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What does reverse culture shock feel like?

Repatriating expats after foreign work assignments

By Brian Kreissl

When it came time to write this post, I found my mind drifting towards the phenomenon of reverse culture shock — something I personally experienced when I returned to Canada after four years in Scotland as an undergraduate.

That experience has been on my mind lately for a few reasons, but mainly because the 20th anniversary of my return to Canada is coming up in April.

They say living abroad for a few years changes you forever, and I am inclined to agree. It allows you to gain a new appreciation and understanding of your own country by being able to experience it as an outsider — at least to a certain extent. But it is also quite common to miss certain things from the other country and to start comparing things in your home country to how they are abroad.

The biggest problem with reverse culture shock is people don’t expect things to be different when they return home. Yet people and things in your home country have undoubtedly changed and moved on — and so have you.

Feeling like a foreigner in my own hometown

I experienced all of that when I returned from Scotland. But everything was compounded for me because I totally immersed myself in being Scottish.

I wanted so badly to fit in when I went over there that I picked up the accent. I began to sound like someone who had lived there all my life.

That made me feel like a foreigner in my own hometown when I returned — especially when people deliberately pretended not to understand what I was saying (the accent I picked up was an educated, middle class Scottish accent that was perfectly understandable). And no matter how many times I told people I grew up in Canada and received all my schooling here, they would often conveniently “forget” I wasn’t fresh off the boat for the first time.

I have documented my experiences as an internationally trained professional in another post. But it was a surreal experience on a personal level as well.

I had a fantastic time in Scotland and it was really interesting experiencing another culture and way of life — even if it wasn’t brand new to me or that different from what I was used to. But I began to appreciate Canada much more than I ever did before.

I decided to return to Canada for a variety of reasons, including homesickness, missing my immediate family (although I have family over there too) and a feeling that my life and career were going nowhere. Some of the things I wasn’t crazy about in Scotland were the fairly rigid class system, fewer conveniences like stores that open late, the lack of decent summer weather and how much more expensive everything seemed.

Nevertheless, even today there are many things I miss from Scotland, including my family and friends, specific places, the scenery and certain foods. But most of all I miss the social life.

I loved the pub culture, but I also loved how people didn’t need a formal invitation three weeks in advance to visit someone at their home (although I'm told that might be just a Toronto thing). And by the end of my first week at a job, people were already inviting me out for drinks after work.

Repatriating expats after foreign assignments

While I wasn’t exactly on an “international assignment” when I went to Scotland, my experiences are highly relevant to employers. Like me, the people who suffer most from reverse culture shock on an international assignment are often those who are most successful at integrating into the culture of the host country.

Just as language and cultural training is an important part of ensuring international assignments are successful, the repatriation process is often just as important. Expats and their families frequently require some type of debrief and/or counselling after returning from living and working abroad, and employers need to make allowances for some level of reverse culture shock.

It’s also important to ensure the organization doesn’t devalue international experience. After all, presumably the individual was chosen for the assignment at least partially because international experience was thought to be beneficial to her career. Perhaps unsurprisingly, expats frequently leave the organization soon after returning from a foreign work assignment.

I’ve commented on this before, but for a country full of immigrants I believe Canada can be remarkably insular at times — particularly when it comes to recognizing international work experience and qualifications.

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Brian Kreissl

Brian Kreissl is the product development manager for Thomson Reuters Legal Canada's human resources, OH&S, payroll and records retention products and solutions.
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