International Assignments – Understanding the Impact of Reverse Culture Shock

Matthew MacLachlan

13 Apr 2010

‘Culture shock’ is a widely tackled issue in cross cultural and intercultural training programs as it can have a huge impact on the international business community. In its broadest sense most people understand that culture shock can occur to an international assignee on their arrival in a new culture or to a short-term business traveller during their time in another culture.

While culture shock is a widely understood concept, people tend to be less familiar with the concept of ‘reverse culture shock’, the condition which can affect international assignees or business travellers arriving back to their home culture after a prolonged period spent living and working in another culture.

When we think of returning home after time spent abroad, we don’t automatically think there might be problems or obstructions to our readjustment. We might not even think we’ll need to readjust at all – after all, we are returning back home!

Whilst abroad there is the tendency to think that life at home has stood still, that nothing has moved on and that our friends’ and family’s lives have carried on as usual. However, when we get back to our home culture, we often find the opposite has happened. Life has moved on, and we have missed it. Even seemingly trivial things such as television can have an impact on our mood and feelings.

What is more, there is often the expectation that when we return from an extended period abroad, people will want to sit and listen to our stories. This however is often not the case. People might take a passing interest, but the truth is that if they have never had a similar cross cultural experience they will not typically appreciate your situation and may be uninterested in what you did during your time away. This can cause you to either become frustrated, despondent or repress the memories of your time away.

Though you may not realise this, while things have changed at home, you too have changed over the course of your assignment so remember this. You have spent time away from what you know, from the familiar and have been transplanted into the unfamiliar. This will affect you on returning and readjustment to your home culture.

If you are preparing your return from an extended cross cultural experience living or working in another culture, here are some tips to help you deal with the effects of reverse culture shock:

  • Plan in advance and make sure you prepare for your homecoming in the same way you did for your departure.
  • Be aware that things will have moved on and will not have stayed exactly as you left them. If you are prepared for this, then you will not be so surprised by the reality of your return.
  • Find people with similar experiences of living abroad in the same or other culture, with whom you can share stories about your international assignment or travels.
  • Be aware that the business may not recognise or understand what skills you have developed or the knowledge you have gained while living or working abroad. Try to set up meetings with your manager or team to help them harness your new competencies and awareness.
  • If you have family, be aware of the impact your return can have on them. Be sure to set aside time when you can reminisce on your experiences together and talk about how the adjustment process is going.
  • Make occasional trips back to the other culture so you don’t lose touch with it.

While general tips like the above are useful, the effects of reverse culture shock can be as diverse and profound as your experience abroad. No person is the same and we all assimilate and react to different situations in our own way. Communicaid has long recognised this and developed a highly tailored and blended approach to intercultural and cross cultural training to help individuals deal with the complexity of reverse culture shock.

Communicaid’s global mobility programs for repatriation provide individuals returning from an extended international experience with skills and strategies to re-assimilate as effectively and smoothly to their home culture. Repatriation Training examines the potential cultural, social and work challenges of returning to your home culture. These cross cultural awareness training programs also provide practical information on recent home country changes and developments and strategies for reintegrating into the organisation. By providing repatriation training to your employees and their families, you can ensure a higher retention and satisfaction rate resulting in improved performance for the organisation.

©  Communicaid Group Ltd. 2010