When Home is No Longer Home: Expats Experience Reverse Culture Shock  

Is there a way to rethink the narrative, “There’s no place like home? In the 21st century, it seems the growing number of business travelers and expats have redefined the concept of home. When people say home is where the heart is, it could conceivably mean one’s adopted city or country now. That’s when the “problem” starts. For those who move back to their real home, it’s possible to experience reverse culture shock.

A repatriate who comes back from abroad or another city can be excited about seeing family members and friends for a few weeks or so before the initial euphoria wears off. Many expats suddenly experience the feeling of being out of place in their own culture. It takes time to make the adjustment but they also eventually get over the reverse culture shock and their new life back home begins again.

In one poll reported by Relocate Mag, 80 percent of returning Japanese expats, 71 percent of Finnish, 64 percent of Dutch and 60 percent of Americans said they found it harder readjusting to their home country than to their host country abroad.

Reverse culture shock is when someone returns to a place that one expects to be home but is no longer home. Expats learn over time how to behave and think like the locals while on international assignment. It’s still the same thing when coming back home.

The difficult adjustment happens if the international assignment takes years, a significant amount of time to form new patterns of behavior and thought necessary to fit in their host country.

According to Expatica, expats can become less and less familiar with their home stomping grounds. It is said that returning brings a blanket of fog on perception; it’s like an audience member walking around in a setting that’s familiar but still unreal.

Cultural Awareness International, a Dallas-based global mobility company, says that reverse culture shock is one of the major challenges an expatriate and his/her family face. It explains, “Culture shock is precipitated by the anxiety that results from losing all of our familiar signs and symbols of social intercourse.”

The firm says that common problems include academic issues (for students), cultural identity conflict, social withdrawal, depression, anxiety, interpersonal difficulties, alienation, disorientation, stress, value confusion, anger, hostility, compulsive fears, helplessness and disenchantment.

An extreme scenario paints repatriation as damaging professionally because individuals often bring back business values and attitudes that do not translate well in his or her indigenous environment.

Being an expat is such a lengthy and deep international experience it brings about great professional and personal changes indeed. One sees old norms and values from the home country from a fresh perspective, and expats and their families see things in a new light.

In addition, expats can begin to feel frustrated or confused when their close friends and family are anything but curious. After all, the expat lived in a foreign land for years, with sights, sounds, and smells exotic and new.

According to Bruce La Brack from the School of International Studies at the University of the Pacific, expats returning home can expect their top reentry challenges to be:

  • Boredom
  • No listeners
  • Explaining the difficulty
  • Reverse homesickness
  • Changed relationships
  • Misunderstandings
  • Feelings of alienation
  • Inability to apply new knowledge and skills
  • Loss/compartmentalization of experience

How to deal with reverse shock? Sharing experiences with others can help. There will be people who will not want to listen, but there will be close ones who will give their support with open ears and honest interest. Making contact with expat friends or writing about the experience or even sharing stories with a willing audience can help expats listen intently.

For those who don’t know how they will make the adjustment, experts say it’s important to maintain their newfound lifestyle and “stay international.” Accepting their new selves lessens the shock for them. Reverse culture shock is a transition, and an important learning experience. It’s a time to rebuild relationships, interests and the evolving personality in the mirror.

Global mobility managers in northern California know their work is cut out for them to make sure their recruits adjusts well to their work and living conditions before, during and after their assignments.

California Corporate Housing provides personalized accommodation for those who are not yet settled in their assigned location, so these talents can focus on their assignments before the reality of their move sinks in.

It’s less burdensome not to have to worry about the minutiae of day-to-day living —  rent, home furnishings, kitchen supplies, lawn care, etc.

Transitions require patience and even more of an open mind than before.

According to extensive academic research, such sentiments resonate not only with employees returning from deployments abroad, but also with students coming home after studying in foreign lands.

FIDI, a Brussels-based global alliance of international moving and relocation companies, describes repatriation as a troubling time, not just for the returning expat, but also for his or her employers. While the expat is likely to find it harder than expected to get back into the swing of things, the employer reportedly faces a more business-like problem: a high proportion of returning expats leave their jobs.

While the employee sees an overseas assignment as a passport to promotion, the employer simply wants someone to get the job done and is not making any promises – or plans – for the employee’s future prospects back at home. Global mobility professionals need to be aware of this.

Many employers have reportedly lost expensively-developed talent through lack of forward planning. Someone from, say China or India, moves to the US and struggles at first, but eventually learns to act in a more assertive, outwardly self-confident and perhaps even self-promotional style. But they then experience a massive shock upon returning home where these very behaviours aren’t valued – and, in some cases, are even penalized.”

This is not unusual given that employers have different managing styles, what more a different country and culture.

To overcome such problems, repats need to anticipate and prepare for the return home in a similar way that they prepared for their overseas assignment.

Relocate’s new Global Mobility Toolkit provides free information, practical advice and support for HR, global mobility managers and global teams operating overseas.