Returning Home: What Impacts the Degree to Which You Feel Reverse Culture Shock?

You are returning home after spending five years living in Ukraine – a country to which you’ve adapted and adopted to a certain degree.

You’ve had to balance your home-grown values with your host country’s; you’ve altered your norms wherever you could in order to integrate properly.

For instance, you don’t smile in public as much anymore. It was drilled into your head that those who smile at strangers in Ukraine are believed to have a screw loose.

And now you’re returning home. Back to the familiar.

Home sweet home.

And you’re still not smiling.

Home is NOT So Sweet

Reverse culture shock is the upset that you feel upon returning to your home country.

When you step off that airplane, everybody is smiling. But your face is stuck in its deadpan of Ukrainian stoicism.

It’s like returning to your childhood bedroom after college – everything comes flooding back to you and, yet, feels distant and detached.

After all, it’s all familiar, from the language to the people to the foods and the streets.

There’s only one problem: everything is the same, but YOU are different.

You are returning from your second home: your host country – a place to which you spent a lot of time and energy adapting.

You learned the language, you learned the history, you learned the religion.

You knew and began to understand the culture.

So, now, upon trying to sleep in your old bed, you’re like Goldilocks.

It just doesn’t feel right.

It may be the case that some things have changed too – new pillows, a scratchy bedspread – and your once-familiar bedroom wasn’t what you were expecting.

You realize your home no longer feels like home.

This complex mix of feelings all contributes to reverse culture shock.

Degrees of Reverse Culture Shock

The U.S. Department of State details some aspects that impact the degree to which those who return from abroad feel reverse culture shock.

Taken from Craig Storti’s book, The Art of Coming Home, the following may affect your experience of this shock:

  • Voluntary and expected reentry – whether you voluntarily or involuntarily reenter and/or whether you expected to reenter or did not can impact the degree of shock. Involuntary and unexpected reentry results in greater shock.
  • Experience – if you’ve had previous reentry experience from a foreign country, the shock is generally milder.
  • Age – older people often have an easier time at reentering due to more experience with general life transitions.
  • Extent of differences between the two cultures – the more different your home culture is from your host culture, the more difficult reentry can be.
  • Length of time spent in host country – the longer your duration overseas, the harder the return may be, as you will have adapted to your host country to a greater extent.
  • Amount and degree of interaction with your host country culture and your home culture during your time abroad – the more time and intimacy with your host culture, the harder it will be to leave; likewise, the more time and the degree to which you’ve interacted with your home culture, the easier it will be to reenter.
  • Environment of reentry – supportive and familiar environments make reentry easier. Returning to conflict, instability, or uncertainty will increase the shock, as will the lack of a support system.

Consider these aspects to gauge how difficult it might be to return home. This will help you prepare for the impact.

Culture Shock: Confronting a Foreign Cultural Code

Imagine you’re flying into JFK in New York.

Recovering from jet lag, you disembark the plane, groggy and buzzing but still excited.

After all, you’re now in the Big Apple. The City that Never Sleeps.

You’re ready to explore and uncover every local gem and hidden hole-in-the-wall New York City has to offer.

You pull out your map, prepared to navigate New York’s famous subway system.

But instead, you find you’ve packed a map of the London Underground.

This is a bit what culture shock is like.

Culture Shock

Your map, in the above scenario, is your cultural code.

Although it’s easy to get around New York City when you know the way and have the directions at your fingertips, trying to use that map any other place is pretty pointless.

When first arriving in another country and culture, you’ll be confronted with this hard truth: you have stored internally the entirely wrong map.

This results in culture shock.

While you may only at first recognize the negative effects, culture shock is positive in some ways.

For one, you now KNOW you have the wrong map.

This knowledge will allow you to internally and externally develop a more accurate map for reality.

After experiencing culture shock, you will be able to anticipate the need to adjust. And the more you adjust, the less of a shock it will be for you when you realize there’s a street you never knew about or a bridge you must cross.

You’ll eventually learn the cultural code to the point that the shock wears off. 

