter, because you were excited to be home again. Your first week was so nostalgic in your home country that it seemed like your readjustment was going to be a ride and all will be like before.

Reverse culture shock

Several weeks have passed. Life at home suddenly became unusual, you felt discomfort, you knew that something was off. You reconnected with your family and reached out to some of your old friends and you realized that most of them are the same. They are right where you left them. But their attitude towards you turned bitter, they look at you differently. Surely, you did not expect, whatmore, did not deserve such treatment just because you were studying abroad. You changed during your studies overseas, it is not a big surprise. You were not ready to deal with the unexpected behaviour of people who were once closest to you, but you have to readjust.

You know the places and faces but your very own culture feels familiar and unreal, unique and conventional, boring and exciting – it is what it was, but you see your country through different lenses. This mix of feelings came as a surprise and you struggle with the devastating thought that this state of mind might be permanent.

You can't force cultural readjustment, you have to give it some time if needed, or else you just become even more stressed that it's not 'happening'. Start with acknowledging the fact that you need time to adjust to your home culture. Being prepared for change is half victory.

John and Jeanne Gullahorn explained the reverse culture shock as the inverse of culture shock, describing the process in an eight steps W-curve.

  1. Honeymoon: euphoria and deep desire to explore a foreign culture, learn languages and start open a page in your life. You are happy.
  2. Crisis: the novelty wears off, difficulties and cultural differences reach the surface, you are helpless, angry and you see the dark clouds above your head. You are culture-shocked.
  3. Recovery: you build a new existence: places, people, processes are seemingly consolidating. You are fine.
  4. Adjustment: you put together the pieces of the puzzle, you are able to separate an emerging self, that is more culturally aware. You are optimistic about your future.
  5. Honeymoon (at home): you reached your homeland, you had an amazing experience in your host country and you had a delicious home cooked meal - this just can't get any better. You are so lucky to be you.
  6. Crisis (at home): wait, this was not the plan. People are acting weird at home, your friends seem distant and there have been subtle or major changes in your country that make you feel slightly uncomfortable. Reverse culture shock is knocking on your door. You are definitely cursed.
  7. Recovery (at home): you realize that the perceived changes are not against you as a person. Your intense emotions are gone, you made peace with most changes, you are looking for your new place at home.
  8. Adjustment (at home): you are on the top of things again. Your personal and professional ambitions are back on track. You are sure you did the right thing so keep going.

The intensity of culture shock during the readjustment period depends on the individual, however below you can see the most common factors that play a key role in coping with the reentry shock. In this section we list the most usual situations when international students may experience lighter culture shock upon returning home.

It is less painful if...

Reverse culture shock is less painful if:

  1. You wanted to return home: very simple, for some reason you did not like your study abroad program, you felt homesick, you missed your parents, girlfriend, boyfriend or cat, you had wished you were home...
  2. You studied abroad for less than a year: you studied abroad for the spring semester, the fall semester, or an academic year, but you traveled home several times. Changes will not seem that dramatic in these cases.
  3. There was minimal cultural distance from your home culture: you went to a neighbour country or you spoke the native language of your host country. So going from China to the USA can be more surprising than going from Germany to Austria.
  4. You were in touch with the culture of your home country on a regular basis: you were skyping for five hours a day with family, best friends, girlfriend, boyfriend and even your pets. Being in contact with them around the clock naturally results in less surprise when you get home.
  5. Your home environment is patient and supportive: upon returning home everyone is understanding, calm and can't wait to hug you and hear all your study abroad stories months after months. We hope this for all, but it does not happen that often.
  6. You had almost zero interaction with foreign students overseas: you pushed down international connections to the bare minimum to survive, naturally there will not be many international friends or professors to miss at home.
  7. You experienced one or more readjustments throughout your life: you are a veteran international student, you did an international internship, or lived in several countries already, one-two semester abroad should be a walk in the park (at home) for you.
  8. You know exactly when you return home: you knew your final exam date months before leaving your host country, so you bought your plane ticket and you can peacefully get ready mentally and emotionally for returning home.
  9. You have more cultural experience, cultural and self-awareness: you are familiar with the cultural dimensions of Hofstede, you worked in an international environment, your parents and grandparents are from different cultures and you know your strengths and weaknesses.
  10. You have a relatively extroverted personality: you are sociable, talkative and it is easy for you to maintain a big circle of friendship, or rebuild a community around you, wherever you go. Studying abroad rarely turns extroverts to introverts.

You are bored to death

The most common signs of reverse culture shock and how to cope with them

After you studied abroad you will have to deal with a certain level of reentry shock. We gathered the most universal phenomenons and awkward or painful situations caused by the reverse culture shock and provided you with some tips on how to deal with them.

You are bored to death

You experienced a constant adrenaline rush while studying abroad. Your host country was amazingly great or shockingly awful, you traveled wide and far, you found international friends every day, in short, you were breathing excitement. Returning home from your study abroad program brought endless boredom. Your life, your routine tasks at home feel way too monotonous compared to the wonderful experiences that the international student lifestyle gave to you.

