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How to Help a Returning Assignee Avoid a Hard Landing

Matthew MacLachlan

28 Apr 2017

More and more organisations are recognising the value of preparing international assignees and their accompanying families for an overseas posting. Whether it be language and cultural training, coaching or in-country support there are many ways in which to help make the assignment a success. Why is it then that the same investment is not made to help the returning assignee avoid the hard landing on returning home?

Retaining the value of the returning assignee

Few organisations give serious thought to supporting their assignees when they return home and end up losing an invaluable asset. For a surprisingly large number of returning assignees, reverse culture shock can be one of the most difficult challenges, even after years of adapting to different cultures and different ways of doing things.

Reverse culture shock can be one of the most difficult challenges

Reverse culture shock

Most assignees accept that they and their families will probably experience culture shock at some time, especially when they move to a culture that is very different to their own.

Over time, successful assignees learn to adapt to their new culture. They:

However, when the time comes, many organisations – and many assignees themselves – make the mistake that re-entry into their home culture will be straightforward. The first sign that all is not simple is the rolling of the eyes when a returning assignee starts an anecdote, with the words, “When I was in…”

Who am I now?

Forbes explores this question in an article focusing on reverse culture shock. If culture shock is the expected trauma of meeting the unfamiliar, reverse culture shock is the unexpected trauma of meeting the familiar.

Returning Assignee

The assignee and everything they knew from before the assignment has developed and grown in different directions. Learning to return home is an adjustment process.

Reverse culture shock is the unexpected trauma of meeting the familiar

When the time comes for repatriation, many returning assignees find that they are taking a part of their new culture back home with them.

For example, it may be frustrating to give up speaking a new language that took so much time and effort to master, especially if there are no speakers of your new language in your social or professional circles back home.

In many countries, a foreigner who speaks the local language gains special status – that can be hard to give up.

Learning to return home is an adjustment process

It can be very hard to change from being an important foreigner to being the same as everyone else; especially when no one appears to value your new skills and world view.

Learning to speak like a native again

Language challenges go beyond learning a new one. It also means re-learning your own mother tongue. Slang, current expressions and new terms have evolved during the assignee’s absence.

Local or regional cultural references that have made it into the language may not have travelled to the assignee’s destination.

Slang, current expressions and new terms have evolved during the assignee’s absence

Even when the employer’s language is the assignee’s mother tongue, chances are the returning assignee has adopted a more simplified way of speaking and writing, especially when communicating with others still mastering the language.

Back home, they may find it awkward to be relearning how to speak like a native. Simple words and phrases will have transferred to the passive memory, and it may take time for them to become active again.

Other ways an assignee may not fit back home

Other cultural practices may take some time to revert to what was the norm back home. For example, clothing choices in the host culture may have been very different, perhaps due to social, religious or professional norms. Some assignees may have grown comfortable with these changes.

It is unlikely that a non-Muslim woman returning from Saudi Arabia will voluntarily wear an abaya back in her home country. However, she may find that wearing revealing clothing or bright colours that would be normal at home might take some time.

For others, the level of casual dress, fashion and style choices may also be a blend of both cultures that reflect both experiences.

For some cultures, smiling is a polite way to avoid disagreement or offence

Returning assignees will need to be careful to adapt their business behaviour as well. As the Forbes articles mentioned, using a Hello Kitty pencil in a business meeting may be perfectly acceptable in the Far East but would raise questions in the West about the assignee’s seriousness or credibility.

Body language can have its own challenges. Even the act of smiling has different meanings. For some cultures, smiling is a polite way to avoid disagreement or offence. But it’s a different smile to the smile of happiness or humour. Other cultures only smile when it’s earned – smiling at relative strangers can be seen as suspicious or untrustworthy.

For an assignee, this means they may need to relearn how to smile correctly again in their home culture.

How have my values changed?

For some returning assignees, going back home is a comfort. They find comfort in not focussing on unfamiliar behaviour patterns, especially if they were on an assignment where local values were at odds with their own.

For some assignees, values have blended

Others, especially assignees who may have had trouble adjusting to their host culture, may consider their home values to be superior to those they have just left behind – a not-so-pleasant side effect of culture.

But for some assignees, values have blended.

Blended cultural values

Some returning assignees learn that they do not wholly fit in either their home culture or their host culture. This is especially true for long-term expatriates who have been settled in another culture for a long period of time. Maybe they have also built a blended family from another culture as well.

Some returning assignees learn that they do not wholly fit in either their home culture or their host culture

In some instances, they may have found that many host culture values aligned better with their personal values and have difficulties re-adjusting when returning to their home culture. Their values and behaviour may not always align with what is expected in their home culture. This can make the returning assignee feel like they no longer fully belong back home.

Returning assignees may have found that many host culture values aligned better with their personal values

Fitting in but not forgetting for returning assignees

Most returning assignees will quickly discover that family and friends are not interested in hearing about their adventures abroad – this is perhaps the most difficult adjustment of all. Reverse culture shock doesn’t come harder than when friends or family show little interest in your experiences. In some instances, it can redefine family relationships and be an end to some friendships where little remains in common.

Most returning assignees will quickly discover that family and friends are not interested in hearing about their adventures abroad

In this situation, it might be time to find another outlet. Finding an authentic restaurant from the host culture in your home city might be a sensible first step. Developing a new circle of friends with enthusiasm for travel is also likely to present new opportunities.

Returning home may be a hard landing. Remembering that culture – including your own – continues to evolve, even when you are absent, and is something to always bear in mind.