But…

Reverse Culture Shock

Imagine you’re flying into London Heathrow after having lived in New York for two years. It’s the first time you’ve returned home.

Recovering from jet lag, you disembark the plane, groggy and buzzing but still excited.

After all, you’re now home sweet home again in the City of Fog.

But you realize, suddenly, everything seems foggier.

You’re ready to return to all the familiar places, and although you remember them on sight, you cannot seem to get into the rhythm.

Your internal map is still set to New York time. Your feet keep searching for the streets of downtown Manhattan.

You find that though your memory is trying to reload your map of London, it’s still got New York on the mind.

This is called reverse culture shock.

It’s even more off-putting than culture shock, because you DO know your own cultural code; you’re just finding it difficult to remember or relearn it.

This type of culture shock can hit you hardest.

We’ll talk more about why reverse culture shock can be so powerful next week.

Let It Happen, and Drink Strong Tea: Factors that Affect Cultural Integration

The process of integrating into a new culture has its ups and downs.

We talked last week about the U-curve – that theoretical interation period that comes in four clean stages: 1) Honeymoon, 2) Crisis, 3) Recovery, and 4) Adjustment.

While many do experience these four stages when moving to a new country, they often aren’t as clear-cut as the chart would suggest.

Instead, they might look more like this:

This is what Marie, an expat culture blogger, drew to represent her cross-cultural experience.

She wrote:

“Even when I was completely in love with my host country, there were tough times. It was a lot like raising children, in fact: I love my kids more than life itself, but there are plenty of days when I’m convinced I’ll never get the hang of this parenting thing. And then the sun comes out again, and life is good.”

Like Marie, you might feel a true love for your host country, but you’ll most certainly experience failures and setbacks.

But, don’t worry, the sun will come out again.

Factors That Impact Integration

There is no time table for cross-cultural integration.

The process may tie you up in knots, and it won’t happen on a predictable schedule. 

And that’s because many factors come into play that can be out of your control.

These factors include but are not limited to:

These are just a few factors that play into the process of cross-cultural integration.

Some are within your ability to control; others are not.

Adapt at Your Own Pace

Each person adapts at their own pace, and the process is unpredictable.

While you will definitely have moments of happiness and bliss in your new culture, you’ll also face challenges you’ve never faced before which may fill you with dread and uncertainty.

Speaking another language. Making foreign friends. Adapting to social norms.

You will see progress, but sometimes, you’ll feel stalled.

This will make you frustrated and even depressed.

There’s no avoiding the hurdles altogether; they’re there, and you will have to find the will to jump them.

So, when faced with them, take a breath of African fatalism:

Let it happen, and drink strong tea.

Remember that this process is normal, and in a couple of years, if all goes according to plan, you’ll feel right at home in your new home.

And those hurdles that seemed like abrupt speed bumps at the time will look like nothing more than rumble strips in your rearview.

Adapting to a Culture: The U-Curve Adjustment Theory

Week 1.

You land in your host country. You’re in love.

The energy, the climate, the newness.

It’s all so fresh and bright.

You are thrilled to be here, and you can’t imagine ever NOT being thrilled.

This is the honeymoon period.

Week 2.

You’ve been trying to get your WiFi set up for over a week now.

The service guy hasn’t dropped in yet, even though you’ve called several times.

How are you supposed to work? How are you supposed to talk with your family back home?

You’ve never been more frustrated.

You’re missing home, where things are straightforward and service is immediate.

No waiting around, no wondering what to do. No communicating in broken Spanish.

No confusion.

You’re also feeling lonely, missing your friends and family, and wishing you were back in their comfortable presence.

This is the crisis period.

Week 9.

You’ve been living in your host country for three months.

Your WiFi has long been set up, and you’ve managed to put that crisis in your rearview.

You’ve faced several more in the past few months but, bit by bit, you’re figuring things out.

You’re making friends, eating the local foods, finding great places to go. Some that even remind you of home.

You still fell twinges of homesickness, but you haven’t researched one-way tickets back in weeks.

This is the recovery period.

Week 27.5.

You’ve been in your host country for two years. 

