Reverse Culture Shock: What to Expect, and How to Deal With It

Whenever anyone relocates to a foreign country abroad, especially for the first time, as they are unsure of what to expect, a topic that usually comes up is culture shock. No one really knows what to expect for the first time in a foreign land, or how he or she will deal with it.

It is something that can affect anyone and can do so differently with each case. TEFL teachers are just as prone to it as anyone. Symptoms can include irritability, mood swings, a feeling of helplessness and more. There are four general stages to culture shock and knowing them ahead of time can usually alleviate the effect it has on you by preparing you mentally for it.

The four stages of Culture Shock are:

Honeymoon Phase: During this phase, usually the first month, you are enjoying everything in your new culture and are completely fascinated by all it has to offer.

Negotiation Phase: Generally about three months into your time away from home the differences begin to set in. Not knowing a language can become “no longer fun” during this period, and lead to bouts of anxiety. People can begin to feel lonely if travelling alone.

Adjustment Phase: Between 6 to 12 months you will become accustomed to the previous nuances of you host nation. Things will feel normal again; you will have your routines in place and will begin to accept and enjoy things in a new light again.

Mastery Phase: At around 12 months, you will feel almost completely comfortable in your new environment and should have no fears of any lingering culture shock affects.

One topic that is not discussed enough is reverse culture shock. When I first came abroad, in 2005, I did experience a slight bit of culture shock. I mostly just found myself easily becoming a little irritated around the three-month mark for about a month, but those feelings quickly subsided and I have had no other issues. However, when I first went home again, in 2007, I had a much more severe reaction. It was something I knew nothing about; reverse culture shock.

What Is Reverse Culture Shock?

Reverse culture shock is essentially the opposite of culture shock. It is the mental effects experienced by those who lived abroad for any amount of time when they return to their home country. The effects are generally the same, and like culture shock, can vary in strength. Some people feel a strong sense of “not fitting in” upon reintegration into their home, or can feel insignificant.
When people arrive home, they usually expect things to be relatively the same as when they left, and expect to pick up where they left things. But there are many factors to consider, and many expectations to prepare yourself for.

Mainly, don’t expect things to be the same as when you left, they won’t be. Just as you have changed (everything from your outlook on a different culture, world affairs, what’s important in life and what’s trivial, etc.) so will your home, and the people you know. If there is one thing time guarantees, its change. Subtle or big, they can both contribute to reverse culture shock. The view you have of your home is the view you had when you left. It will be different.

The four stages of Reverse Culture Shock are:

Disengagement: This occurs while still living abroad. It’s the period between the decision to go home and the time you leave. You begin to realize you will be leaving behind new friends, new routines, a new lifestyle, and even if you don’t realize it, it hurts.

Initial Euphoria: This can happen right before you begin your journey home. You think about and anticipate your favorite shops, the ease of buying your favourite foods, seeing your family and friends, and you set the expectation of how you remember these things. You can’t wait to tell your friends all of your stories about your travels. At first they are all interested, but not for long. Some just don’t care, some can even be jealous so they pretend not to care, and it hurts to see no one interested in something you feel so passionate about.

Irritability and Hostility: During this stage, you can have numerous symptoms: alienation, loneliness, disorientation, etc. You may find yourself quick to become irritated with friends, family members, and even strangers, and may also find yourself critical with your country of origins views, after seeing another cultures point of view. During this stage, it is not uncommon for people to feel the urge and desire to relocate abroad again.

Readjustment and Adaption: During this stage, you will find yourself gradually readjustment back into the expected swing of everyday life at home again. Things will feel normal again, and before you know it, it will be as though you never left. Once you’ve adjusted, you will more than likely find yourself a better person, having set new goals for yourself as well as your own personal views and beliefs on numerous topics.

I personally readjusted to life back in Canada within a month or two. During that first couple of months, I had an extremely hard time going out into public. One of the things that troubled me the most was hearing English everywhere. It was as if my mind couldn’t process it; total sensory overload. At supermarkets I would find myself (involuntarily) listening to every conversation around me, the people in front, behind, the words to the song on the loudspeaker, everything. I just wasn’t used to hearing English, and it gave me headaches to focus on so much at once (again, involuntarily). I couldn’t get into a taxi and carry a conversation without asking the driver to turn off the radio. While out with friends I found myself having to bite my tongue more often than not, because I couldn’t believe the worldviews many of them had had. I just wanted to run. Everything seemed different.

Eventually I grew accustomed to daily life back in Canada, and have had no problems ever since with culture or reverse culture shock. It is something that can happen to anyone, and probably does happen to everyone to some degree. I believe the best action anyone can take to be prepared, for both, is to read up as best you can and be prepared. Knowing is half the battle.


by Adam S. House