C-Suite Network

Managing Reverse Culture Shock

We’re all familiar with the principle of “culture shock,” reflecting the surprises and challenges of living and working abroad. Comparatively, you’d think it would be easy to move back home after the assignment is complete. Surprisingly, however, readjusting to the home culture and office is often harder than going abroad in the first place, a phenomenon known as “reverse culture shock,” or “reentry adjustment.” I certainly encountered this personally upon returning to the US after spending a couple of years in Japan. Here are some reasons why, and strategies to help ease that transition so that, contrary to the popular expression, you can go home again.

First, whether you’re abroad for a year or a decade, the fact is that, whether or not you realize it, you have changed as a result of your experiences, and your home (and home office) environment has evolved over time as well… but not on the same trajectory. Yet you will both expect the other to be the same as when you left at minimum, or even subconsciously expect them to have changed in the same way that you did – whether or not you recognize exactly how.

Plus, once you’ve adapted to the new language and cultural expectations, there’s a good chance that a lot of those new behaviors and expectations will have become second nature, often because you have learned to appreciate the principles that those behaviors reflect. For me, I was always a very direct speaker, but learned to appreciate and comfortably use the comparatively subtle approach in Japanese, which is the Japanese norm, based on promoting respect and harmony. Unfortunately, when using similar strategies in English back home, I sounded wishy-washy to my American peers.

When you return to your home office, others may respond to these new habits with resistance and skepticism. If you start to recognize this pattern, have a heartfelt conversation with your team, explaining what’s behind the new behaviors. Don’t go into tons of detail, and don’t present it in a way that seems like you’re bragging about your experience abroad. Smile, and let them know that you understand their reaction because it’s exactly how you reacted when you first encountered those patterns when you first arrived overseas. Depending on what the change is, you may just need some time shift back to the original style. Alternatively, once they understand the change, they may decide they appreciate the rationale for it and want to adopt it too.

Another key cause of reentry adjustment is that you expect to be surprised in one way or another when you go to a foreign country, but not when you return home. You know that the new language, culture, and norms abroad – from foods and table manners to what it means to show respect – will probably differ unpredictably from what you’re used to, for better or worse. But you also assume that it should be easy to return home because – in theory – you already know all the rules of the game.

On the contrary, this isn’t always the case. When I went to live and work in Japan, and studied the language and culture, I was very explicitly instructed how to do everything from gift exchange rituals to protocols for conducting meetings. I learned the rules consciously. Then when I moved back to the US, I committed a variety of little faux pas because I realized I didn’t know how to shift back! So many of my original American practices had been learned unconsciously; I had done things a certain way because it’s the way everyone did them, so I was just going with the flow, as it were. I never thought about why I used certain English words, American gestures, or routines. Without being equally able to articulate the “rules,” there was occasionally an awkward feeling of uncertainty.

Part of the solution, simply put, is to expect similar surprises – likely on mundane little things – upon completing an extended stay overseas. More importantly, when they happen, be patient and forgiving with yourself. Don’t beat yourself up for making mistakes, and when you do, remind yourself that this is normal. If necessary, apologize, but again, share the cause: you were simply on “auto pilot” from living abroad. The best remedy is to have a sense of humor about it and laugh at yourself, which is also an invitation to others to laugh with you. This builds mutual empathy, educates others, and promotes support to help you make the rest of the transition to your new life in the old country.


Are you or is someone you know struggling with reverse culture shock? Email me at laura@vocalimpactproductions.com or click here to set up a 20-minute focus call to discuss it with me personally.

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