Have you ever been ashamed of a fellow countryman? For example, on holiday, when someone takes the “customer is king” rule too seriously? Or have you ever been annoyed by something in your home country so much that emigration was the first thing popping up in your mind? Suffering from a reverse culture shock brings all that anger, shame, and discomfort to a whole other level. It is a phenomenon many people suffer from when coming back to their home countries after spending an extended time abroad. People start feeling like strangers in their own countries, struggling to re-adapt to what they thought was the norm all life long. This article tries to describe the phenomenon, prepares you for what to expect, and how you can get over it as smoothly as possible.
Most people are born and raised in the same country. They experience the same culture, habits, and customs from birth, through kindergarten, all the way up to college. Maybe even longer. This way, you can get used to how people talk to each other, treat one another, or handle business. Whatever you got used to is the norm for you. For example, you get accustomed to a certain level of customer service in restaurants, technological progress in everyday life, or the cleanness of the streets and parks. But there is more: punctuality of public transport, the academic system, and its organization, or the student-professor relationship.
Following are habits, manners, or customs that all can contribute to a reverse culture shock in some way or another.
You can get accustomed to new environments and surroundings very quickly. Following, I’d like to go over some real-life situations that eventually resulted in some sort of reverse culture shock.
Japans plays in its own league when it comes to public transportation: punctuality, tidiness, service. It’s just ridiculous how flawless and efficient everything works over there. A train leaving 20 seconds early can force a railway company to publicly apologize for the inconvenience it caused their customers. Unthinkable in most other counties in the world. In Japan, delays are counted in seconds. In Germany, on the contrary, trains are still considered on time when being delayed by up to 5min and 59 seconds.
But how does outstanding public transport contribute to a reverse culture shock? Like with any luxury, you get used to it super quickly. A bus or train being delayed is something from the past. Basically, you take it out of the equation from all your daily plans. If you know the train is gonna be on time – every time, all the time – why plan with buffers, extended transfer times, or early arrivals? Have to catch a flight? Want to meet friends? Having a date or even an interview? There is no need for you to arrive too far in advance.
Back in Germany, the whole story changed again to what I thought was normal all my life. In fact, my train from the airport back to my hometown was delayed by 68min. I don’t mean to start a discussion about the poor public transportation system in Germany, but what it does to you when comparing it to Japan. It’s just a great example of re-adapting to the old norm. You have to choose longer transfer times again or leave extra early to be on the safe side for important meetings. You might even have to arrive a day in advance and stay in a hotel overnight just to make sure to be on time for your appointment early in the morning.
It is not only annoying and disappointing but also costly and a tremendous waste of time. What particularly frustrated me for a long time was the helpless feeling of being stuck on trains that come to a complete stop for no particular reason. This could be both just seconds before arriving at the designated stations or in the middle of nowhere. Sitting there, knowing you’ll miss your connecting train over again, makes you wonder how Germany could ever reach something like a reputation in engineering and punctuality. Don’t get me started on canceled trains…
In Japan, I experienced a level of thoughtfulness, politeness, and respect for each other unlike anywhere in the world. In fact, everyday life in Kyoto was more therapeutic and relaxing for me than any spa weekend I could ever dream of.
The people were super friendly, kept the streets and parks clean and tidy, and always thought about how their actions could impact the people around them: no loud conversations on trains or busses, the cleanest public restrooms in the world, no littering, and customer service that makes you wanna cry out of pure joy and satisfaction. The best part? Excellent customer service comes at no extra cost since tipping is not part of the Japanese culture.
Like partying and clubbing? Going out at night in Japan is just as safe as doing grocery shopping in the afternoon. In five months, I haven’t even come close to experiencing anything that can be considered slightly dangerous:
It seems like the worst thing a drunk Japanese could do to you is performing terrible in Karaoke.
In Berlin? Let’s say it was the opposite. Without question, living in Berlin can be fun and exciting at times. Especially visit the city for a weekend trip can be a nice change to literally any other city in Germany. To me, the city is like a huge and exciting playground for adults. And I will always keep the city close to my heart. However, actually living there isn’t for everyone. And it wasn’t for more. Klaus Wowereit, former mayor of Berlin, didn’t label the city as “poor, but sexy” for no reason. Without going into much detail at this point, moving to Berlin after spending five months in Japan was by far the most significant contrast I have ever experienced in terms of any category you can think of: tidiness, friendliness, safety, sense of community, overall quality of life, you name it. Needless to say, both the rapid change and contrast were almost surreal and not easy to handle.
