When her plane landed at Denver International Airport, Megan Preston felt more overwhelmed with the loss of security than actually being home. After studying in Maynooth, Ireland for 5 months, she had gained a sense of security that is very rare in the United States. She never worried about walking home at night and she saw children running around the streets with no parents around. She lived in a town where it felt as if everybody knew everybody. Crime was not an issue and she added that in the US, “nobody knows who you are, you’re not safe.”
Reverse culture shock defined
Businessdictionary.com defines reverse culture shock as “the shock suffered by expatriates returning home after lengthy overseas assignments. It is caused by the fact that the cultural norms of the ex-pat’s overseas assignment become natural to them, over their home country’s own traditions and customs.”
University of Wyoming International Programs Coordinator Sara Robinson defines reverse culture shock much simpler: having to “readjust to what we had previously considered as normal.” She says that it’s the feeling a person gets from a sudden change and what comes of that is a “crash” or otherwise titled reverse culture shock.Robinson explained that during a person’s time abroad, they are living at a higher level of excitement. When they return home, they are not documenting and taking pictures all the time and it’s a different situation. “Even if it’s not about the actual differences in culture, there is a little crash that feeds into it.”
Preston, a University of Wyoming graduate student, just like many that go abroad, did not fully understand the term reverse culture shock. It’s something that many people don’t pay much attention to because it’s one of those things that many people think will never happen to them.
Alison Pindell, a local elementary school social worker, taught in Romania for a year when she was only 24. She taught the equivalent of first grade at a private school in Bucharest, Romania. She expressed that she did anticipate having to adjust when she arrived in Romania but she did not anticipate having to adapt when she got home.
Everybody experiences reverse culture shock differently
Similar to many things in life, reverse culture shock does not affect everybody the same. Some circumstances are much more extreme than others.
Robinson explained three factors that affect the impact of reverse culture shock.
The first factor is age. She said that younger people are more judgmental when they return; whereas older people can be more realistic, more grateful and can process the situation better.
The second factor is the living conditions. There is a huge difference between living in a very poor, third world country and a country in Europe where the culture is very similar to the US.
The final factor that Robinson described is the length of time abroad. For a person that has been abroad for a month, there will be a little bit of a shock but not nearly as significant as a person who has been abroad for a year.
Adapting to change
Preston expressed that she had to learn to adapt to these new changes. “I couldn’t change the population [of Denver].” It was something that she had to get used to, there was no other choice.
Robinson described the most important factor to overcoming reverse culture shock as time. It’s also important to learn how to take the experiences learned abroad and approach things differently.
Pindell said that the most important factor for her was leaning on her support system and spending a lot of time with her family and her closest friends. She took her experiences in Romania and compared that to her life at home in order to adapt and change her way of thinking.
Preston explained that after about a week of being back from Ireland, she was taking a walk to relieve some stress. She said that she only walked for about three blocks before she had to turn around and go back home. Preston was so stressed with the loss of the sense of security that she could not continue her walk. With time, she was able to adapt to the situation and now she says that she can’t remember what that feeling of security felt like.
Robinson also mentioned that sometimes people have a hard time with returning to what they previously knew as their life. “The word culture in culture shock is kind of a misnomer because it’s not about the culture of the United States, it’s about the fact that things continue to move on.”