What is Reverse Culture Shock and How to Tackle It

Many expats and travelers experience culture shock in a new place, but what about the reverse culture shock that happens when returning home?

How hard can it really be to return home after years of living abroad? Most expats focus on the initial cultural shock they experience in a foreign country. But not to be ignored is the adjustment that comes with returning home to the country you’ve always known…this time as a citizen of the world.

Kind of like visiting your favorite restaurant only to find everything on the menu has changed.

It’s called “reverse culture shock” and refers to the emotions experienced when a person returns to where they come from – but doesn’t fit in as they used to. The first time I read about this and realized it’s an actual “thing” expats go through, it made me sad.

Like really sad. Actually, downright depressed!

Naively, I always envisioned returning home like something from the movies. Warm embraces from family, reuniting with friends, and partaking in all the usual traditions you remember. And while much of that of course takes place, there’s also an emotional struggle that happens.

Why is that?

Why Does Reverse Culture Shock Happen?

As I sit and write this piece, my Barcelona apartment is filled with boxes and bubble wrap. It’s hard to believe that after four years of dwelling in this magnificent city, it’s time to part ways.

The best of friends of course…

During our first months living in Spain, we stumbled over the language. We got lost on the metro. We ordered the wrong coffee at the cafe. We crossed cultural boundaries without even realizing it. We were expat amateurs and it really showed!

Now looking back on the day our family first arrived here, August 30, 2017, expat life has undoubtedly changed us. Sure, we’re still the same New Jersey natives, Italian-Americans, out-spoken and sometimes much too loud family of five. We still love family movie nights, playing Monkey-in-the-Middle down the hallway of our apartment, and engaging in tickle fights every chance we get.

We love hard. We laugh hard. And sometimes we cry hard. These things will never change.

But our perspectives have changed. Our experiences have shaped us. And in many ways, defined us. We have stories to tell and have traveled the miles. Our passports are proof of that.

In the same way a flower that has bloomed will never fit back into its seedling pod, an individual that has moved overseas will never return to the same person he or she once was. This evolution of the mind and the heart, brought on most certainly by the journey of living abroad, is something that stays forever. It is constant.

And thus, the return home – to everything that is familiar and comfortable – suddenly feel and looks different. Because home may not have changed.

But you have.

Your First Culture Shock Experience

Researchers have identified a U-curve that happens with expat cultural shock. At first arrival in a foreign country, the romantic “honeymoon” period takes place where experiencing a new way of life is exciting. You’re exploring new sights, trying new foods and making new friends. You are living your best expat life!

Overtime, however, as the highs balance out and you begin to establish a normal way of life, you may start to find things you don’t necessarily love about your new home city. It’s totally normal!

For me in Barcelona, siesta time was mine. Restaurants and stores closed for three hours every weekday and for the entire day on Sundays. It drove me crazy and was a very hard adjustment from the 24-hour around the clock open door policy that many retail businesses have in the U.S.

Not to mention, we’re originally from the Northeast where things move very fast. Need I say more?

The good news is that eventually those frustrations become a way of life…and you learn to accept them. Hence, the end portion of the U-curve where you find balance. Makes sense, right?

Finally, you find peace and comfort in your foreign city… As if you’ve always lived there, even!

How to Tackle Reverse Culture Shock

So what about returning home? We know it’s not possible to simply go back in time to the same old people, places and things. Maybe they’ve completely changed!

Or worse – maybe not at all. Your world view after living abroad has definitely broadened, which might not be the same case for those back at home. This can feel really lonely at first making it hard to connect with people.

But as expats are known for turning lemons into lemonade and making the absolute best out of inconvenient situations, there is hope.

Here are a few ways to tackle this whole reverse culture shock thing…

1. Slow Down

An impatient person like me does not like to wait for processes to happen. And when it comes to adjustment of any kind – be it a foreign city or returning home – I’m usually quite anxious about it all! Don’t be like me. Learn to relish each new moment and experience.

Understand that life changes don’t just happen overnight.

2. Continue Traveling

Show me an expat that doesn’t live for travel – they don’t exist! Heck, the primary motivation for most families moving overseas is the thrill of new experiences and places. Just because you may have moved home and the romance of expat life is in the past, doesn’t mean you can’t continue the love affair with travel.

3. Stay Connected to Your Friends Abroad

WhatsApp will continue to be my lifeline to our expat life long after we’ve left. It’s where my favorite groups of school parents and other fellow expats reside – and I intend to stay connected to them as much as possible.

Yes, you’ll meet new friends and reconnect with old ones back at home. But keeping in close contact with your expat circle will ensure you have “roots” to return back to someday.

4. Cherish the Past, but Don’t Get Stuck There

This is a tough one for me. As much as I try to be a forward thinker and enjoy planning for the future, I often find myself dwelling on “the good times”. Especially when those good times are REALLY good.

It can be easy to compare, contrast and complain about once was. But my best advice would be to compartmentalize your expat life and repatriation life as two different life stages. Both with ups and downs, highs and lows. Learn to appreciate, celebrate and certainly learn from your experiences abroad.

And be brave enough to leave them there in anticipation of what your new life back home has in store.