Reverse Culture Shock
The Biggest Shock of All – Coming Home

On this Reverse Culture Shock page you’ll find:

There Are Two Types of Culture Shock

  1. Culture Shock – the initial shock of going overseas to a foreign culture.
  2. Reverse Culture Shock – the shock that happens upon returning to your own culture.

The shock that happens upon repatriation – returning home after a sojourn overseas – is called ‘Reverse Culture Shock’. Most people are unaware of it. But those who have experienced it,
say Reverse Culture Shock is even worse than Culture Shock, because it is so unexpected.

Knowing what the experts have said about this phenomenon, can go a long way towards alleviating the symptoms, because it puts you in the Driver’s Seat.

Dr. Kalervo Oberg, a world-renowned anthropologist, coined the term ‘Culture Shock’. It describes the feelings of surprise, disorientation, uncertainty, and confusion, common to those arriving to live in a new culture, one they are unfamiliar with.

When a person returns to their own country, however, after a sojourn in a foreign country, they are often dismayed to find that they feel very similar symptoms – a kind of reverse culture shock.

Dealing with it may be easier once you have an understanding of what’s actually going on, what causes these symptoms, and how to handle them.

The 3 Phases of Culture Shock

In order to understand it, let’s first take a quick look at what happens to our emotions as a result of ‘Culture Shock’. Here is a short summary of Oberg’s ‘3 Phases’ of Culture Shock. Some researchers have expanded this to Four Stages, including a Rejection Stage.

1. The Honeymoon Phase: – involves excitement, euphoria and optimism with the expectation of finding unlimited opportunities in the new culture. It is characterized by openness and curiosity, along with a readiness to accept whatever comes. Judgment is reserved, and the nice things about the job, the country, and the people are enjoyed.

2. The Shock Phase: – can start with a creeping feeling of not quite knowing what is going on, as you begin to experience the ‘foreignness’ around. Stress, inability to sleep, irritability, focusing on the negative about the job, country, and people, starts to take over one’s life. This can even move into an intense dislike for the culture that one is immersed in. This doesn’t need to happen, however, and it can be prevented by understanding the process of what is happening to you.

The Reverse Culture Shock Reaction

Reverse Culture Shock occurs when one arrives back home, after becoming accustomed to spending time in another culture. It comes from an inner uncertainty about yourself, second guessing your decision to move back home, and worrying about your future.

Without the familiar context you expected to find at home, your self-concept feels like it’s in jeopardy. This seems to threaten the loss of one’s personal identity. You begin to wonder: “Where has the secure, safe, ‘home’, I remember and believed in all these years, gone?” The confusion is very unsettling.

How you handle this “Reverse Shock” phase – the emotions, the thinking and the expectations you hold, will determine the outcome – whether you reach a successful adaptation or not.

3. The Adaptation or Recovery Phase: – begins with accepting that the problem needs addressing.
Usually some compromise is reached, between the unrealistic expectations of the honeymoon phase, and the dissatisfactions with the reality being experienced in the culture shock phase.
Finally, you recover from the shock and make a satisfying adjustment, or you find another solution.

The Main Symptoms of Reverse Culture Shock

  • Strain caused by the unexpected effort to have to re-adapt to one’s own culture.
  • Sense of loss and feelings of deprivation in relation to friends, status, profession and possessions – one cannot always regain one’s status at home because a comparable job may not be available.
  • Feeling rejected by friends and family, who may not realize how much you’ve changed, and don’t show any real interest in wanting to talk about what you’ve experienced.
  • Confusion in role, values and self-identity – not knowing where you fit in anymore.
  • Anxiety and disillusionment – symptoms of grief at the loss of one’s lifestyle.
  • Feelings of helplessness – inability to understand what is happening to your feelings.

Understanding Reverse Culture Shock

Below are some reactions which can contribute to the unexpected feeling of disconnectedness that characterizes ‘Reverse Culture Shock’.

An Unrealistic Perception of One’s Own Country

Long-term expatriates can feel out of sync with developments in their own country. They expect a home country that has not changed in terms of practical aspects as well as general values. Often, the home country is idealized during an international assignment. Especially during stressful times, you hold onto the image you left behind, of your safe, stable familiar environment, where ‘things are better’. This image can be shattered upon return, naturally resulting in disorientation.

Lack of excitement

There is a certain excitement about being a foreigner. Expats on assignment, do not feel the same social restrictions or social controls that they experienced at home, that they had been socialized into. Once you step outside the national bubble, you have to find your own way, and almost, in a sense, make your own rules, or at least, decide which ones make the most sense to you in the foreign culture. Then too, there is an excitement about learning new things every day. Upon coming home, after the initial excitement on arrival, boredom becomes the norm, and a general lack of interest in life sets in.

Social Isolation

Expats long to share their stories with their loved ones, but they soon realize, nobody cares. Friends and family, are immersed in their own lives. They tire of hearing of stories of places that they’ve never been. Their eyes glaze over and they interrupt with their own interests, which you no longer share with them. You feel rejected, neglected or misunderstood.

Former friends try to treat you as if you haven’t changed. But deep inside you know something, they may not yet realize. You have changed, and it’s beginning to dawn on you that you can’t go back, to those people you once knew, who were your closest friends, and the family you grew up with. In a sense they are strangers. The place you thought you were returning to, doesn’t exist anymore, except in your memories.


Having come through the challenges of adapting overseas, you find a curious and unexpected restlessness coming on. At this point, whether or not a successful readjustment upon return is made, depends to a great extent on how you envision the kind of future you want in your life ‘back home’.

Some people fret and fume over a lost world, the world of their past, which is now gone, and will never come back. Others look at it in a more light-hearted way, making the best of things as they are now. It all depends on the way you look at it. How have you learned to cope with the challenges of life, while on assignment? Are you able to reorganize your thinking, and call on the social skills you developed overseas, and find an emotional stability that you can live with, at the feeling level that is personally satisfying?

Home Is Where the Heart Is

Some people realize that, for them “home” will never be the same again. Having been away for many years, the home they once knew, now only lives in their memories.

Too many changes have taken place. Too few of the people they remember are still around. It’s at this point, that some begin to look back overseas to the country they left behind.

They now know that the same thing will be happening to all the friends they made “over there”. At this point “home” becomes relative. They turn to where their friends are, and what is familiar to them now. And they find they have more in common with those who, like them, cannot go back. So, they return overseas, realizing that their heart has found a new home.

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