Reversing Reverse Culture Shock, Step 3: Transfer & Alter Cues

Think back to your first few weeks in your host culture.

Although excited for the newness of the foreign environment, you felt discomfort.

Out of place and homesick, you sought anything that was familiar – that might make you feel at ease.

Videocalls to your friends and family back home.

Your favorite sweater or blanket.

Even a familiar homegrown location, like Starbucks or McDonald’s.

Whatever made you feel at home again, you chased it.

These are what we call “cues.”

They’re little things that make you feel comfortable and familiar with your environment.

And they will come in handy when dealing with reverse culture shock.

What are Reentry Cues?

As you did when moving to a foreign country, take something of your host country home with you.

This “something” can be physical, from traditional objects that you’ve accumulated to your favorite herbs and spices of the cultural cuisine.

Or it can be intangible, like routines, customs, or values or norms that you’ve adopted from your host culture, like late night dinners or family-centered customs.

Any type of cultural cue can help you adjust to your reentry.

Bring & Alter Cues

You can either bring these cues directly from your host country, for instance a traditional dress, a favorite book, or your favorite chocolate bar.

Or you can alter existing cues in your home country to mirror those from your host country.

For instance, you might alter your diet, adjusting for more veggies, more spices, etc. – whatever reminds you of your host’s foreign cuisine. 

You can alter your surroundings – laying down a carpet or mat made in your host country, for instance.

Or you might alter how you host people in your home or how you approach being a guest in others, according to some of the customs you’ve adopted.

There are many physical and psychological ways to transfer and alter cues that’ll help you transition back into your home country without fully renouncing your adopted one.

You will eventually have to fully re-adapt to your home country, but you don’t have to altogether abandon aspects of your host country that you adore.

The bottom line: introducing new cues will allow you to ease in, just as it did when you moved to your host country what feels like a lifetime ago.

Reversing Reverse Culture Shock, Step 1: Getting Closure

Imagine spending years of breezy beach time in the slow-paced life of a tropical island…

Only to return to your home: a fast-paced city where everyone is in a rush.

Imagine spending years in a country where food never goes to waste…

Only to return to portion sizes that are two times too large, and excess food is frequently thrown out.

Imagine spending years cultivating values and norms that are centered around honor and family

Only to return to an individualist culture that values self-reliance and independence

Returning from life abroad can feel like jumping into a familiar but cold pool of water.

Although you think you remember everything about this pool and belong to this pool, the reality hits you like ice.

The fact that you’ve acclimatized to another culture’s warm waters is startling. Your own culture’s temperature catches you off guard. 

You may not know what hit you.

As we’ve been talking about the past few weeks, this is reverse culture shock.

Expect to Feel Shocked

If you want to get out ahead of reverse culture shock, knowing that it can – and likely will – happen is first things first.

You are here, educating yourself about the issue, which is a GREAT way to equip yourself with the tools to face it down when it does.

Just as you equipped yourself to adjust to a foreign culture and dealt with your initial culture shock, it’s always better to be prepared and expect that you may feel discomfort upon returning home – almost like you’ve missed a step coming down the stairs.

Step 1: Get Closure on Your Experience

Before returning home, prepare.

One essential part of this preparation is to say goodbye and gain some closure with a place and a people that has been your home.

As mentioned in a previous post, those who are ripped unexpectedly from their host culture and forced to return home have a harder time with reverse culture shock.

So, if you expect to return home and have the opportunity to gain closure, take it.

Shared by the U.S. Department of State, actions you can take that will allow you to feel closure include:

  • Getting a proper goodbye in with friends and/or hosting a “going away” party prior to departure; this will allow you to gather your friends’ contact information, if you don’t have it already, so you can keep in touch
  • Snapping pics and videos of your home, your place of work/school, your favorite haunts, and your favorite people
  • Picking up or hanging onto keepsakes that mean something to you
  • Creating an in-country bucket list of sorts and making time to hit up all the sites you’d regret not visiting

These are just some ways to gain closure from this significant experience. 

Leaving can feel a bit like a relationship break-up, so be prepared for a bit of heartache and nostalgia.

Tune in next week for Step 2: Managing Expectations.

Expat Returning Home? You May Face These Side Effects

We’ve been talking a lot the past few weeks about what it feels like to return home after spending significant time in another culture.