Life – wherever you are – is as fun as you make it. You had some spectacular experience in your host country and those memories keep living in you. Awaken these mental souvenirs to interrupt your home routine and do not settle for less. Look for interesting events in your area, join international communities or take up a new sport, get into martial arts or go hiking with your friends. Even if studying abroad has emptied your pockets, you can share your experience and get new ones, if you decide to do so.

Storytelling hurts

No one cares about your stories

All the incredible things that happened to you when you studied abroad made you feel like you were in a fairy tale. You thought that people adore such fairy tales. You expected them to line up to hear your unbelievable study abroad stories or at least they would be really enthusiastic listeners when you decide to share your study abroad experience. But the showroom is empty, your audience is busy with its own reality, i.e. with home issues. Instead of the full story, they are fine with the highligts, because they have seen the pictures you posted and you had some virtual conversations. Your family is usually more result-oriented. No wonder, they sent you abroad to study, so they mostly ask about the grades you got abroad, your language skill improvement and maybe ask you to show some traveling photos. More often than not they couldn't care less about your advanced intercultural competence and you rather not exhaust or disappoint them with the night long party stories. Your friends are not amazed by your fresh international connections, moreover they have their own stories too. Your study abroad experience is competing with things that happened at home (while you were gone) and you are expected to reset your priorities. Your international education is often acknowledged with a simple 'cool' or 'nice', because people who nevers studied in a foreign country can hardly relate to your personal international experience.

Share the long version of your study abroad experience with your closer friends. Build up expectations by keeping in touch with them, so they know exactly when you arrive home. If there was genuine and mutual interest in each other's life while you were studying abroad, they will be ready to listen. If you neglected them in the bigger part of your absence, then try to reheat the relationship by asking about and listening to their stories before you bring up yours. Also you can have a deeper conversation about studying abroad with fellow students at your home institution who also studied abroad. Basically anyone who has been part of an intercultural community will be glad to exchange study abroad stories.

You don't know how to explain

If you are not a born storyteller, you may not find the words to share your study abroad stories. You returned home, the word is yours, but you go numb at the family table or in the bar with your friends. Another trap you may fall in is that the message of your stories get lost in the details. You can't make them see with your eyes and feel with your heart, because they were not in your shoes. You say things like 'you know that feeling', 'you can imagine', 'it was so amazing, words can't describe it'. Your friends have no clue what the heck is going on, so jumps in with a joke to end your sufferings and finally have some fun. You finish with an awkward smile and change topic. Or you make it worse with two more equally unstructured study abroad stories.

Be a bit more theatrical. For one, show pictures and make it fun - tell jokes left and right. Second, tell people stories that are relevant to their lives or refer to your memories together. Connect your experience with their personal ambitions and current life. If you give them a personal and global context, your friends and family at home will be more likely to relate to your stories and actually enjoy them. For instance 'You remember when you/we went…? Now this was almost the same but…' / 'I know how important it was/is for you..., so when I was there, I did…'. You catch my drift? You just have to connect with them, so they see what is in it for them.

If you were good friends for a long time, they will listen to your international adventures anyways, but don't torture them or abuse their time. Make your stories funny and concise. Discuss your experience with fellow international students while you are studying abroad or after you finished your study abroad program. That way you will have a mindmap to follow chronology and build the backbone of your stories. Your story gets better as you shape it based on the reactions. By the time you get home, you will have your study abroad experience distilled into a 30-45 mins fairy tale, that is worth listening.

Relationships are dynamic

Reverse homesickness

Yes, that's a real thing. You had been living and studying abroad for months or years, want it or not, most likely it became your second home. By this logic, upon returning to your home country, you will miss being in your host country for a while.

Keep in touch with locals, follow their posts, ask them for updates. You went home physically, but there is nothing wrong with staying in your host country a bit longer mentally. Your life at home and future plans gradually take over anyways. Your favorite places and cities abroad become nostalgic and you find balance between thoughts on your first and second homes.

While you were studying abroad your family, close friends and buddies lived their lives too – without you. You had to expect at least some changes, because time inevitably changes things. Today's technology was able to connect you virtually and that is enough for family and close friends. However international students tend to neglect periferic friends or buddies, as there is no time for everyone. People at home usually had minor changes (except for some special events), but your life turned upside down. The way you were thinking, attitude and behavior pattern had changed and influenced all your relationships. Some people don't understand the new you or don't know for sure if they can still count on you. They might feel betrayed, neglected, unimportant even if you were in frequent contact the whole time you were studying abroad.

Look into yourself and see how you changed. Assure your friends that they can count on you. Tell them that you are opened to anything they say and be ready to answer all their questions. You don't have to nod each time they come up with some unbelievable arguments, but be patient. Explain them why you feel or think differently about certain things. Make plans together, a holiday, a party, a barbeque to bond again. Actively take part in their lives again.

