Culture shock in a new country is a regular occurrence while travelling on a foreign assignment, and it is even expected as part of the process. Many employers are aware of this and provide for their employees, such as pre-assignment 'look-see' tours and cultural training to help them feel at ease in their new surroundings. But what happens after the assignment is completed? Coming home is typically assumed to be a simple procedure, but this is not always the case.
Many assignees experience reverse culture shock, which makes returning home equally as tough, if not more difficult, than leaving in the first place. Various unpleasant emotions can develop after the initial high of returning to your family, friends, and 'old' life.
Out of Touch
A long-term assignment can continue for years; you return home to a location that should be familiar but has changed dramatically. You may have missed important events such as weddings, births, and even deaths, leaving you feeling disconnected. Former co-workers may have moved on, and returning to an unfamiliar setting can make you feel alienated.
Even seemingly insignificant events, such as changes in road layout or the closure of your favourite local corner shop, can be alienating. Many expats return home and begin to perceive their home culture through new eyes, recognising 'negatives' that they had previously overlooked or believing that their former life is dull in comparison to their thrilling journey overseas.
Although reverse culture shock can be distressing, there are actions and practices that can help make the shift smoother. Employers can help alleviate work-related repatriation stress by scheduling a quick visit to the workplace before the final transfer to reconnect with old co-workers and meet those who have joined the company while you were away. Meeting with your supervisors and HR to discuss your new career might also help you feel prepared for your return to your previous workplace.
Returning expats can help themselves combat reverse culture shock by taking action outside of work. Something as easy as one last visit to a favourite restaurant or holding a farewell party with friends and co-workers might make saying goodbye easier and build joyful memories of the leaving rather than anguish and worry. It's also a good idea to keep in touch with pals in the 'host' country. Returning expats can also bring some aspects of their expat life home with them.
Perhaps you started cooking local food, learned a new hobby or language, or bought a piece of art or furniture that reminds you of your time abroad? Many returning expats believe they are not the same person they were before they went, so why should they abandon their new hobbies once they return home?
Keep Expectations in Check
Managing expectations before returning home is one of the simplest methods to help lessen the sensation of reverse culture shock. Anticipate that things will be different and that an adjustment period will be necessary, and be realistic. If an assignee can adapt to a completely other culture, they will very surely adapt to returning to their home culture.