As an expat, you may find your return surprisingly difficult – mostly because reverse culture shock is unexpected.

In fact, you may become homesick for your host country.

Curious about what other side effects you may face?

In his book, The Art of Coming Home, Craig Storti outlines four mental and emotional side effects of returning home.

Marginality

Your experience living in another culture has changed who you are. Your identity has changed, your perspective has changed. You see things through a different lens.

You may find there’s a strain between your society and this new identity. You may feel like you don’t fit in in your own culture.

You are “home,” but your home doesn’t feel entirely comfortable anymore.

Criticality

Upon returning home, the values and norms you’ve adapted to abroad may make you more judgmental about your home country and society.

You may feel frustrated with the routines back home – or even unfamiliar with them. 

You might find yourself displacing this frustration on other people, becoming impatient and unpleasant.

In recalling your life abroad, you may romanticize your time there and find your home unpleasant in comparison.

This is normal.

Assessing the differences between your host country and your home country and feeling these frustrations is a typical reaction in returning home.

Exhaustion

Readjusting to a culture you’ve been apart from for a long time is just as exhausting as the initial adjustment to your host country

You have to relearn and consciously perform routines, customs, basic functions, or logistical tasks that were once done by rote, making the experience overwhelming.

Your own culture will hit you like a wave.

Just keep swimming.

Withdrawal

You may feel so disillusioned about your home culture that you start to withdraw from it and resist readapting to it, avoiding contact with your own society. 

This can provoke feelings of self-doubt or even depression.

You might want to escape. 

Reversing Reverse Culture Shock

Knowing all the effects of reverse culture shock can help you be prepared for them upon your return and build an action plan.

Luckily, you have one in your back pocket.

You are by now familiar with the steps it takes to feel at home in a culture.

After all, you adapted to a foreign one not too long ago.

And while it may seem silly, you must now apply them to your own culture and country in order to reintegrate back in.

Next week, we’ll talk about those steps in the context of returning home.

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.

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.

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.

Step 3 of Cross-Cultural Integration: Adapting in Action

Once you realize you’re the monkey in a foreign culture, you can’t go around, swinging from limb to limb. After being made aware of and accepting your differences, you must start to adapt.

This is where the monkey must come out of his cage and start behaving like a human to “fit in.” Slowly, he’ll begin to adapt some of their behaviors, and the following advice will ease the process.

5 Steps to Adapting

  1. Seek the “Why” – Instead of seeing things as black or white, wrong or right, seek the “why” when faced with cultural differences. Knowing why your host culture believes certain things or behaves in ways that are strange to you will help you understand local culture.
  2. Adopt Your Host’s Worldview – To help you seek the “why,” try to put yourself in the shoes of your host and momentarily adopt their worldview. Leave your gavel and robes at home, because you’re not here to judge or condemn; you’re here to learn. Look at yourself as a student and your host culture as the teacher.
  3. Rely on Analogies – A German businesswoman in France was once advised to forget the clockwork functioning of a business. She was told, instead, to view French companies as “royal courts,” where the CEO is king, and she was an earl, building her network until she earned favor. Analogies like these can help you visualize how to behave in the culture and interpret what’s going on around you.
  4. Apply Stereotypes Wisely – While stereotypes are similar to analogies in that they can aid cultural interpretation, these simplified representations of people shouldn’t be applied in an overarching manner. Doing so can be dangerous and hurtful. However, even though it’s important to remember that we’re all individuals and should never be treated like stereotypes, looking at an individual in a cultural context can allow understanding. As Kevan Hall at the Global Integration Blog notes, “If we focus on individuals irrespective of their cultural context we may assume everything is personality. Using US-normed tests on extraversion and introversion, for example, has led to a very high proportion of mainland Chinese participants scoring as introverted. Not a very useful result.”
  5. Apply Empathy Generously – Remember that empathy – or putting yourself in another’s shoes – is essential to understanding. To truly understand your hosts and their culture, you must be culturally empathetic.

Adapting Inaction

Employee A is from Japan. She’s moved to Spain. Spanish greetings involve a kiss on both cheeks. This makes Employee A very uncomfortable.

