Reverse culture shock

Reverse culture shock describes the phenomenon of ‘culture shock’ in reverse, i.e. the difficult feelings people experience when they return home after having lived abroad. Initial happiness may give way quickly to dissociation, isolation, boredom, sadness and even depression. Unlike culture shock, which tends to be widely anticipated, reverse culture shock is more difficult to comprehend. After all, you understand the language, are familiar with the food, and are back with friends and family. What’s not to like?

As ever, it’s just not that simple.

When my family and I first relocated to California from London we found it tricky to adapt to some of the many differences we came across in our daily lives. We fell into the classic trap of viewing home through rose-tinted glasses.


However, by the time we came back to the UK three years later, we realised that the different ways of doing things that we had originally objected to had gradually become completely normal… and even preferable. The weird thing was that this whole process only really became apparent to us once we’d come ‘home’.

Take my 6-year-old son’s school for instance – a public (i.e. state) charter school just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. At first, I found it laid back to the point of unprofessional. All the class teachers appeared to offer an open-door policy – parents could wander in and chat with them, and other students, at any point during the day. In fact, parents were expected to volunteer large amounts of time to the school annually, including teaching actual classes if they had a specialism and sometimes even if they didn’t. They were also responsible for driving the ‘kids’ (never ‘children’) to every field trip the school organised.

Despite everything I’d read about America being a litigious society, no DBS checks or extra insurance was required. After a while, however, I stopped worrying about the informality and grew to greatly value the friendly, close relationships between teachers and parents, the extent of parental involvement, and the highly differentiated approach to teaching – though I still worried a bit about the level of academics which struck me as lacking in rigour.

Same, same, but different!

On our return to London we sent both our children back to our local state primary school that my son had attended prior to our relocation and that he had such fond memories of. It was only then that I realised just how much we had all adapted to California style schooling.

I felt uncomfortable not to be allowed to accompany my daughter (now the same age my son had been when we arrived in the US) into her classroom on the first day. How would I know if the teacher was any good? Communicating with teachers and volunteering to help the school also felt like an uphill battle, with all the regulations and bureaucracy you had to cut through.

Meanwhile my children found the discipline overbearing, and the lessons prescriptive and uninspiring compared to the project led cross-curricular learning they were used to in California. The structure I thought I’d missed when we were away now seemed excessively rigid, designed expressly to discourage any attempt at thinking outside the box.

Pros and cons

Of course, there are pros and cons to both school systems and problems shared by state education in both countries. My point is that a belated realisation that your priorities have shifted can be very disconcerting when you are suddenly plunged back into a culture that doesn’t necessarily share your new values.

Downgrade in terms of quality of life

Additionally, repatriated expats often experience a downgrade in terms of quality of life, (such as accommodation, weather, cost of living, commute etc) which may make the return even harder.

The loss of expat status, i.e. feeling a bit special and different, can also be tricky! I met many Brits in the US who clearly relished having been able to reinvent themselves, free of the usual judgements and cultural baggage of the UK. The bottom line is, after the excitement of adventures abroad, it can feel really boring to come home!

Prepare for a bumpy landing!

On top of this, friends and family, however well-meaning, have not shared these experiences and may become irritated with a negativity they don’t understand, as well as increasingly protective of the ‘home’ the returned expat no longer seems to fit into or appreciate. Not being able to turn to your usual support network can exacerbate feelings of reverse culture shock when you may also be missing the new friends you had made overseas and have now left behind.

These are just some of the reasons why ‘re-entry’, as repatriation is often known, can be rocky. The good news is that time is the best healer, as the adaptation process works in reverse. The pain of the loss of your expat life should lessen as each month goes by. Naturally, the longer you have been away, the longer it is likely to take for home to really feel like home again. Interestingly, this doesn’t mean that the new insights gained abroad disappear again, more that a new shift takes place…as you reconcile the old values with the new.

Making it easier

There are ways to help this re-adaptation process along for families and employers alike. Acknowledging that it’s going to be hard and understanding the reasons why can help prepare you for a bumpy landing.  

Making time to ‘say goodbye’ to new friends and favourite places overseas is also important. Before repatriating, reflect on aspects of your expat life you have most enjoyed and how you might best attempt to replicate or substitute them once you are home. It can also be very beneficial to seek out ways of meeting people from other cultures and other returned expats who are more likely to understand how you’re feeling.

If you are responsible for repatriating employees, supporting their needs should be high on the list of your priorities. Too many returning expats leave their jobs soon after coming back home – often because their newly acquired skills and confidence have not been recognised or capitalised on. This is obviously a waste of the considerable amount of relocation money invested, not to mention valuable experience.

How Parental Choice can help

Parental Choice can alleviate the stress by assisting repatriating individuals with many aspects of the ‘re-orientation’ process. If you have children, we can find childcare and update you regarding the latest school developments in advance of your return home. Remember, what you value in a school may have changed! Just as when moving abroad, a routine will help speed up re-adjustment and childcare will provide much-needed headspace for parents.

Polly Collingridge is Family Global Mobility Manager (EMEA) at Parental Choice

Parental Choice are working in EMEA and APAC to help families with their relocation.   

We can help with finding schools, childcare, local orientation and extracurricular activities. Get in touch to see how we can help.  |  00 44 20 8979 6453

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