Reversing Reverse Culture Shock, Step 2: Managing Expectations

Simply knowing that returning home is often accompanied with its own version of culture shock (i.e. reverse culture shock) won’t help you avoid it, in and of itself.

What will help is to take these steps to reversing reverse culture shock, the second of which is to manage your expectations.

In order to manage them, you must first know what they are.

Think ahead and develop healthy mental and physical strategies for the potential obstacles facing you upon your return home.

The best way to do that is to brainstorm and write it down.

The following lists can help you with that.

Great Expectations

First, consider what your expectations are about your return home.

What changes do you expect – in both your home and in you? How will you interact with these changes, and how will your family, friends, and environment interact with you?

Answer the following questions to help identify your expectations:

  • How will I feel about home? How will I feel about leaving my host country?
  • What does home look like? Will it be like the last photo your memory took?
  • What will be different there? What will be the same? What will I have to get used to?
  • What will be easier upon returning home? What will be more frustrating?
  • How will the people in my life interact with me? How will I interact with them?
  • What are my goals upon returning home? What are my next steps? How will I set out to achieve them?
  • How will my life change? What is my new role at home?

Coping Strategies

After having an idea about what your expectations are, you should prepare some healthy ways to manage them and to cope with reverse culture shock.

This will help you readjust readily to your home country.

If you already have healthy ways of dealing with stress, then use these.

If you don’t, try not to avoid unhealthy habits and prepare some healthy ones, like one/or more of the following:

  • Participate in common methods of stress-relief, like good diet, exercise, soothing hobbies, etc.
  • Organize your time and energy so that adjustment is manageable
  • Communicate with friends abroad and local friends
  • Get involved in community activities or groups to socialize and adjust, such as clubs, sport teams, religious/spiritual groups, community service groups, international groups, etc.
  • Transfer or modify some of the values/norms of your host culture to your home

We’ll talk more about this last bullet point next week, in Step 3: Transferring & Modifying Culture.

Homesick for Your Host Country: How Reverse Culture Shock Manifests

You expect coming home to be euphoric.

And it is…for a minute.

But after that minute is over, in euphoria’s place is a feeling of unease, discomfort, and even sadness.

What you’re feeling is reverse culture shock, and it’s even stronger than the culture shock you experienced in your home country.

As described by the Founder of DFA Intercultural Global Solutions Dean Foster on expatica:

“[Reverse culture shock] is far more subtle, and therefore, more difficult to manage than outbound shock precisely because it is unexpected and unanticipated.”

Foster explains that the “patterns of behavior and thought” that an expat has developed to fit into his or her host country have now become part of them.

The change is gradual and not necessarily always conscious.

So, upon returning home, the expat is shocked to find the changes within themselves. 

Their home culture may have changed as well. It can seem a bit off, making it appear uncanny or surreal, like a funhouse mirror.

Readjusting to both the changes within oneself and within one’s home culture can feel like a double-whammy.

Another Thing: No One Cares…

What’s more, as an expat, you’re often excited and bursting to share your experience abroad, particularly if this was your first experience.

You are expecting a curious audience of family and friends awaiting your arrival.

You have great expectations.

But what you more often find is that no one cares.

Your family and friends have been living their own lives while you’ve been off living yours.

They are wrapped up in the day-to-day back home; not so much concerned with the many “monkey moments” you had in a world they’ve never visited.

You may get an odd question here or there out of courtesy – not much more than an open-ended “so, how was it?” or a “did you have a good time?” – but no one is sitting on the edge of their seat, waiting attentively for your tale of life abroad.

All of this might make you feel a number of things: annoyed with your family and friends, alienated from your home country, and homesick for your host country.

Your relationships may have changed back home too, having lost out on some experiences (weddings, births, or other family/friend events, for instance) while you were away.

What can you do to reduce the shock of all these changes and feelings?

Find Your People

One, you can find your people.

Other expats who are experiencing the same reverse culture shock as you often hold support groups either online or in person in major cities. You don’t even have to be from the same host country; you have a shared experience of returning from a foreign land and feeling these same effects.

Moreover, those with this shared experience are more likely to be that rapt audience you were searching for. Curiosity about the world is built-in, so you’ll be able to share your experiences and swap stories about life abroad without feeling like your audience is uninterested or disconnected.

As for homesickness, you might find ways to embrace your change in personality and continue in the lifestyle you’ve developed abroad at home. 

Cook up some of your favorite meals from your host country, continue with your language lessons, stay connected to your host country friends – keep in touch this other part of who you are.

You’ve enriched your life with this experience abroad, and even though you may not be encouraged to unload your memoir on everyone in your life, you should nurture it and let it continue to be a quiet new branch of your personal baobab.

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.

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.

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.

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.

The 4 Stages of Culture Shock 

Planning to move to a new country, integrate into a new culture? 

Will you remember that you can’t jaywalk in Switzerland? That it’s taboo for women to drive in Saudi Arabia? That European nudity mores are far less strict than those in the U.S. or many other places?  

Attempting to adjust to cultural norms might be surprising at first. In fact, you might get full-on culture shock. 

What is culture shock? 

The SHOCK 

Culture shock is a disorientating feeling of unfamiliarity that travelers or those integrating into another culture often experience. It comes in waves, and while it will dissipate after years of living in a foreign land, it may never leave entirely. You’re bound to continue discovering things about a new culture long after you’ve spent time there. 

But there are stages of shock that lead to some semblance of Acceptance. 

Stage 1: The Honeymoon Period 

When you first arrive somewhere, you will probably experience a “honeymoon period.” You’ll be in love with most things and curious, because everything is new. You won’t know the harsher sides of the culture or the faux pas you may soon commit or the criticisms you may face. 

Global Perspectives describes this period as follows: “The first stage of culture shock is often overwhelmingly positive during which travelers become infatuated with the language, people and food in their new surroundings.” 

Sounds beautiful. But…

Stage 2: The Pressure Cooker 

After a time, the frustrations slip in. Just like with any relationship, you start noticing the culture’s flaws. Things about the culture may upset you.  

They don’t queue up properly, they don’t arrive to meetings on time, no one speaks YOUR language.  

Remember, you’re viewing this culture through your own cultural lens, not theirs. So, all of these cultural differences build up in the pressure cooker and start to shock you. 

Stage 3: The Conformation  

While you can always increase the pressure by butting heads with your new culture, you could also try embracing it. Conforming – at least somewhat – to a new culture is essential to cross-cultural integration. 

Start learning the language and become familiar with the world around you. This will often lead to… 

Stage 4: Acceptance 

Acceptance is not the final stage in cross-cultural integration. But it’s one of the most essential stages in overcoming culture shock. Once you start to accept the culture you’re living in as it is, you’ll no longer feel quite so much pressure or frustration as when the shock first electrocuted you. 

But how and what social norms and values to conform to and accept? We’ll talk more about that next week.