The Japanese find touch inappropriate and even intimate. When introduced to the Spanish form of greeting, Employee A does not seek the “why,” adopt her host’s worldview or feel empathetic. Instead, she views this greeting style as wrong and inappropriate and chooses to remain physically distant. Every interaction that follows is awkward, for both Employee A and for her hosts.

Employee A does not adapt to the simplest of cross-cultural differences – greetings – which will make it even harder to fully integrate into the culture.

Adapting in Action

Employee B is also from Japan but looks at this greeting from the Spanish perspective. It is not meant to be uncomfortably intimate; it’s a gesture of friendliness.

She chooses to adapt this simple greeting into her behavior, even though it gives her discomfort at first. After a while, she starts to get used to it, despite the fact that limitations on physical touch are deeply ingrained in her culture.

Her hosts appreciate her effort, and as she starts to adapt other Spanish behaviors, she has a much easier time integrating.

She may even move onto adopting behaviors and ideologies of her host culture, which we’ll talk about next week.

Step 1 of Cross-Cultural Integration: Awareness in Action

Awareness of cultural differences creates the capacity to be culturally sensitive.

Note that I didn’t say it will create cultural sensitivity; rather, it will create the capacity to be culturally sensitive.

Cultural sensitivity is a choice, and if you want to successfully work and integrate into a foreign culture, it’s a necessary one. Being aware that you are the monkey will enable you to demonstrate cultural sensitivity and actively Accept, Adapt, and Adopt the ways of your host culture, all of which will ease your integration.

Stages of Cultural Awareness

Not everyone is culturally aware.

Some choose not to be, while some are innately oblivious. Others choose cultural sensitivity, and still, others have become so integrated that sensitivity soon becomes natural to them.

There are four stages of cultural awareness:

  • Unconscious incompetence (blissful ignorance)
  • Conscious incompetence (troubling ignorance)
  • Conscious competence (deliberate sensitivity)
  • Unconscious competence (spontaneous sensitivity)

The unconsciously incompetent doesn’t know he’s the monkey. He is not culturally aware.

The consciously incompetent knows she’s the monkey but doesn’t try to integrate. She is culturally aware but is stubborn to change.

The consciously competent makes deliberate efforts to be culturally sensitive. He is culturally aware and is trying to actively integrate.

And, lastly, the unconsciously competent has fully integrated. Cultural sensitivity becomes natural to her, and she no longer must think about how to act or behave around the host culture. She just does it.

Example 1: Awareness Inaction

I once worked with a conscious incompetent. This individual’s foreign integration was being aided through cultural awareness and language training. When he wasn’t grasping the language as quickly as he wanted to, he became frustrated with the language instructor. In fact, he had a shouting match with said instructor and deemed the culture “inept” during cultural awareness lessons.

Two years later, I met this same man as he was finishing his contract. The entire two years he’d been involved in the program, he’d not advanced his language beyond the proficiency of the initial three-month course, nor had he initiated any projects at site. He blamed his hosts for a lack of interest.

In the end, he only had bad things to say about the host country, the program, the community in which he’d lived, and the colleagues with which he’d worked. And I’m sure they didn’t have too many positive things to say about him.

This is conscious incompetence in a nutshell: an awareness of cultural differences, but a refusal to integrate. And the result is zero self-growth and complete inaction regarding project developments and cross-cultural understanding.

Example 2: Awareness in Action

In that same program, I met a woman who came to the host country with no knowledge of the language. She was active in learning during the three-month language training and was adamant about presenting herself with cross-cultural sensitivity.

She faced similar cultural issues at site as the man had. Sometimes there was a general lack of interest in her ideas and lackluster motivation from her colleagues. But utilizing her conscious competence, she rallied her host site around her, wrote a grant, ran a summer camp, put on a cultural afterschool program, and was extremely active in her community. She also continued to work on her language and, by the end of her term, had advanced to intermediate language proficiency.

She had grown personally, had provided great value to her school and community, and had left a positive imprint in the memories of all those who worked with her. And, by the end of her two-year contract, she’d achieved stage 3 in her cultural awareness and was well on her way to stage 4: unconscious competence. Her cultural sensitivity had become natural; she no longer had to think before acting.

This is the difference between awareness inaction and awareness in action. The key to making your awareness active is to Accept, Adapt, and Adopt your host culture.

We’ll take a look at accepting next week.