What is reverse culture shock and how to survive it?

  • Shutterstock.com
Article
Published 2020-08-25 12:59

For long-term expats, reverse culture shock is a thing. Like an old Rocky movie where Apollo Creed delivers the right jab before landing the left hook, reverse culture shock can be a devastating one-two punch depending on how the expat handles it. Jerry Nelson, an American expat in Argentina, talks about how he experienced culture shock when he visited his home country after two years away.

During my lifetime, I have traveled to, and worked in, 155 countries. I never experienced severe culture shock until 2017 when I returned to America after two-years in Argentina.

In 2017 after spending five-years overseas, I returned ‘home’ and ran head-on into the downside of American culture.

First, BOOM. The move overseas. Then after several years abroad, BAM. Returning to one’s ‘home country’. Managing and surviving culture shock all depends on how the expat chooses to deal with it. Do you fight it or go with the flow?

Materialism and waste

Compared to many people, Americans have discretionary income. Okay, that’s not true for ALL Americans, but the majority do spend money on things which appear ‘material’ to other cultures.

Going back into the American environment from an Argentine culture which has less affluence, and less of a culture of capitalism, was a shock. Mind-boggling were the well-stocked American supermarkets, the hundreds of choices, and the exploding vista of colors displayed while Walmart Radio plays perpetually.

Fast-paced

America is fast-paced and people are always in a hurry. Sure, I’ve been to other global cities which were also less laid back, but America is the culture of fast food, 24/7 shopping and non-stop ‘let’s do something’. A constant desire to be entertained has made Americans constant performers in an unreal reality.

Values and attitudes

My friends’ values and attitudes changed while I was gone. I was surprised as I adopted new ways of thinking about the world from living in South America.

I saw America through a different and sharper lens. I saw both strengths and weaknesses and developed a resentment around unbalanced criticism by Americans who never experienced the rest of the world.

The American way is not always “right” or even “best. I have grown impatient with people who are critical of other countries and blindly accept everything American. My concept of ‘home’ has become foggy as I watched people in America stay stressed and frantic, never relaxing.

Effects of Reverse Culture Shock

Craig Storti, a nationally known expert in intercultural communications and the founder of Communicating Across Cultures, notes these 7 effects in his book, The Art of Coming Home.

  • Criticality,
  • Marginality,
  • Overexertion,
  • Resistance,
  • Withdrawal,
  • Self-Doubt, and
  • Depression

Travel and creativity

The good news is this. Travel actually makes a person more creative.

In 1869, Mark Twain wrote in his travelogue Innocents Abroad that “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

There’s a scientific reason why travel has motivated many superb writers, from Twain to Ernest Hemingway to Anais Nin. In general, creativity is linked to neuroplasticity, or how the brain is wired. Neural pathways are inspired by environment and habit, which means they’re susceptible to change: new languages, smells, sounds, sensations, sights and tastes trigger different synaptic connections in the brain and have the potential to revitalize the mind.

Adam Galinsky, a professor of business at Columbia University and the author of much research on the links between creativity and international travel, says that foreign experiences increase both cognitive suppleness and flexibility—the mind’s capacity to jump amongst diverse ideas, a key component of creativity—and depth and integration of thoughts, or the skill to make strong links between dissimilar ideas.

In 2015, Galinsky examined creative directors of more than 250 high-end fashion houses. Tracing eleven years of collections, Galinsky, along with his research team, searched for links between creative directors’ experiences while working abroad and the fashion houses’ creative innovations.

Trade journalists rated the level of creativity behind a given product. The results showed a clear link between the time spent abroad and creative output. Galinsky found the brands whose creative directors lived abroad and worked in other nations consistently produced more creative fashion lines than those who had not.

The lesson? Go out now and identify your true place in the world.

The Takeaway

After living overseas for years, I know that returning to the states again, even for a visit, will be challenging. But I also know that the season of re-entry, however long, can be explored with a spirit of thankfulness and hope.

5 Comments
lamyo
lamyo
2 weeks ago

I would like to add that I don't know about neural plasticity, cognitive suppleness and flexibility but it's sure that living abroad does broaden your outlook on the world and changes many conceptions of the country or countries that you have lived in and the one you return to. I don't know if it's because people that travel become more interesting or it's more interesting people that travel, but it's sure that the most entertaining and wonderfully open-minded people I've met when living abroad, were the ones that had lived abroad too. I can appreciate the reverse culture shock of a US citizen returning to the US. As a European I experienced it (culture shock) when I stayed there briefly. After living in South America,I recently returned to Europe after 10 years for a long visit and could only appreciate what I had left behind. There is a culture in Europe that you can't find anywhere else in the world that is so rich. I am neither a chauvinist or nationalist but I was aware I was experiencing the opposite of reverse culture shock. What I'm trying to say is that where ever you come from and where ever you end up the fact that you have lived and travelled abroad is something that will improve your ability to appreciate and understand the environment you live in.

Reply
nextpat.us
nextpat.us
3 weeks ago

Thanks for sharing your story and ideas Jerry - it is indeed quite the shock to come home with our own realigned or shifted values and try to apply them in a context we don't remember in the same way. I spend a lot of time talking about realigning in a familiar cultural context and finding your new community to continue to live a thriving global life at "home." Dr. Cate Brubaker with Small Planet Studio has some great resources to help unpack the re-entry journey and allow that season to prosper. I do coaching on the same topic at Nextpat.

Reply
JerryANelson
JerryANelson
3 weeks ago

Thanks for the kind words! "quite the shock" sums it up nicely and if my editor didn't have a minimum word-count requirement, I could've used just those three words to express everything. Thanks for the two resources, dr. Cate Brubaker and your business, Nextpat. It's always good to have more resources to put in my quiver. BTW, how are things in Foggy Bottom these days? Hotel Alfred, just around the corner from the State Department, is my goto place to stay whenever I'm back in the DC area. Again, thanks!

Reply
wmorg
wmorg
3 weeks ago

I so agree with it. I am originally from Namibia, and been in the USA since 1999. I agree about the materialism in America. And also fast-paced. My kids especially want to do, do, do, and always do something. I am more relaxed, and don't need to do things all the time.

Reply
JerryANelson
JerryANelson
3 weeks ago

Thanks for reaching out! I've been to Windhoek and love it! Great culture! Great music! But being Southern Baptist, I had a hard time getting use to all the Lutherans -- but they are friendly people. Interesting how moving to America has affected the generations differently. Kids want to be on the move and us (at least me) old people want to set back and relax. Again, thanks!

Reply