A very dear friend of mine just sent me a message. She is at the moment traveling the world as a digital nomad. She has a work and travel life, that I admire immensely. But her message read: I am concerned, I am not sure, I can ever return to my home country. For the last few months I have had a chance to hang out with different people from home. And I find them so obnoxious. I think that if I return home now, I will see many things differently. I need your advice; what should I do?
I instantly recognised that this woman is clearly having a reverse culture shock. And that is even before she actually returned home. Smiling I remembered a time I had a serious case of reverse culture shock myself.
While in university I did an internship in Kenya. After 6 months I returned to my home country, Denmark. I left the airport and got on the bus to go to my apartment in Copenhagen. And there I was, in the bus, startled about the atmosphere – or rather, the lack of atmosphere. When I got to my apartment, I right away called a friend. What had happened? Did somebody die? Had the city centre burned to the ground? Or how come everyone on the bus looked so sad?
My friend assured me nothing had happened. That’s just the way Danish people look when they take the bus home from work. They do not smile to strangers, they do not pick up a conversation with the person sitting next to them. They keep to themselves and can look a little sad even though they are properly not. It took me a little while to get used to, I have to say, but I did get used to it.
Many people moving abroad are well aware that at some point they will be hit by culture shock. It sneaks up on you after a little while, when you are no longer amazed by everything new and start getting frustrated over things in the new culture you do not understand. However, I find that people returning to their home country are not nearly as aware about the issue of reverse culture shock – even though that can actually be just as bad – or even worse. I immediately sent a message back to my nomad friend saying: First of all, you need to recognize that there is such a thing as reverse culture shock. And I believe you have it.
Strategies for overcoming the shock
So what is my advice? Well, later in my life I had to return home again. This time after 3 years in China. I expected to encounter reverse culture shock, so I prepared myself. And here is what worked for me:
1) I was very conscious about not using the words “returning home” but rather thinking and talking about the return like a move to a new place with new opportunities and challenges. While living abroad you change a little and sometimes things at home also change a little while you are away. So you cannot just fall back to your old way of life like nothing ever happened. Just like finding new friends and adjusting to life abroad took a while, it will also take time to adjust when you return to your home country. And not at least to find your place amongst family and friends again.
2) I made an effort to stay in close contact with friends I had made abroad. And I enjoyed it very much when I had the chance to hang out with other returnees. People who got to know you while living abroad and people who have recently returned will understand you better. They can be a great group to share memories with as well as a place to let out steam when experiencing reverse culture shock.
3) I had fun analyzing my own reactions. So what was it in my own culture I disliked so much and why? What was it in my own culture I enjoyed? And what was it I learned abroad that I liked so much and wanted to be part of the new me? Once you recognize the sentiment, it allows you to take a step back, observe it and smile. It’s all about culture, sometimes you like it, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you help reconstruct it, sometimes you don’t.
I think for most people returning to a home country and getting over reverse culture shock takes about six months. Maybe a little more. But rest assured, you will never be exactly like you were before you left. You will from now on always be able to see things a little differently. And I actually do think that’s a good thing.
Please write comments below, if you would like to share your own funny stories about reverse culture shock and also your tips on how to overcome it!
Mette Lindgaard Seligmann is a business facilitator and strategic communication consultant currently based in Cleveland.