Reverse culture shock: Why returning home can be hard

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Published on 2021-09-07 at 10:00 by EstherTwisk
We have all heard of the term “culture shock” before and probably have experienced it ourselves at one point or another when arriving somewhere new. That sense of being out of place and far away from your routine and familiarities can be fun and exciting. It can, however, also graduate to an uneasy feeling, where you catch yourself longing for the things you were accustomed to before. For some, this feeling might last a couple of hours. Others will have to deal with it for days, weeks or even months, depending on the destination and situation they find themselves in.

The term “culture shock” is mainly used when travelling or moving abroad but can also occur when returning home. We call this “reverse culture shock”. 

What is Reverse Culture Shock?

Reverse culture shock can be defined as the feeling of distress after spending a significant amount of time abroad. The reasons for feeling this way mostly overlap with those that make us experience culture shock: our new situation lacks the sense of familiarity, comfort and routines that we have grown accustomed to.

Besides the lack of familiarity, a few other factors often come into play when experiencing reverse culture shock: 

Your relationships have changed. 

Your friends have moved on while you were away and have had experiences very different to yours. This doesn't necessarily mean that your relationships will come to an end, but the dynamic will certainly be different as to when you moved, and you might feel like there is not much left to talk about. Specifically because yes: you have changed too. 

You have changed. 

Spending a significant time abroad changes you, no matter how far or close by your trip took you. You were forced to adapt to a new life situation and culture, step out of your comfort zone, meet new people and experience new places. You might have spent a significant time by yourself before getting to know others and was, therefore, able to do a lot of soul-searching. No matter what the experience: you will have changed, and this change will come back home with you. As a changed person, you might find yourself not fitting back into the place you left behind. 

The way you view your hometown has changed.

Travelling makes us aware of the world around us and, as a consequence, might make us question the believes and habits we have always had. Many expats have a hard time adapting to certain aspects of their home country upon returning, such as the high-speed pace of life, materialism or narrow-mindedness they never noticed before. Readjusting to this life can be very hard and even create a feeling of true unhappiness and the sense of being out of place. 

The symptoms of Reverse Culture Shock

By feeling misunderstood by friends and relatives, missing the life you left behind and having difficulties with readjusting, one or multiple of the following symptoms are likely to occur: 

  • Boredom
  • Restlessness
  • Sadness
  • Uncertainty
  • Isolation
  • Rootlessness
  • Depression

According to the book “The Art of Coming Home” by Craig Storti, there are several variables that determine how severe any of these symptoms will be: 

  1. Voluntary versus involuntary reentry. Where involuntary is worse. 

  2. Expected versus unexpected reentry. Where unexpected is harder. 

  3. Age. Where reentry is mostly easier for older people who have been through more life transitions. 

  4. Previous experience with coming home. Where the first time is usually the worst. 

  5. Length of the overseas stay. Where the longer is usually the harder. 

  6. Degree of interaction with overseas culture. Where the more you were involved with the local culture, the harder it will be to leave that behind. 

  7. The reentry environment. Where the more supportive people are back home, the easier it will be to return.

  8. Amount of interaction with the home country during the stay overseas. Where the more familiar you are with changes in your home country, the easier it is to re-adjust.

  9. Degree of difference between the home country and overseas stay. Where a great difference makes it harder to adapt to life back home. 

How to deal with Reverse Culture Shock

The fact that there is a name for it already shows that you are not the only one who might be experiencing reverse culture shock right now. Having to deal with feelings of depression and sadness after returning home is normal, and it's therefore important to be patient with yourself. Give yourself the time to readjust, miss the life you had and even grieve about it. Keep your memories alive by going through pictures and videos whilst you reminisce with the people you've met overseas or the person you have travelled with. Create a new home for yourself by decorating your house or apartment and enjoy those small things you are able to have now but couldn't have overseas. 

Moving abroad had its challenges; moving back will too. The flexibility you've gained by stepping out of your comfort zone in the first place will most likely help you to step back into your old life. And if nothing helps and you feel truly out of place: then start planning that next move and find the life abroad that you feel fits you best.