You’re well adjusted, and it almost feels like your second home.

You’ve established yourself, have your group of friends, new routines. You’re learning the language, you know your way around.

You’re adapting.

And you’re beginning to admire this new culture.

Things that used to irritate you about it are becoming easier to manage and even endearing.

This is the adjustment period.

Lysgaard’s U-Curve

Norwegian sociologist Sverre Lysgaard’s U-curve is a widely used model for cultural adapting and adjustment. 

Lvsgaard hypothesized in 1955 that the inverted bell-curve is a common expat experience. 

He writes:

“Adjustment as a process over time seems to follow a U-shaped curve: adjustment is felt to be easy and successful to begin with; then follows a ‘crisis’ in which one feels less well adjusted, somewhat lonely and unhappy; finally one begins to feel better adjusted again, becoming more integrated into the foreign community.”

These highs and lows might sound familiar to expats and international managers alike.

When adjusting to a culture, you’re bound to face days where you’ve had enough and feel that you’re at the end of your rope.

You may even hide inside and refuse to venture out of your safe space to interact with the locals.

Why? Because going outside will provoke you; it will remind you of all the things that are different about your host country: everything takes longer, people drive insane, you’re sick of the food, the language barriers…

You’ll contrast your host country with your “more civilized” home country, where everything seems right and makes sense.

You’ll resent the illogical nature of this new culture and feel angry about it.

Does this sound familiar?

The Consecutive Cycle

Although many do experience the highs and lows of an adjustment period, subsequent studies found that only 10 percent of those surveyed actually cycle consecutively across these four stages.

For the other 90 percent of expats, things are more confusing.

The feelings may ebb and flow. They might not follow in this order – or you may skip out on some stages altogether.

Or perhaps you won’t experience any of this at all.

Some expats have no honeymoon period whatsoever. They are disappointed and unhappy from the very first day they set foot off the plane.

And for some, that feeling may never change.

But keep in mind, research has shown that the first few months of expatriation are the most stressful.

If you can get over the hump, your honeymoon period just might come later.

Next week, we’ll talk about what to do if your U-curve is actually a knot.

Expats Abroad: What Category Do You Fall Into?

In your experiences as a foreigner abroad, you’ve probably noticed that not all expats are alike.

Some keep to themselves, some mingle with other expats on the weekends, some are entrenched in local culture.

In fact, you might see that expats fall into three general categories.

Can you identify your fellow foreigners abroad in these descriptions?

Diplomats

Diplomats country-hop, spending short stints in each country – enough time to do business and make friends, but solely with their own compatriots for the most part.

In fact, official diplomats are often this type, as most countries dissuade their diplomats from getting involved in local economics and politics.

Because of this, diplomats are moved to new countries every couple years, never truly setting down roots.

Another reason for a diplomat’s narrow circle is that their main job is to take care of their nationals in foreign countries.

Although you may not be an official diplomat, you may still fall into the diplomat category in your approach to integration if you tend not to fraternize much with the locals.

Internationals

Internationals flock together.

They’re those expats who don’t stray much from the expat community.

French, English, German (often those of Western cultures) – they are a tight-knit group, developing an international circle within whatever host country they might call home. 

If they have kids, their kids go to international private schools.

If they go to church, they attend service at their international church.

Although these mixed international expat communities are interesting and, often, welcoming, they’re not locals.

They can offer you valuable advice about the local community, practical details about settling in, and examples of cultural barriers you may face, but their views are often tainted, particularly if they’ve lived in this host culture for a long time.

With time, they’ve dealt with a myriad of cross-cultural conflicts that you might not necessarily confront, so any cautionary tales and cynicism about the culture should be taken with a grain of salt.

Don’t take anyone’s subjective experience as fact, as it often comes with their own personal baggage. 

Do not discredit their experience, but refrain from holding fast to opinions before building your own.

Expat cynicism is real, so do your best to start the painting of your own cross-cultural experience with a blank canvas.

Localizers

Localizers are the category that you’ll ideally try to fit into as an expat or foreign manager.

Localizers seek out local friendships.

