Reverse Culture Shock – takeaways from my coaching session with Gulnar

I left Sweden after secondary school to study abroad for a few years. A few years turned into many years in France, UK, and Hong Kong. Now 26 years later I am moving back with my French husband, two children and a dog. I am closing a gap for my children to experience what it is to live in one of their passport countries.

We are returning as hidden immigrants. We look the same but think differently.

 

When I had major career changes, I got a mentor or a coach. Relocating to Sweden is a significant change for all of us. I want to make it as successful as possible. Therefore, I contacted Gulnar Vaswani a talent management strategist and expert on cross-culture dynamics and diversity to discuss how to deal with re-entry and how to handle a potential reverse culture shock.

Here are my takeaways from our conversation;

Studying, working and living abroad brings about formative professional and personal changes.  New perspectives on norms and values make re-entry difficult as you suddenly feel foreign and out of touch with your own culture.   It is called a Reverse Culture Shock and it is normal.  If you have been abroad for an extended period, you will develop new behaviors, habits, and ways of thinking that are not the norm in your country of origin.

Taxi drivers in Sweden do not appreciate when you don’t close the door after a ride. In Hong Kong, the taxi door closes automatically, and in Japan, you offend the driver if you close the door.  My previous manager kept reminding me “don’t close the door” whenever we were in a taxi in Japan so that I would not appear bad-mannered.

The cashier in the grocery store is more forgiving of someone who is an obvious immigrant and will politely help. On the other hand, if you look the same and don’t comply with the unwritten rules of how to check out groceries you can get the “you-are-so-arrogant-look.”

Most people plan for expatriation in detail and anticipate both excitement and difficulties with settling into a new cultural environment. However, when you return to your home country, you don’t expect that you will go through a re-adjustment process. You and people around you assume that you will fit right in.

However, new contrasting or different values can cause rejection of certain parts of your home culture. When you reject your home culture, you feel guilty.  The feeling of guilt and managing expectations (others and your own) is what can make this process difficult.

The transition period is a journey where you align the foreign version of you to a new local version of you. The journey can take 6-12 months and usually follows a pattern.

  • The first phase, it is all about fun and excitement. You connect with family and friends. This is the honeymoon period, and you are feeling enthusiastic and happy.
  • The second phase is the experience of reverse culture shock. You experience differences between your new and old home cultures and try to fit in. Stress, anxiety, and guilt are common feelings.
  • The final phase, it is the adjustment period where you adjust and settle in your new home environment. You have now found your place and how you fit in.

 

Even if you choose to move “home” and you have some predictability and are not in a crisis intervention mode it can be challenging.

What could you do to make it easier?

  1. Take care of yourself. You can’t meet the needs of other people if you are not taking care of your own needs.
  2. Don’t set too many goals or try to do too many things. Focus on one thing and then move on to the next. Doing too many things at the same time will get you exhausted and cause stress.
  3. During the transition period go back and embrace the “college apartment mindset”. This is particularly challenging for perfectionists, but it will help settling into an unfamiliar environment.
  4. Children’s personality is still forming, and many traits are learned. Children model their parents’ behaviors. How you react and handle setbacks impacts how your children behave. Be mindful of what you say and do. If you want your children to be adaptable, then you need to adapt.
  5. Approach your home country with an explorer’s attitude. Connect with people with similar interests and passions.

 

Most children want to be like everybody else.  Either they reject their previous home country and do everything to fit in. (I laugh when I think about Gulnar trying to bury her Indian heritage to be more Spanish when living in Florida.) Or they reject the new home culture and try to demonstrate that they are different, often glorifying their past life.

Adults, to a certain extent, do the same. Therefore, this is a perfect opportunity for us as a family to explore values, belief systems, and cultures.  In the process, we can also make our friends and family laugh at our misadventures doing ordinary things in an extraordinary country.