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Reverse culture shock explained

Date of publishing: 2016.09.22     Published by Attila M.

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.

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 brainchords to understand 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 inexplicable 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.

Culture shock abroad

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.

Reverse culture shock stages

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.

Strength of reverse culture shock

  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.

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Reverse culture shock explained