They intend to integrate into the local culture and build a home away from home.

Their goals are to appreciate, understand, and respect differences in culture – so much so as to adopt some of its values, attitudes, and behaviors.

Those who fall into this category tend to learn the culture more quickly than do those in the other two categories.

This is because they get their hands dirty. They rely on their own experiences and their relationships with local people to truly see and understand the culture. 

Localizers take to heart what it really means to adapt and adopt as a person of the world.

Next week, we’ll talk about strategies to becoming a localizer.

It’s All About Perspective: Measuring Your Own Culture By Another’s Yardstick

Imagine you’ve been living in your host country for two years. 

By now, you know a lot about its norms and values. You know what behaviors are viewed as “good” and “bad.” You respect these views and have adapted your own cultural behaviors where you can.

At this point, you may have even begun to appreciate certain values and norms in your host culture. And, moreover, you can see your own culture through your host’s cultural lens.

In doing so, you might be noticing some things about your culture that no longer sit right with you.

Let’s take a look.

The Wisdom of Elders

Many African cultures highly value the elders in their communities.

They may sit on councils that govern these communities or even judge disputes in the village. They are respected and believed to be wise.

Being as such, elders are often cared for by younger generations and live in the homes of their children. Outside help to care for them is not the norm.

Societal health in such cultures is represented by the degree to which the elderly are cared for in society.

So, imagine for a moment the idea of a nursing home in such cultures. The concept of abandoning an elder to the care of a stranger would be, without question, taboo.

Due to this difference in perspective, these cultures are shocked by the way Western cultures treat their elderly. They view these values and norms pertaining to the elderly as a sign of an unhealthy culture.

And having been entrenched in their culture, in some cases, you might start seeing your own in the same way.

Take Pride in Being Different, Not in Being “Superior”

Managing people from different cultures requires that you check your cultural ego at the door. If you don’t, it will get in the way of cultural integration.

So, think about other aspects of your culture and how they might be viewed by your host.

Consider values and norms surrounding family, honor, hospitality, wealth-sharing, etc. 

How might your hosts see these the standards you place on each topic in your country?

Be aware that measuring the “success” of a culture is always measured in terms of one’s own values and norms. The culture doing the measuring will always set the standards of measurement thereby being the yardstick by which to be measured (see ethnocentricity).

Knowing your host’s standards might help calibrate a picture of your own culture against their yardstick. 

This is not to say that one way is superior to the other, and it is important to be proud of your own cultural heritage. But considering your host culture’s standards of measurement will help to keep your own ethnocentricity in check.

Learning Another Culture: A Conscious Process

Do not minimize the importance of cultural integration when expatriating abroad – or sending employees abroad. 

The value of learning how to adapt to another culture not only eases the transition for you and/or your employees, it also impacts your bottom line.

Last week, we talked about the difficulties of cross-cultural integration particularly for Westerners.

Overcoming our own cultural conditioning and ethnocentricity in order to accept another culture’s ways is challenging for those from the West. 

That’s why it’s incredibly important for senior managers and employees who are expatriates abroad to learn how to learn another culture.

This actionable step should be incorporated into an employee cultural integration plan. 

In fact, cultural integration should be a top objective when expatriating employees.

If you’re sending employees who don’t have any understanding of the culture or the finesse of diplomacy, then your business venture is likely to fall flat.

A Conscious Process

Think of the conscious process of cultural integration as similar to learning a new language.

First and foremost, you need to study.

Whether it’s through books or a teacher, you should be seeking knowledge about your foreign host country.

This is Cultural Integration 101. 

And like language training, there’s only so far you can get with books; fluency also requires immersive practice with native speakers

Only then can you strengthen your vocabulary, master pronunciation, learn colloquial phrases, and really delve into the nuances of the language.

The same goes with fluency in a culture.

Books and notes make up the theoretical learning process. This can be done at home.

The immersive process is done through active sharing.

Whether you’re sharing a meal with your foreign colleagues, joining in a sport with your friends, or getting involved with your local community, sharing in the foreign culture hands-on is the way to the heart of its nuances.