What triggers the reverse culture shock in the end? Going abroad shows you the truth about your own country and how it compares to others. In my eyes, such confrontation with reality can be challenging, unexpected, and shocking. Suddenly, you start realizing your home country is, in fact, a third-world, developing country when it comes to technological progress, administrative issues, or handling business (for instance). This alone can be a huge shock.
In addition to that, it can be tough and exhausting to re-adjust to the old norm. Especially after experiencing and getting accustomed to another standard and way of life that fits your personal preferences way better. In general, imagine getting used to living in paradise and then going back to where you came from. Wouldn’t that make you sad?
The time you spend abroad is neither an indication for the severity of the reverse culture shock nor does it allow any predictions about the chances of actually suffering from one. It is not a question of how long you stayed somewhere but more how fast you got used to a new environment. It’s also critical how much more the new environment suits you and your personal preferences, and how much it differs from what you were used to before. As an Australian, you will, most likely, not suffer any form of reverse culture shock after living in California, USA – for whatever period. Living in any East Asian country and coming back to Western society is a different story. Needless to say, you won’t suffer a reverse culture shock if you didn’t like it abroad. In that case, you are just happy to be back home.
The following experiences are based on my personal experiences and opinions and experiences from friends, former colleagues, and fellow students.
A reverse culture shock can come in many different forms, ways, intensities, and durations. Generally speaking, you feel a strong discomfort and unfamiliarity with your own culture, habits, values, or people.
After coming back, you might feel like you don’t belong to your old environment anymore. As a result of that, social anxiety is a typical symptom of a reverse culture shock. It makes it much harder to go out, meet others, and have fun in large groups of people. If you give it a try, you likely end up being overwhelmed with the sheer amount of people and the hustle and bustle around you. Usually, this results in you staying at home more often than before. Valencia Higuera describes the phenomena of social anxiety very well on healthline.com.
“Social anxiety disorder, sometimes referred to as social phobia, is a type of anxiety disorder that causes extreme fear in social settings. People with this disorder have trouble talking to people, meeting new people, and attending social gatherings. They fear being judged or scrutinized by others. They may understand that their fears are irrational or unreasonable, but feel powerless to overcome them.” – Valencia Higuera, healthline.com
Knowing firsthand how things are handled elsewhere in the world can drive you nuts. Needless to say, frustration and depression can both be other signs of a reverse culture shock. And both can be triggered by pretty much anything from the “cultural differences around the world” list above. In some cases, the frustration can also lead to aggression, neglect, or disinterest.
Experiencing politeness, helpfulness, and respect for each other daily is life-changing. Not only does it make you feel happier and more appreciated. It also changes the way you see and treat the people around you. However, suppose you don’t experience it on the same level after returning home. In that case, you might feel offended pretty fast by the people around you. Is someone not smiling back at you? Bad service in a restaurant? Poor customer service? All these little things can be really confusing and irritating after spending some time abroad.
Ultimately, I’d like to go over some tips and tricks on overcoming a reverse culture shock as smoothly as possible.
In my opinion, just knowing that such a thing as a reverse culture shock exists can help you overcome it smoother and faster in the end. Not all countries are the same. And cultural differences are the main reason why traveling is so exciting and so much fun. Experiencing at least a minor form of a reverse culture shock is almost part of traveling.
The reverse culture shock is a big deal and should be taken seriously. It’s not just that feeling of “all the pizza back home tastes like crap now” after spending two weeks in Italy. Or not finding the right words in your own language after backpacking in Australia for a year. As the name implies, it is a shock that severely messes with your body and well-being and can cause intense anxiety, discomfort, or stress.
Not all countries are the same, and no country is perfect. Each and every country has its own pros and cons. Being shocked and frustrated after coming back is one thing. But not trying to remember all the benefits your home country has to offer is another. This can be anything from great equal rights, over free education, to unique party culture.
Remember how you dealt with certain upsetting or frustrating situations before going abroad. What changed over time? Are you just complaining on a really high level? Or do the old norms and values feel completely strange now? If you feel like there is absolutely no way you want to re-adapt to the old standards, just don’t. Try to make a change by introducing some bits and pieces of the foreign culture to your new lifestyle or social circle. Make a change and be the person you really want to be.
Talking about your feelings can be huge pain relief. Putting your thoughts and feelings into words and sharing them with someone is also a good way of understanding what actually bothers you. Otherwise, you might just feel sad or depressed without knowing what’s really going on. Share your thoughts with your friends – you will not be disappointed.
After all, it is totally ok to stay at home more often instead of going out. Re-adapting can take quite some time, and you should not feel rushed. You can still do a lot at home, like taking online classes, watching movies, talking to friends online or on the phone, getting in touch with your parents more, starting writing or drawing, or really anything else.