What is Reverse Culture Shock?
The term "reverse culture shock" is used when a person feels out of place or foreign in their own home culture. This usually happens after being abroad for an extended period of time, but can happen any time upon returning to one's own culture after having been removed from it. Returning home after being overseas for an extended period of time is called "repatriation."
How to recognize reverse culture shock
Returning home from a foreign country, most people feel an immediate sense of relief and euphoria. Familiar sights and sounds happily greet the senses as the person embraces home once again. What many travelers don't expect, however, is the sudden feeling of awkwardness that can occur without warning in formerly commonplace situations.
Reverse culture shock can be a surprise and even when you think you're over it, you may find yourself in an awkward situation where you feel like a foreigner in your own country.
After having lived over half my life outside of the United States, coming back was a difficult transition for me. Upon repatriation, there were many situations where I realized I didn't know the rules or why things were expected to be a certain way. For example:
- I found myself offended when the guy next to me in class crossed his legs so the sole of his shoe was facing me. I didn't realize for a long time that he wasn't being uncouth-- there is no social convention about showing the bottoms of your feet in the U.S.
- Going to the grocery store was an overwhelming experience because of the sheer amount of choice. I actually froze up and couldn't choose what kind of cereal I wanted simply because there was too much.
- I often felt left out of the loop when it came to regular social situations because I didn't know the cultural references or didn't intuitively pick up on why something was "uncool."
All of these types of instances went away over time, but I definitely had to go through a process of acculturation. Or, more correctly, re-culturation.
How to deal with reverse culture shock
Even though reverse culture shock can be frustrating, confusing and unexpected, there are ways to deal with it and minimize the negative effects.
1. Train yourself to expect it. If you keep the possibility of reverse culture shock in mind, you will recognize it when it happens and be able to cope with it. This will help minimize the confusion. One of the hardest parts of coming back home after a prolonged overseas experience is expecting everything to be as you remembered it. Things change. You've probably changed, too. Home won't feel the same it did before and that's OK.
2. Give yourself time. Adjusting to a foreign culture takes time-- even if that culture is supposed to be your own. Once you've taken the trouble to acclimate to a new culture, you have changed your perspective. This means that upon your return, you'll need to acclimate again. I used to have a mantra that helped me through the awkward transition phase: "I can do anything for three months." I figured if I put an end date on my culture shock, it couldn't control me. But I had to be patient with myself and understand it would take some time to feel completely at home again.
3. Treat your home culture like a foreign culture. Remember how you asked questions and tried to go with the flow when you were first getting used to a new country? Well, you're going to have to do that again. (See: Dealing with Culture Shock) Recognize that you can't change people's perspectives, just like you couldn't force the foreign culture to change to suit you. Try to relax and have a sense of humor about your new view on your own culture.
4. Share how you are feeling. You may find that talking about your travels doesn't go over too well with your friends and family at home. This can be frustrating and can make you feel alienated. However, it's important to share how you are feeling upon your return. Try to find someone who is willing to support you during your transition by listening. Remember to share not only what it was like traveling or living overseas, but also how you are feeling now. You may be able to discover new coping mechanisms by talking it through with someone else.
5. Get back to your routine. There is nothing more comforting that a predictable routine. As soon as you can, get back into the swing of things. You will most likely have awkward moments, but it's easier to let them roll off your back if you have places to go and people to see. It's good to be busy, but don't let yourself slip into denial, either. Acknowledge that you are transitioning and just let your process continue at its own pace.