Learn to Admire

As we talked about last week, the Colonial Superiority Complex may still be an inherent default for those from Western cultures.

But true integration is only achieved when expats view their host culture as equal to their own, despite any differences in economic, scientific, social, or military advancements, etc., between the two countries.

You can be proud of your own culture, while simultaneously showing curiosity and admiration in another’s.

The bottom line is, you must be able to adopt an objective perspective regarding values and norms in order to manage successfully in another culture.

Next week, we’ll talk more about learning about and admiring the achievements of other cultures.

The Colonial Superiority Complex: Why Adapting to Another Culture is a Struggle for The West

Do you easily adapt to another culture? Do you find value in another’s values and seek to understand norms and behaviors?

For Westerners, in particular, this step in cultural integration is difficult.

And its difficulty has its roots in history.

The Colonial Superiority Complex

Samuel P. Huntington, American political scientist and former director of Harvard’s Center for International Affairs, considers two opposing civilizations as particularly dangerous: the Muslim world and Western civilization.

Why did he consider these two civilizations to be dangerous?

1) Their “superiority complex” in relation to other cultures

2) Their willingness to enforce their values and norms on others

In this case, we’re defining “civilization” as a group of cultures that share history and values.

In his groundbreaking book, The Clash of Civilization, he writes, 

“It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. […] The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.” 

Published in the nineties, a number of Huntington’s predictions unfolded in reality. These two civilizations did indeed come to a head in many conflicts along the “fault lines” and continue to today.

Both Muslim civilization and Western civilization have a history of invading other cultures and universally imposing their rule of law and way of life through violence.

While all civilizations enter into war for access to resources, some in history have notably allowed the local culture to remain without much or any interference.

Others, however, attempt to convert cultures to their own way of life, often buoyed by religion.

Consider this: if your belonging to a civilization is based on race (for instance, Chinese or Slavic civilizations), the culture cannot expand.

However, if belonging is built on behavior, values, and norms, then yes, conquered people can adapt to the lifestyle.

European Colonialism in Africa

A vivid illustration of this lies in Africa.

20th century European colonialism exploited the continent both economically and culturally.

Schools, universities, and churches were built, so Western values and norms could be exported.

The political leaders in the West at that time viewed their culture as superior, so imposing it on others came with the territory.

However, as failed attempts at implementing working democracies in North Africa have shown, an external force imposing culture in this fashion does not work and instead results in civil war and failed states (e.g. Libya, Syria).

Although that’s not to say democracy will never work in other countries, a shift from ethnic culture to national culture is required, and such a shift in mentality takes willingness and time.

The West didn’t allow either.

China in Africa

On the other hand, there’s China.

Without anyone noticing, China has become Africa’s biggest trading partner, with more than $200 billion in annual goods exchanged.

During the first decade of the 21st century, a million Chinese expats have moved to Africa, largely as traders and laborers.

But the Chinese approach is different than Western colonialism. No attempts have been made by China to promote their culture on the continent.

There are no Chinese missionaries, think tanks, schools, or cultural centers. China is there purely for economic benefit; not to globally expand their culture and civilization.

African culture and political systems are left untouched by their largest trading partner.

This is the difference in approach. And this historical difference is why those from Western cultures find learning and adapting to another culture to be difficult.

Next week, we’ll talk about how to overcome that.

A New Frame of Interpretation: How Analogies Can Help Direct Cross-Cultural Behaviors

Meet Marie.

Marie is a German business consultant tasked with reorganizing a French company.

Excited with the prospect, Marie initially enjoyed her frequent trips to Paris and the directive with which she was tasked. But soon, she faced regular roadblocks that would make the fun project a chore.

The French company she was to reorganize was hierarchical and centralized. Despite this, Marie had difficulty identifying the appropriate decision-makers, as a number of people claimed to be in charge though they didn’t actually hold any power in moving the project forward.

Their interference threw rocks into the cogs of this project, slowing it to a standstill, and the delay resulted in even less support from the French team.

At this point, she wasn’t even able to secure a meeting with management or access the information required to complete her mission.