Feeling of alienation

You studied abroad for some months or even years. Before moving home you developed an image in your head about how things would go when you are home again. The problem is that you made all these plans for home when you were in a different, elevated mindset abroad. You go home, enjoy the familiar environment a bit, but then the nostalgic feeling wears off and life seems less enjoyable or complicated. You became critical about your home country, you are annoyed by the small and big things that are done in a less efficient way, you constantly compare everything to your host country.

From this perspective the reverse culture shock resembles very much to your first culture shock, when you were trying to adjust to the new environment. Even though it causes discomfort at first, you have to contain these outbursts against your own culture, because it may exponentially worsen the situation. Differences between countries are not inherently wrong and you should keep in mind the deeper (e.g. historical or economic) reasons of why certain things are better or worse at home. Once you regained a more objective view on cultural differences and similarities, your thoughtful comparisons will serve your cross-cultural compentence, instead of annoying you to death.

You really are different

People see the wrong changes

You studied abroad for a semester or more, you changed, no questions there. You often sensed your transformation as a positive change, while your family and old friends in your home country may think otherwise. They may not see the big pluses: your improved cross-cultural competence and foreign language skills. Instead they seemingly focus on the minor changes they perceive negatively. There could be many reasons why some of your family and old friends act like this. They might envied your seemingly carefree and exciting international student life. Or they might get jelaous that you are trying to 'steal' the spotlight from them by telling all those endless study abroad stories. They could be genuinely afraid that these changes will have a negative impact on your life. Or your personality changes may affect their way of living too. They might develop inferiority complex by comparing your study abroad experience with their relatively boring or hardworking life at home. That may lead to an angry or even hostile behavior, depending on the nature of your previous relationship.

It is particularly difficult to see all these doubts, hostility and anger from people that once were or still are the cornerstones of your life. Watch out for the signs of intense emotions. Get a grasp on how your relationship has changed with certain people. You need to show patience, do not return any intense negative emotion. When you sense that someone does not care about your stories, do not push them. Do not brag. Do not 'help' uninterested people with your international insights.

Try to have a personal conversation with those whom it is more difficult to understand your international student life. Invite them for a coffee or tea to discuss the past months in person. Show that you are opened and you value your friendship. Acknowledge that you have changed, but you are still you, and you are there for them. If it does not work, give them time. After you studied abroad you should not spend all your life with fixing relationships that do not work. Studying abroad often brings out the true nature of your relationships at home. Learn from it. Be there for those who want your company and do not push those who don't. If time does not help either, you have to let certain people go on their own ways.

People misunderstand you

Your sarcastic comments might not be perceived as neat humor by everyone. Your new hairstyle or the clothes you bought abroad may make you subject of jokes or even disgust at home. Your new hobbies or way of spending time could seem strange. Your assertive behaviour acquired through your indenpendent life abroad might seem agressive or offensive at home. On the other hand, if the culture of the host country has made you mentally more balanced and calmer, your silence at home might be the sign of depression or agreement with anything others say. Using foreign expressions and referring to foreign countries, places, policies and pointing out cultural differences often seem like you just want to show off.

Make sure your behavior is not perceived as bragging. Studying abroad does not make you special nor it entitles you to feel superior. You might have seen more, experienced more and set a new worldview, but do not force it on people in your home country. If you realize that there has been a misunderstanding, be the first to bring it up and straighten the situation.

Do not apologize for what you have become, but clarify the misunderstandings – from nuances to complete worldviews.

How to become special again?

Intercultural competence is not applicable at home

Upon returning home from your study abroad program, you have a hard time to find a place where they appreciate your newly acquired international skills. Languages, cross-cultural interaction, independent and initiative attitude are less relavent or not needed at home. You simply can't find a place to maintain or further improve the skills you gained while studying abroad.

Be patient, do not get stressed if things don't work out as you planned in the first three months at home. Make some effort to readjust to your home culture, but do not give up the positive achievements of your international life. Do not let your skills fade away. Change your closer environment for the better as much as possible. If there is serious resistance against positive changes, you should apply for international internships, get involved in international projects, find international student communities, learn languages and keep in touch with your friends from your semester abroad.

You can integrate your personal and professional experience abroad to your future. Travel. Stay in touch. Tell your study abroad stories to people who have a similar experience. Take an active part in the globalized world.

You miss the special treatment

As an international student you may have received such a distinguished treatment like omnipotent kings in the fairy tales. You were different. What was that feeling? Your cultural background seemed special in the international student community. Also, you were an important asset for your host university, because the number of international students boosts their rankings. The local hospitality was enchanting. You can still recall moments when you felt loved, even by strangers (for some reason it was even more uplifting). You arrived home and in a week it is all gone, your environment expects you to be 'you'. You are not that special anymore.

There goes the saying, 'no man is a prophet in his own land'. This proverb couldn't be more true for international students. You feel you became a better person while studying abroad, but for your home environment your personality changes are unknown or strange. In some cases your international experience will be instantly recognized but never try to force others to look at you in a different way, just because you studied abroad. Give them some time so they can see it themselves that you have changed for the better: earn the respect you think you deserve. Your acts are louder than your words.

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