Marie had two choices: a) abandon the project, or b) find someone who could assist in her cross-cultural understanding of the way a stereotypical French company functions.

The Working Parts of a French Company

Marie was lucky enough to find her Zookeeper at the wedding party of a friend.

Using an analogy, this Zookeeper – a French manager who’d worked for over a decade in Germany – managed to crystalize Marie’s understanding of the hierarchy in the French office and the politics with which it functioned.

The Zookeeper told her, first of all, to abandon her German ideas of how an office should function. Unlike in Germany, companies in France don’t function like well-oiled machines.

Instead, he said, they are more like royal courts, in which the CEO reigns supreme. He is the king, and surrounding him, are his noblemen, knights, servants, etc. – all of whom vie for his attention.

They do this by constructing their own fiefdoms.

As Marie was someone sent in from the outside to manage a project, she should navigate this world like an earl.

As quoted from I am the Monkey, the Zookeeper advised:

“Be humble in the right moment. Be bold in the right moment. Be courteous when required. Be rude when needed. Build your political relationship and network, until you have the ear and favor of the king or one of his important ministers.”

By abandoning her expectations that a French office should function like a German one, Marie would be able to get the job done effectively in this foreign culture.

A Culture’s Office Hierarchy is Often a Microcosm of the Country’s Structural Macrocosm

France, itself, has a thousand-year-old history of strong monarchies. Further, its current politics is centered around a strong presidential state; so much so that President François Mitterand was deemed the “last French King.”

French thinking and the stereotypical hierarchies of French companies have been influenced by this historical structure and the way in which it functions.

In understanding this, Marie was able to adapt her behavior to a new frame of interpretation.

The idea that “French companies are like royal courts” created a firmer, almost visceral blueprint for not only what was expected from her, but for the methods by which she could achieve her goal in this setting that differed greatly from her own back in Germany.

This is one example of how analogies can aid a manager’s understanding of a new cross-cultural environment. We’ll be talking more about creating analogies in the coming weeks.

Seeking the “Why”: How Curiosity Can Assist Cross-Cultural Integration

When working across cultures, stress develops from inconsistencies in values, behaviors, and norms.

Anxiety accompanies culture shock and the changes in behavior required.

Do you handle stress and anxiety well? Then the transition of adapting to your new culture will happen faster and smoother than otherwise.

If you don’t, the next couple posts will show you how to ease the process.

Why Asking “Why?” is Important

A lack of understanding leads to a lack of acceptance.

Without understanding and acceptance, adapting to things you find random or illogical is next to impossible.

That’s why learning the “why” of behavior clears the way for adaption.

Consider you’re the monkey in the zoo. People are chucking peanuts at you, and you have no idea why.

Your handler feeds you often enough, and you’re not hungry. And yet, these humans are surrounding your home and lobbing peanuts at your feet.

“Seems irrational,” you think. “I have all the food I need. Why are these humans throwing more?”

Then again, you might try to see it from the human perspective by asking, “Why?”

Taking a seat to observe the humans, you – the monkey – try to work out the reasoning behind their behavior.

“Hmmm…” you think, “maybe they aren’t throwing peanuts to feed me; maybe they’re throwing them to observe me. I must be boring them by sleeping. They’re trying to encourage me to engage with them.”

As the monkey, through curiosity, you start to understand the rationale of the human; you understand that not all that is unfamiliar is irrational.

Survival Requires Rational Action

Humans are conditioned to act rationally within their environment and time period in order to survive.

Physicist D. Hillis writes in Cause and Effect:

“We like to organize events into chains of cause and effects that explain the consequences of our actions. […] This makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint. The ultimate job of our nervous system is to make actionable decisions, and predicting the consequences of those decisions is important to our survival.”

Since the dawn of time, human beings have been rationalizing.

Society, etiquette, war.

All of these things developed out of some form of rationale or logic.

They were learned.

The question we’ll be asking is how does cultural rationale develop?

And answering that question – and those that follow – starts with curiosity and observation. We’ll talk about that more next week.